“The blackest gnome”

Today’s Guardian: “Carol Thatcher made multiple references describing a French mixed-race tennis player as a “golliwog”, “half-golliwog” and “golliwog Frog”, sources say.” The player was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Carol Thatcher works on BBC’s The One Show. On BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme last Wednesday (4th Feb 09) at approximately 08:50, John Humphrys summarised the BBC’s position thus: “Racist language is not to be tolerated, full stop”. She was eventually axed.

I had a look, and there was little explanation as to what might be racist about a doll which to many people was:

“…a soft, lovable Golliwog TOY. It did not cloud my view of black people as I grew up; just as my teddy bear didn’t lead me to believe that real live bears are cute and cuddly and all love to go on picnics.”

The Guardian threw itself with great energy into its usual for-or-against position, point-scoring against the other papers while striking its habitual and hollow anti-racist pose. But did anybody there take the opportunity to rehearse how the golly is racist? Only, as far as I can see, astonishingly late in the day. A more responsible, less complacent paper would have quickly siezed the opportunity to revive any part of our stale societal antiracism which presented itself, rather than cracking obscure jokes at Carol Thatcher’s expense about “That black guy, you know, the one who looks like a cartoon black guy … ?”.

The Sun limited its coverage to what befell Carol Thatcher. On the subject gollies and racism they demurred, instead throwing the question out to readers with disclaimer “Opinions expressed here are those of their writers and do not reflect those of the Sun.” Pretty early on:

“If it is, then the Cabbage patch dolls are offensive to white people.
I used to watch the minstrels as a kid, but never saw it as racist then. I suppose if they brought it back,they could use real black people this time, as i am sure that many black artists at the time felt they were missing out.”

And more like that.

The Mail is utterly derelict. Compare its history of gollies with that of The Guardian, linked a little way above. According to the Mail it’s the gollies and Carol Thatcher, not black people, who have been attacked – by stalinists.

The Mirror has nothing on gollies and racism.

The Huffington Post:

“Golliwogs _ rag dolls resembling black-faced minstrels _ were a popular children’s toy in Britain during the early part of the 20th century. Both the doll and the term are now widely considered racist.”

And leaves it at that.

In the title of the book in which the golly originated back in the 1885 – and from which title of this post comes – Amazon puts prim scare-quotes the word “golliwogg” to distance itself, wordlessly, from any taint.

So the message from the furore, encapsulated by the before and after pictures, in today’s “Gollies Gone” Sun article, of the window display of the gift shop in Sandringham, is not that the golliwog is racist, let alone why it’s racist – the message is that golliwog is taboo. Don’t ever mention golliwogs or, see? – they’ll come down on you like a tonne of bricks. And if you don’t know why you shouldn’t mention golliwogs, well then you must be a racist. So you’d better keep that to yourself. Or they’ll come down on you like a tonne of bricks.

Unless you were very obedient and perceptive, it would be understandable to feel confused and more or less resentful at this tacit injunction. Racism is simultaneously a normal state of mind and a very stigmatising thing to be accused of – but to expect to be able to side-step something you haven’t understood is hopeless. And people are so definite, so condemnatory – you might feel mutinous. You might start to play with the taboo a little bit, as a gesture of defiance.

I thought the lack of explanation was a glaring omission in a lot of the media. Carry on like that and a proportion of people will end up, secretly, identifying with Carole Thatcher as she is scolded for racism she neither admits to nor understands. Many will be vexing about, but not grasping, what is perhaps no longer obvious, if it ever was:  if the doll had been alright, its name wouldn’t have been taken and used as a term of abuse. If my childhood Little Black Sambo book had been alright, Little Sambo wouldn’t have had ‘Black’ in his name.

Humanoid and adult but not aspirational like Barbie or Action Man, a golly is not just a black doll – he is a caricature of a performing black man, with stereotypical features defined by the huge round comic silhouette of his hair, his thick-lipped rictus grin, and the whites of his eyes. He is ugly and unintelligently comical. Put his features on a light-skinned doll and you have a clown – but a vapid, ingratiating clown without the spark of mischief. Golly was the only dark-skinned doll in the toy box in Enid Blyton’s Amelia Jane books. When pink people from pink areas saw black people, some of them thought of those dolls. Or when some of them saw the dolls, they thought of black people in general. Enid Blyton expressed the association by naming three of hers Golly, Woggy and Nigger.

So, in a world where black people were unfavourably characterised as (alternatively)- lazy, villainous, and stupid,  this particularly unfavourable caricature of a black man, called a golliwog, was mass produced by Stieff, and ‘golliwog’ became one of the names racists used to stereotype black people.

To end, here is some comment I found in the media which tried to refresh an understanding of what is racist about gollies.

On the aforementioned edition of Today, Michael Eboda responded to Iain Dale’s point that he had been brought up in a different time:

“I’m the same age as you Iain, and for me when I was growing up, it was always considered to be something that I didn’t like because it was what people called me … it’s not about being politically correct, it was just offensive.”

And also:

“The golliwog,” concludes Pilgrim, “was created during a racist era. He was drawn as a caricature of a minstrel, itself a demeaning image of blacks. There is racial stereotyping of black people in Upton’s original books, and certainly later golliwogs often reflected negative beliefs about black people – thieves, miscreants, incompetents. Finally, there is little doubt that the words associated with golliwog – golli, wog, and golliwog itself – are often used as racial slurs.”

That is certainly the experience of many black Britons. “For as long as I can remember and I’m in my mid-40s, it has always been something people have used to poke fun at people like me,” said Michael Eboda, publisher of The Power List of Britain’s 100 most powerful black men and women. “There are some white people who’ve been trying to say that when we were all young it wasn’t offensive. I just feel like saying: Maybe not to you. To me, it always has been. To use that term of a black person is an unequivocal insult. There’s no other way of interpreting it, and it really makes me wonder how many other people use those terms in their private worlds.”

I think the best thing I read on this was in The Times today – a piece by Lola Shoneyin which tells how she went about preparing her son for the racism she feared he would experience in his new school, as she had done.

“I did not want to scare him, or make him obsess; I had to get the balance right.

I brought out the notepad that I’d tucked under my pillow and asked him if he was aware of any names that black people were called. One by one, we talked about each one. I took great pains to explain implications of each name. He’d never heard of golliwog, but I told him about it anyway. I told him about the doll and its thick, blood-red lips; its sick, mouth-half-open smile; and its short, permanently-outstretched arms. The more I described the golliwog, the more horrified he looked.

I told him that the image reminded me of the slaves, the “yes massa” tactic that many of them adopted; how they pretended to be docile just to survive.”

‘Wog’ was never a term of endearment, and nobody who has ever been on the receiving end of it, or a party to it, should be expected to give the motives of the person using it the benefit of the doubt. It is impact that matters, not intent. Whether or not it pre-dated the acronym attributed to it – Wiley Oriental Gentleman – doesn’t matter.  ‘Golliwog’ and ‘wog’, their linguistic connection cemented by the visual one of the doll defined by its dark skin, can’t be unhitched.

That doll needs to go. And as for Thatcher – I think the BBC did the right thing. If black people are anything like my lot when they are in the news as a social group, more than a handful will be anxiously scanning the blogs posts and comments boards to take a sounding – to see whether, in 2009 with a financial crisis on, people still want to understand.


2 thoughts on ““The blackest gnome”

  1. Excellent piece, mate. The BBC did the right thing, especially considering the fact that Carol Thatcher is a braying indictment of her entire peer group.

    (I wanted to write “braying puppet-faced witch”, but then the PC brigade would have come down on me like a tonne of bricks, England (not UK) going down the drain, that’s why I left, got out while I could etc)

  2. Thank pal. The PC brigade… I know. E.g. Sam Leith implies that although she belongs on the hook, we put up with far worse from slebs who don’t have a hated right-wing mother. And it’s true.

    To follow – a post soliciting insults and pejoratives which aren’t racist, sexist, agist or psychiatrist. Start thinking now. I already have ‘plonker’

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