Why AntiGolliwog?

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The golly is a British colonial doll, (originally a storybook character from the Florence Upton series circa 1895), still hanging around in the 21st century due to those apologists who just can’t let it go and refuse to acknowledge the potential harm through racial incitement that the old toy can still cause. I spent my late teens and early twenties being perpetually and increasingly outraged at the sight of the dolls in gift shops, especially in English coastal villages, and at the total apathy shown by shop keepers all over the country when the issue over whether or not the dolls are actually offensive was raised. Without much real passion, I have been told that no one had complained about the dolls before (such a response was offered by Robert Goodwill MP, as was recently discussed at The Guardian), as well as having several white golly sellers try to convince me that most of their customers are other black people. In other words, my assertions that the doll has a racist past, and the message it continues to carry today is destructive, is crazy. The heartbreak of so many encounters such as these, led me to create a group on la ‘Book’ (facebook) entitled AntiGolliwog in 2009 – a safe platform for other anyone, but especially POC (people of colour) who needed to be able to vent about the presence of the dolls and other colonial hang-over imagery, such as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands or the Tin-Tin books in parts of Scandinavia and Belgium. I wanted to create a space where potential ambivalent folk as well as the vehemently annoyed could gather to discuss and learn about the history of colonial imagery (especially blackface related), narratives and their current social impact(s), where we could practice our arguments and share our stories. The page grew, as did my concerns and awareness of how widespread and commonplace blackface cartoons still are, especially in Europe. People from all over the globe have found a place on Antigolliwog, where they can post a frustrating news article, gain support and help in structuring their arguments on what’s wrong with a new book published and available at their child’s school. The debate on whether or not Dolce and Gabbana’s catwalk golly earrings are really racist, reached me and others via the page, where a lively discussion about the fashion scandal is still taking place. Image  Image The space also helped me join many of my own mental dots and articulate why – to me at least – the doll is still devastatingly important to POC living in white, patriarchal societies today. I was inspired to explain the doll’s relevance recently, when a group member posted a video of Walter Block, stating on Capital Account that African American families were better off during slavery than they are now due to the welfare state in the US. Ahem..? Say what now? Really – he went there. The group member who found this drivel, questioned in his own post whether or not it was actually relevant to the page. The rhetoric that does not connect present-day racist institutions and discriminatory behaviour with caricatures of people of African decent, especially those from the blackface era, has found its way to our group page on more than one occasion. We have been criticised for not focusing on real issues. And of course, that line of thought helps the white owners of golliwogs and white people who dress up as Zwarte Piet every year in the Netherlands, tell themselves and others that what they are doing is not racist and has no real consequences, in order to shut down the protests coming from POC. However, this imagery DOES have consequences, and I’m going to tell you why! The men and women responsible for many blackface minstrel shows immediately before and after the Civil War in the US, also – like Walter Block – believed that Black people were better off as slaves, than as free men and women. Their stage shows depicted happy and contented slaves, on sunny plantations, lazing around, eating watermelons. They were depicted as child-like creatures, who needed looking after, needed civilizing. The popular minstrel characters from these shows influenced our very own modern day Zwarte Pieten (see Schenkman in 1850) and Golliwogs (see Upton in 1895). The Dutch argue that Zwarte Piet is just a funny, happy character for the kids, and that he is not a slave. In reply to this, first of all, he’s not his own master, he goes where the white Sinterklaas goes and does as he’s told for the entertainment of a mostly white audience. Others go further in the counter argument stating that their “funny little guy” comes from Spain, pointing out that Pieten wear traditional Moorish clothes. In short, he’s not supposed to be a negro. I’ll side-step drawing attention to the fact that during the 19th century (when Piet was first introduced in his current form to the Dutch), Moors were synonymous with sub-Saharan Africans in the manner they were described by colonialist powers. Right now, I’m more interested in the fact that some Dutch are unwittingly admitting that they are intentionally portraying people of Moroccan descent. The misguided perception of a Turkish and Moroccan immigrant problem in the Netherlands is increasingly wide-spread, going hand-in-hand with the Islamophobia brewing there, after the permanent settlement of guest-workers a couple generations ago. So, perhaps the figures Sinterklaas (who is a Dutched up Saint Nicholas – a saint from Turkey!) and Zwarte Piet are so popular in the Netherlands because they represent the perfect economic immigrant? They come, they do their job, and they leave. Image As for the golliwog, all I have to say is if in Britain of all places – given the colonial and slave related history – one can walk into a shop and buy a doll, which is based on a character from a book, inspired by caricatures of black people who were, at the time, owned by white people, then the whole thing is a bit perverse. It’s like some white British people actually want to be able to re-enact the purchasing of black people every time they lay claim to their “right” to keep the awful things in their lives. After the US Civil War war ended in 1865 and the slaves were “freed” (I use this term very loosely), panic spread throughout the country, culminating in the Blackface film Birth of a Nation (see Griffith 1915). This film was intended to fill white families with fear for black men, who are shown to be brutes, running around like maniacs, raping white virgins wherever they might see them. The film was successful in that thousands of black men were publicly lynched or imprisoned based on the mere suspicion of their intention to rape a supposedly innocent and virtuous white woman. The suspicion could be aroused simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the Scottsboro boys in Alabama 1931 or Emmett Till in Mississippi 1955 (see below). Both Alabama and Mississippi were previously slave states with rigorous segregation laws that ended in the late 1960s, on paper anyhow.

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During the same era that would have the young Emmett tortured to death for just looking at a white woman, while on a trip from Chicago visiting his relatives, white America was largely in a phase of nostalgia, enjoying films such as Song of the South (1946) and Gone with the Wind (1939). These films adhere to the same rhetoric that everything was so much nicer and calmer when these “negroes” were just slaves. The paranoia and sense of entitlement wrapped up in this ongoing wistfulness for black men and women in bondage, undeniably has a lot to do with black men’s disproportionate representation in US, UK and NL present-day prison systems (cf. Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name 2008). Of course, it’s not that I think all the problems in this world concerning POC are down to one little doll or that all of our problems are the same or even comparable, but I want to urge others not to underestimate the golly image and everything it stands for in discussions on white patriarchy, socio-economics, civil rights or even human rights. We need to thoroughly examine and re-examine what has happened in the past. How were these images created, by who and for what purpose? Are we still living with the same social circumstances for some members of our communities? If so, we need to start thinking about the tangible links from our histories that we still have with us today, and start a dialogue on how to respectfully and knowingly move away from destructive messages. That’s all for now, but expect me to bring this up again!

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