Golliwog caricature dehumanising

Last updated 09:44 25/11/2013
Golliwog
CONTROVERSIAL: The original Golliwog was a character in an 1895 British children's book

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OPINION: Last week, The Press reported on a dispute about the lottery-funded restoration of a mural at a Scottish primary school which depicted a golliwog. LYNN WILLIAMS is disturbed to find she keeps seeing golliwogs in Canterbury as well.

I keep seeing Golliwogs - on prominent display in a department store toy section, in my local chemist shop and most recently, in a newspaper article about a country fete.

Golliwogs are seen by some people as offensive, a crude caricature of a black man that emerged in an era when such images served a very real political purpose. Others see them as symbolic of the struggle against a "political correctness" that they think curbs their freedom of speech and choice.

The original Golliwogg was a character in an 1895 British children's book and was based on a blackface minstrel doll that the author, Florence Upton, had played with as a child when her family lived in the United States.

The doll and Upton's drawing are a crude caricature of a black man and, although the original character had a good heart, Upton considered him to be extremely ugly.

The name of her character was taken up by other authors in an era in which most white people were either unaware of racial stereotypes and their ill-effects, or were happy to use them for political and commercial gain. It became a generic term and a racial epithet (like "Sambo"), and is very likely the origin of the racial insult "wog".

The toy and books containing the image became very popular throughout Britain, the US and parts of Britain's empire, but fell out of favour with the rise of civil rights and anti-racist movements.

Racist iconography was extremely useful in the processes of imperialist expansion.

Negative images of people of colour flowed through literature, art, commerce and even science - helping form and maintain the ideology of race which underpinned the political and moral "correctness" of slavery, and which also served to justify the historical fact that a global minority of white people appropriated the lands and labour of a global majority of people of colour.

Britain formed a vast empire on the back of the slave trade but also led in its abolition - in part because so many Britons were revolted by it, but mostly because slavery had become a form of property relations that had largely outlived its usefulness.

After the American Civil War, the abolition of slavery in the Confederate states led to the creation of what became known as the "Jim Crow" laws - the US equivalent of apartheid. (The name came from the song Jump Jim Crow by a white comic actor, Thomas Rice, who had popularised blackface in the 1830s.)

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Concomitant with the segregationist laws was the rise of white supremacist groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, and the use of terrorist tactics to intimidate black people, force them out of communities, prevent them from voting and from owning land and businesses. No one knows for certain how many African-Americans were lynched in this era but official figures record the lynching of 4743 people (including 150 or women) between 1888 and 1968.

Seventy-three per cent of the victims were black and 73 per cent of lynchings occurred in the South. Men were often tortured and the women were usually raped before being murdered.

The Jim Crow era also saw mass production of caricatured images of African-Americans.

Some of these were seemingly benign, like the dandified "coon", the happy- go-lucky, stupid field hand, the semi-feral "piccaninny" and the fat "black Mammy"; and some were cruel and grotesque.

A comic stereotype of "mulatto" women as sexually hyperactive had helped legitimise the rape of black women by white men throughout the 1800s.

It became more prevalent and extreme during Jim Crow and reduced the likelihood of a black girl or woman accusing a white man of rape, or being believed.

A new stereotype emerged with Jim Crow, that of the black man as an aggressive sexual predator of white women and was used as a spur for, and legitimation of the shootings, burnings and hangings of black men.

Negative stereotypes and cruel caricatures can dehumanise their subjects and help make it possible for the unspeakably horrible to occur because they desensitise those who create and consume them.

To understand the awful, dehumanising power of negative racial stereotypes, you've only to look at the propaganda caricatures of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Those of the Japanese in the United States during World War II were as bad and served a similar purpose.

Google the lynching of Jesse Washington but be warned that, if you are a person of conscience, you will find it disturbing.

The postcards that were made from the photographs of the torture and murder of a 17-year-old, along with other lynchings, are sold on e-Bay, part of a thriving trade in racist memorabilia.

When I've asked people about the sale of golliwogs, the response has been either disbelief that they're on sale or incredulity that anyone would question it.

To some people the golliwog is just a toy and, if they accept that it's a caricature of a black person, they argue it's a harmless one.

But, the "blackface minstrel" doll on which the golliwog is based is part of the same racist iconography as "humorous" postcards like the photograph of four naked black toddlers with the caption "alligator bait".

No-one these days would think it's acceptable to make, sell or buy a toy that caricatured a person with a disability, so how is it acceptable again to make, sell and buy toys that caricature black people?

Lynn Williams is a freelance writer from North Canterbury.

- The Press

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