Blacking up for beginners
Posted by Thersites on UTC 2017-01-15 11:27.
The past, another country
Perhaps I was six at the time, that time being around the mid-1950s and the place a small town in Yorkshire. The local Congregational Church held a Christmas party and the Sunday Schoolers were to put on a concert as 'Nigger Minstrels'. Costumes were easy: striped pyjamas. I have no idea how this outfit could be associated with the dress of the American Negro, beyond a vaguely remembered caricature of striped trousers, but we all had pyjamas like that at home so the costume was free. The greasepaint was plastered on, black face and big white lips like a folded rubber quoit. I can still smell the stuff: the ambiguities of my relationship with theatrical make-up in later-life may date from that concert.
The repertoire: Camptown Races, Poor Old Joe, Good Old Jeff and, of course, Swannee Ribber (the finale, to which everyone could sing along). The lyrics for all of these are still rattling around all these years later, word-perfect inside my head.
I was too young to worry about such things, but I can't say that any of these songs were written or delivered in a way that insulted or mocked the American Negro, apart from a tortured and totally unsuccessful attempt at the Negro dialect of the southern USA as we imaginatively sang it. 'Gwine to run all night' was written in the lyrics and that is exactly what we sang. Had any of these fabled, dark-skinned creatures been there to watch our concert, heaven knows what they would have made of it – they probably wouldn't have understood a word. But there weren't any of them there, so, no problem.
I have the feeling that the working classes, certainly in northern England, felt solidarity with the lot of the American Negro rather than racial dislike. There was no racial prejudice – there was caricature of course – but we had never seen one of these people in the flesh. We saw them in the American cinema, where they were the slaves, the workers and the skivvies – people to whom the working classes of northern England in the mills, in the mines, on the farms and in domestic service could easily relate.
For us, 'Negro' was not a term of abuse: it was just a term applied to dark-skinned people who lived in the USA. There was simply no other term available. 'Black' would definitely have been thought offensive. For us in Britain, 'nigger' was primarily a colour – usually 'nigger brown' – applied to dyes, knitting wool, sewing cotton and clothes. I cannot remember 'nigger' ever being used about people directly and certainly not with offensive intent.
'Dambuster' Guy Gibson famously called his black labrador 'Nigger', which has led to some frantic film editing in recent years. Moderns should however reflect that Gibson would not have given his beloved dog a name that was an insult. Our use of 'Nigger Minstrels' was the stage term, more euphonic than 'Negro Minstrels' or 'Negro Choir'.
Living in a white world
Looking back, the 'problem of race' and of 'racial prejudice' as it was called then, were peculiarly American problems. We in Britain watched as the 'American Whites' tried to come to terms with the self-evident rights of the 'American Negros' they had imported as their slaves. The abhorrent idea of segregation in public places had never dawned on us. The way this was carried on in the USA was repellent. As the USA struggled to come to terms with its history we listened to the torture of its language: 'African-American' for 'American Negro', 'racism' for 'racial prejudice' and 'black' prefixed to anything. 'Negro' was now unacceptable and had been replaced by a pick-n-mix box of long-winded alternatives. The moment at which the 'African-American' will become simply the 'American' seems to be further off than ever.
In the 1950s I had never seen a 'negro' in real life. In the 1960s they were now called 'coloured people' and I still had never seen one in real life. I'll cut it short: living in continental Europe between 1980 and 2017 – close on 40 years – I have never had any contact or social dealings with 'black' people. I have never had a 'black' person as a boss, a colleague or subordinate, a postman or a shop assistant. 'Black' people have been glimpsed during occasional visits to London, but they were just part of the big-city wallpaper. Full disclosure: I have occasionally socialised and worked with Indians cheerfully, but that really doesn't count. Many of them had an understandable prejudice about the English, their former colonial masters, but after we had traded a few humorous insults the relationship was always positive and happy.
Oh, I nearly forgot: every 6 January in most of the places I have lived the Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior und Balthasar, appeared at the door along with a gaggle of other kids as their pages and retainers. It's a racket: the more kids, the more collection boxes. Balthasar, of course, had blacked up – and some of the other kids, too: like me all those years ago, few children can resist the smell of the greasepaint. The only things missing were the striped pyjamas. There were no black residents in the village and no black children in the school, so no tedious debates about the ethics of whites blacking up or cultural appropriation or whether Balthasar really was black and so on. In other words, I have had no contact with black people, just an annual contact with blacked-up white children.
When black adults finally arrive in the village, who wants to turn up at their door in blackface? And when their kids arrive are they always going to have to play Balthasar? Of three black kids, will two need to white up? The legend will probably have to be abandoned and a lot of disappointed kids will miss out on their greasepaint fix.
Building the new America
Since the fifties, Britain has imported many people of multiple races and nationalities. Whether as cheap labour to depress wages, as young workers in a hopeless attempt to rescuscitate the bankrupt pension system or as political instruments of 'diversity' doesn't matter. Many other European nations are now doing the same thing, for whatever reason.
The language contortions through which those on the interfaces to these immigrants have to go in order to avoid all suspicion of prejudice are considerable. In this sense I should not really have written 'races' but 'ethnicities' or 'ethnic backgrounds'. The tangles there are with terms such as 'hate speech' defy analysis. We have such absurdities as the 'N-word', when everyone knows what the 'N' stands for, but no one dare say it or write it. The British have become so sensitive about race that they are even denying that race exists.
I repeat: to the best of my knowledge as one who was there, I remember no 'racism' in the Britain of the 1950s where I lived. If there is 'racism' now and there is so much 'hate speech' that our words have to be carefully monitored and self-censored, this situation has arisen because of the massive waves of immigration that have brought American conditions to Britain and not because of some deep-seated feeling of white supremacy. My generation, having created the mess, will just have to dump it onto our children to sort out.