What’s in a name? Jim Crow Rock again…

Western ferries passing jim crow

Regular readers will be aware of this stone on Dunoon’s foreshore, close to my house. You will also be aware that I have tried to engage in debate locally about it’s origins, given that it carries two markers that have clear racist associations- it is decorated with familiar ‘Blackface‘ markings, and is labelled ‘Jim Crow Stone’.

This debate continues to be a rather difficult one as the rock divides people fiercely. Those who tend to object to the rock are more typically ‘incomers’ who are not thought by locals to have a right to comment. For their part, they grew up with the stone, as an innocent backdrop to playing on the shore. For them it was a crow, not a racist statement.

I wrote a letter to the local paper a couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, suggesting a information board, where we might discuss the different opinions about the rock, and talk about the slave connection through Clyde trade, as well as the Blackface minstrel shows that happened in this area. To be honest, I did this with some trepidation as I expected to get a bit of a kicking from outraged locals.

However, this has not happened. Most conversations I have had with people have been broadly supportive of the idea. There was only one letter in the paper in opposition- and this one concerned itself with the history of the rock. The correspondent insisted that the rock could NOT be racist as it’s name pre-dated the ‘Jim Crow Laws’ in the USA.

There does appear to be some evidence of the name ‘Jim Crow Stane’ on early charts- as if it was used as a navigational marker, as early as the 1700′s.

However to suggest that this closes the argument, that the markings on the rock then become innocent, is clearly (in my view) nonsense. Folklore gets changed and adopted according to the mores of the times. The name of the rock, and the use of the term ‘Jim Crow’ as a pejorative label may (or may not) come from an era before the decoration, but the association with racist images and ideas does not. T

I wrote a reply for the local paper- again I do not know if they will publish it. Here it is though;

Dear Editor

Thanks very much to John A Stirling for his thoughtful reply to my previous letter suggesting an information board next to Jim Crow rock. John appears to believe that the historical points he makes close the argument about the origins of the decorations on the rock. I am afraid they simply do not. History is rarely value free and in this instance, far more complex than what John would have us believe.

John suggests that the rock cannot have racist connotations as its name pre-exists the Jim Crow laws in America. However this ignores the fact that these laws were grouped under the name ‘Jim Crow’ precisely because this was a pre-existing pejorative name that had been in common usage for Black people since at least the beginning of the 19th C. The song ‘Jump Jim Crow’ (written in 1828) perhaps popularised this stereotype but it is more likely to predate the song considerably.

The words ‘Jim Crow’ fell out of common usage possibly because they became increasingly associated with racist laws adopted by most States, and which were gradually removed from American statute over a period of 50 years of protest by brave people, some of whom lost their lives in the process. Previously ‘Jim Crow’ would have been used in the same way as the word ‘nigger’. Are we really happy to give unexamined space on our shores to such words?

Even if John is right, and the name of the rock pre-dates racist associations, the ‘blackface’ image that is painted on it now remains one that Black people recognise immediately as a racist stereotype. Again- do not take my word for it, ask the Jim Crow Museum (who have expressed horror at our rock) or the Racial Equality Unit.

Whatever the debate around this rock, at present it stands as a potentially offensive historical oddity. It will continue to divide us into people who are troubled by what it represents and others who fiercely defend it as an innocent local folklore.

Once again however, if we were to put up a display making clear the nature of this debate, perhaps we might yet transform the rock into something that both John and I can take mutual pride in. We can keep the rock in place, celebrate it even- whilst also owning the darker parts of our history.

A little lower than the Angels…

angel

 

Psalm 8:5-9

from The Message

5-8 Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods,
bright with Eden’s dawn light.
You put us in charge of your handcrafted world,
repeated to us your Genesis-charge,
Made us lords of sheep and cattle,
even animals out in the wild,
Birds flying and fish swimming,
whales singing in the ocean deeps.

9 God, brilliant Lord,
your name echoes around the world.

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Dear Dunoon Observer…

jimcrow03

 

Following on from yesterdays post, I sent a letter to our local paper. This is not something I make a habit of- in fact this will only be the second such letter I have sent. The previous one was not published- and was triggered by the same issue.

At that point I took exception to a rather poorly researched story in the paper after the rock’s Golliwog face has been painted over by a protester. (NO- it was not me, although some of me wishes it was.) It made no reference whatsoever to the Blackface tradition, nor to the objections raised to the decoration on the rock by others, not least the Racial Equality Unit.

Today I sent this to the editor. I am expecting a backlash- lots of people will be very angry. However, I walk past this stone several times a day, and each time it makes slightly ashamed.

Letter for Dunoon Observer

6.12.13

 

Dear Editor

The death of Nelson Mandela seems like a very good time to take another look at some of our own racist history. In doing so we very soon have to concede that the prosperity of this area owes much to international trade; shipping, sugar, tobacco and slavery. It is to the credit of Britain that as well as participating in slave trading we did much to end this practice at the beginning of the 19th Century. However, many would argue that we replaced slavery with Colonialism.

Alongside this, our attitudes towards the non-white people of the world has often been to view them as less-than. We supported this with entrenched prejudice and even with the so called ‘science’ of eugenics. These ideas found expression in our politics (segregation, apartheid) and also in our popular culture.

One of the most pervasive cultural carriers of this prejudice were the ‘Blackface’ caricatures that developed the world over- the Golliwogs, the Minstrel shows, Zvarte Piet and Jim Crow. Understanding how these have been a channel for racism is not easy, but they are commonly understood to allow culture to reduce the feared outsider to a figure of derision. A feckless, chicken loving, sexualised layabout who steals washing from the line, but is good at singing and dancing.

Which brings us to our own Jim Crow Rock, Only in Argyll does anyone seriously suggest that this has no racist origins. The Jim Crow museum in the USA expressed horror, the Racial Equality Unit is clear about its ‘Blackface’ beginnings, outsiders stand and look puzzled. When confronted with these outside perspectives, our response has often been to become angry and defensive, refusing to engage in any real discussion about the origins of the rock.

So, here is a suggestion; as a memorial to the late great Nelson Mandela, why do we not invest in an information board on the foreshore next to the rock? It could say some of these things;

It could acknowledge the local controversy, and disagreements about the origins of the decoration. It could deal with the role of the Clyde in the slave trade. It could talk about Blackface caricatures and the minstrel shows that were performed here in Dunoon’s heyday. It could talk about the Jim Crow Laws in America, and how they enforced segregation, prejudice and apartheid.

Above all, it could transform a local curiosity from something that is at best controversial (if not downright offensive) into something that we can all feel pride in the ownership of once more.

Yours sincerely

 

Chris Goan

Hunters Quay

jim crow prejudice

Despite Mandela-adulation, racism persists…

Nelson Mandela

The great man is dead, and world leaders are tripping over themselves to cosy up to his memory. In the process, he becomes like some kind of neutral mirror in front of which others preen themselves.

He is a freedom fighter, a champion of western capitalist democracy. (Forgetting that he was also a communist revolutionary.)

He is the man of peace who chose the path of non resistance. (Forgetting that despite all the pressure to do so, he never renounced the need for an armed struggle against the state.

He is the icon of international statesmanship by which all others are measured. (Forgetting that a few short years ago many regarded him as a terrorist- including much of the Conservative government under Thatcher.)

He was the civilised face of Africa, the educated black man. (Contrast this with the way that our newspapers talk about all other black politicians in South Africa since.)

None of this should diminish the man, but it might be regarded as creating a degree of confusion, particularly as we consider the degree to which the racism that kept Mandela locked away in prison for so many years has really changed. Did his release and subsequent elevation to international sainthood mean that the battle was won?

We live in a world in which racism, of both the direct and indirect kinds, is alive and well. We still live in fear of the outsiders, who will take our jobs, ruin our NHS, steal our homes and drain our resources. When these outsiders are black or Asian, this seems to add a higher degree of concern. Australians have almost banned non-white immigration. Unfair trade relationships ensure that the white West will continue their economic ascendancy at the direct cost of the poor south- who send us their minerals and produce our goods for us. The abolition of most formal apartheid systems (African, American) has done little to change the distribution of wealth and power between black on white people, both within societies and across nations. Beware those characterisations of passive-Mandela that allow us to forget this- it does the memory of the great man no favours.

We the privileged have a reciprocal responsibility to act out the gift of it with grace. Part of this might be to confront the injustices that we inherit- both to understand the cost of this privilege, but also to confront our propensity towards self justification. This seems all the more important as the people in power line up to put a slice of Mandela in their top pockets.

In the spirit of ‘minding our privilege’ (a rather useful American phrase) I was reminded today of two other stories that carry more than a little of the old racist divisions. The first one is this one, concerning the tradition of Zwarte Piet or ‘Black Pete’ in Dutch traditional Christmas celebrations.

black-pete-netherlands

As the Netherlands gears up for its annual Saint Nicholas celebration on Friday, the festivities are in danger of being overshadowed by a growing row over his helper and clown, “Black Pete”.

While families exchange presents and eat cakes to welcome Santa Claus’s slimmer and more sober ancestor, criticism of the crude depictions of his sidekick, known locally as Zwarte Piet, has reached the United Nations.

The clown is usually portrayed by a white person in blackface, who goes around offering sweets to good children and, according to legend, threatens to collect naughty ones in a sack to be taken to Zwarte Piet’s home in Spain. But he is increasingly reviled by critics as a racist relic of Christmases past.

Momentum has been growing against the custom, in part thanks to campaigners such as Quinsy Gario, a poet and activist born in the former Dutch colony of Curaçao who was arrested two years ago for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Black Pete is racism” at a Saint Nicholas parade in the city of Dordrecht. Gario’s message is that the tradition perpetuates crude stereotypes.

From The Guardian.

The criticisms of Zwarte Piet have stung the Dutch, 91% of whom seem to want to keep it as part of their tradition, and will say it is harmless, and the black face is just because Piet comes down chimneys. However, the roots of the tradition seem to go back to ideas of good (St Nicholas) overcoming evil, and chaining the devil to service. The Devil of course, is African. He is less-than-human, a worthy recipient of our projected fears, hidden behind all the grease paint and derision.

Zwarte Piet reminds me very much of another blackface image that is a lot closer to home- about 100 meters in fact, the controversial Jim Crow rock;

Western ferries passing jim crow

The blackface/Golliwog imagery of Jim Crow and Zvarte Piet are a direct link with the racism that justified slavery, that built the wealth of the West, that created colonialism, that gave birth to apartheid,  and that Nelson Mandela gave his life to confront head on.

Perhaps a fitting memorial for his death might be to take another look at this history, and to mind our privilege.

Dunoon folk- I have said this before, and I respectfully say it again;

“… there can be no doubt that the painting of the ‘face’, with its exaggerated red mouth, is a typically caricatured image of a black person, as popularised by the American entertainer T.D. Rice in the nineteenth century. [...] I feel certain that black visitorsfrom outside would see this as somewhat insulting [...] as a derogatory reference to their skin colour and origins.”

Institute of Race Relations.

So –  are we sure that this is just a little bit of harmless local colour? And even if it is just that- are we really comfortable with the associations that are being made, and the offence that this might carry to the descendants of slaves who had to fight on for generations against the oppression of the Jim Crow laws?

If the rock is to stay, then we need to tell these stories.

If we are to keep the face on the rock- then let us also put a big sign on the foreshore dealing with the darker side of our past…

Winter, how to survive the darkness…

Winter sky from our house

Winter is now firmly with us. This morning Dunoon was sheathed in ice, and I sit here just after 5PM and it it totally dark outside.

I confess to dreading the dark long winters- longing for spring again. Like many of us, my mood always takes into itself some of the dark over the fallow season. Some of us have real issues with this- it makes us ill. If this is you, I hope that this year is easier than most.

As for me, I can not describe my ennui as anywhere near as severe as Seasonal Affective Disorder- rather I just get a bit stuck in a dark trough, so this year I am trying to re-order the way I think about winter. I know it to be beautiful, inspiring, meditative. A few years ago I wrote this poem at the sight of snow on the hills over the loch from where I live;

.

First snows

.

The first snows of winter bring their blessing

To the hills across the loch

Yesterday dull and grey

Now blue-white crystal and pure

.

Soon it will be gone

Rain will bring decay

Rending white all mottled brown

Until the snow, all rotten

Is released

Worming down into dark earth

.

But for now, my eyes are drawn to high lands

Captured by reflected sun

Sparkling, showing no shadow

Driving out the dark things of the winter

.

Dressing up light for the dancing

And leading me on

.

Dressing up light for the dancing

Then gone

.

CG 2005.

The strange fact, revealed today in Radio 4′s programme Digital Nation, darkness is good for you. The problem is that most of us rarely experience it- we surround ourselves with artificial light. We screw up our serotonin levels by staring at bright computer screens before we go to bed, we forget what the stars look like, or what it means to find a natural rhythm of day/night.

So, here is my suggestion- let us embrace darkness. Let us see it as a blanket wrapping us for rest, for friendship, for interior creativity.

Today I spent much of the day making things;

First this;

driftwood fish

Then, as the ultimate winter food stuff, a great big pan of pickle;

IMGP5353

This evening I am going to spend some time with friends.

So, may your winter be full of darkness, so that you might rest from harsh artificial light.

May your interior spaces be warm and full of friendship and creativity.

And may the stark beauty of the fallow wild places speak to your heart.

 

The patience of the potter…

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It is a wild wet day here- the first storm of the autumn. Emily is home from university for some TLC (tonsillitis no doubt brought about by loss of sleep and excessive parties) and will is stretched out on a floor cushion in his onesy nursing a cold.

Michaela is potting. She has been making some large bowls based around pebble designs.

No matter how much you might like to rush the process of making pots, it is simply not possible. One of the most important skills employed seems to be a process of learning patience.

First you take a lump of raw clay. You then work the clay to ensure it is smooth and free of air bubbles (which would result in the pot exploding in the Kiln) then you use your hands and imagination to shape a pot. It takes Michaela several hours to get to this point;

DSCF8068

Next you have to wait for the pot to air dry- getting as much moisture out as possible. If you do this too fast, the pot with crack, if you do not do it enough it will be destroyed in the kiln. This can take around 4-5 days, depending on the thickness of the clay and the weather conditions.

Next you carefully stack your pots in the kiln, using ‘kiln furniture’ (carefully covered in bat wash so nothing sticks.) The kiln then as to warm up over several stages, taking around 11 hours to get up to around 1000 degrees centigrade.

Michaela and the kiln

It will then take another 10 hours to cool down sufficiently so that you can open the kiln. Some pots will have survived the firing, some may not. Even then, you do not have a completed pot- you have something that has been biscuit fired- it is hard and porous. Next you need to glaze the pot.

This involves brushing one or more glazes in liquid form on to the pot, carefully layering and sponging. This too can take an hour on some of the big pots. Many potters hate this stage as it is the least creative.

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Then the pot goes back in the kiln. Carefully stacked on bat-washed kiln furniture. Glaze sets like glass so if two pots touch they are like Siamese twins, only separated by risky surgery. Another 11 hours getting up to temperature, and the same to cool, and you open the kiln with excitement and trepidation.

The colours of the glazes are fickle- they often depend on subtle differences in temperature in different parts of the kiln. Sometimes Michaela has fired pots three times to get the right colour.

All of this is one of the reasons why I am no potter…

But I love watching the things work, helping out when I can, and I am so proud of Michaela’s pots.

I should add that for those of you who want to try your hand at pottery- Michaela and Pauline run courses- which are very busy-  I think the next few 4 session introductory courses are almost full. However, we will also be hopefully running to residential weekends over the winter- watch this space!

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Giving hospitality…

sgath an tighe

We have had a house full of (paying) guest over the past week- here for the Cowal Highland Gathering.

Highland Dancers from Newcastle.

A family of highly creative folk from France and London, including a jazz musician, an opera singer and a life model.

Michaela and I cooked 31 cooked breakfasts (once at 6am!) cleaned constantly, changed bedding every third day, and in the middle had time to do some pottery, some wood carving and bits of socialising. It has been a busy hectic week, but we have both enjoyed it enormously. It helped that our guests were so lovely of course, but just the process of welcoming others into our space with other people is such a simple pleasurable act.

Michaela in particular is really good at those little touches that make people feel that special effort has been made- place mats with hand lettered quotes, suggestions of places to go and things to do, etc etc. Mostly (particularly in the morning) I kept out of the way and worked in the kitchen. On one occasion whilst delivering some toast I was accused of sending it sliding down the table western bar style- with no small amount of elan I thought!

Weekends like this when the house is so full gives hope for the future of our mixed economy way of making a living. It will always be marginal, and Cowal Games comes but once a year, but it kind of fits with who we are.

This week an old friend from Bolton is using the Annex- I have not seen her for 10 years and it will be lovely to catch up with her news.

Our big old house is a demanding old aunt, but at last it feels like she has softened into genial old age…

Come and see for yourselves!