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.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Jim Crow Rock again…

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