Jim Crow- another letter!

Western ferries passing jim crow

Here I go again. I keep thinking that I will stop talking about this rock, and then I get sucked in again. This time I am responding to another letter in the local paper suggesting the rock can not be racist in origin or association for a whole set of reasons that seem to me to be at best questionable.

History is never value free- it tells the story we want it to tell, despite the best efforts of historical research methods. It serves our own world view.This was demonstrated most clearly recently by Michael Gove, our rather dreadful Education Secretary, who had a go at ‘left wing’ historians who described the first world war as an unnecessary slaughter in which lions where led by upper class fools. Gove suggested the first world war was in fact a ‘Just War’ in which Britain and her Allies responded heroically to German imperial expansionism. The reality of course is far more nuanced and complicated than can be painted by narrow dogmatic historical interpretations.

What story am I wanting my history to tell? Am I too captured up in a Marxist approach that sees history a struggle by the weak against the powers of empire?

Perhaps I am- but at the same time, I think that a history skewed towards an appreciation of the poor and disenfranchised is needed more now than ever. We live in a time of recession. We know that in such times there is a tendency to scapegoat, to caricature, to blame. For a brief while it was all the fault of the bankers. Now it is the fault of the benefits scroungers.

So every time I leave my front door and see the rock above, I find myself thinking of these images;



…and I end up composing another letter to the paper. The last one, honest!

Dear Editor


Thanks once again to John A Stirling for his detailed and helpful reply to my previous letter suggesting an information board next to Jim Crow rock. He makes several statements about the rock, which I would like to examine further. I do this with some reluctance as my original suggestion was an attempt to bring together polarised opinion, not engage in more sectarian opinionising.

A lot of our discussion has been about the origin of the name given to the rock, and whether the words ‘Jim Crow’ were understood at that time to represent a racist stereotype. John feels that this cannot be the case as 1) the rock was so named prior to possible American slave connections (as early as 1726) and 2) back in 1726 there were no houses in the area so the rock was unlikely to attract the attention of local residents.  There are some leaps of logic in these statements that you must judge for yourself, but the truth is we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

John also mentions an often repeated local belief that the name of the stone relates to a local builders yard. One of my friends researched this possibility as part of an educational dissertation- spending time digging into records, both locally and in Lochgilphead. He was unable to find any evidence for the existence of such a business. Again, this is not to say it did not exist, more that we are unlikely ever to know for sure.

Next John mentions the possibility of the word ‘Crow’ being derived from ‘Croadh’- Gaelic for cattle and perhaps related to old Drover’s routes. However it seems to me unlikely as the rock is well away from known Drover’s routes (the nearest one being a crossing at Ardentinny.) However, once again, we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

John pointed us also to the apparent change in how the rock has been decorated- which appears to have become ever closer to what we understand as a ‘Golliwog’. Early photographs (1905) do indeed show the rock decorated with something more primitive, and with teeth. Could this have actually been meant to represent a crow? If so, why not with a yellow beak and with no teeth? Interestingly, there are other ‘Blackface’ stereotypes that include exaggerated teeth. However no one reading the words ‘Jim Crow’ in the 19th Century is likely to have missed the association with black people. Therefore it is perfectly possible that an existing local land mark was co-opted to a new racist purpose. Once again however, we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

What we do know however is that this area owes much of its early prosperity to the slave trade- from well before 1726. We know that in the great age of Clyde Steamers people promenaded the sea front and visited a many places of entertainment. We know that one of the most popular forms of entertainment were the Minstrel Shows. We know that racism has done terrible damage to millions of people the world over, and that one of the means by which this was perpetuated within popular culture was through the remarkably persistent Blackface stereotypes.

We can also be pretty sure that in anywhere else in the world, if the words ‘Jim Crow’ were emblazoned on a rock next to a Golliwog painting people would assume (rightly or wrongly) that it was making a racist statement. They might expect some kind of explanation as to why local residents allow such a thing to remain unexamined, unexplained, unchallenged.

So, we have a choice as to how we respond to this. We can accuse/deny, or we can display our uncertainty in a way that shows to others that we understand it, and have learnt something from the last few hundred years of local and international history.

Which brings us back to my suggestion of an information board.

10 thoughts on “Jim Crow- another letter!

  1. Chris,

    I am a tourist who passed through Dunoon yesterday and was shocked when I saw the Jim Crow rock. I turned to the internet to try to discover how such a derogatory landmark could come to be and be allowed to exist and your site has been the best source of information I could find. You have my thanks and my support.

  2. Now if I saw this I would think it was a shark. But you are absolutely right, there should be an information board. It seems odd to me that in Scotland, a culture amongst the least racist and with no history of black/white racial issues, that the origins may be quite different than those projected onto or imputed in this day and age.

    Personally I think Golliwogs are gorgeous and political correctness has no place in regard to them, just as it does not with Punch and Judy, nor many children’s books written before the age of political correctness.

    If we judge the past by the beliefs, attitudes and ‘standards’ of today we are being unfair to those who came before us and to ourselves.

    My grandfather proudly received a cricket trophy in Australia, around 1925 with the name ‘Nigger’ Ross proudly emblazoned. We still have this family trophy. He had a Greek father and his skin was dark and his nickname was ‘Nigger’ and it did not bother him and it does not bother his descendants because we can see it in the ‘light’ of the times.

    And yes, information is absolutely crucial if we are to understand our ancestors and their past.

    • Thanks for the comment! Forgive me if I push back a wee bit however, in the fine old tradition of blogging…

      An interesting question Roslyn is why you would see Scotland as “a culture amongst the least racist and with no history of black/white racial issues”? Racism is thought to be growing here- although perhaps not as much as in England. http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/top-stories/one-in-four-scots-admit-to-racist-attitudes-1-3425741

      This is possibly because population density is much lower in Scotland, and we are less racially diverse, meaning that racism is more hidden. It is less about neighbours, more about people ‘a long way away’. Or perhaps the focus comes on to sectarianism, or even (dare I say it) the ENGLISH. Does this mean we are less racist, or rather than the triggers to polarisation are different?

      I agree that one of the ways that we should understand racism is to understand our history. Over in Greenock the old sugar wharehouses are being transformed- and part of this is to engage with the dark shadow of the slave trade.

      The cultural carriers of is are so subtle and long lasting, and easily become so normal that they are not regarded as having any relationship to prejudice. Golliwogs are a case in point I am afraid. They may be cute and cuddly reminders of childhood to us, but that is from the point of view of a privileged position. Black people have a very different view of them.

      The English-American author Florence Upton invented the golliwog in a series of picture books produced at the onset of the Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation in the American South. She described the character as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”. He was clothed in the same apparel as the black-faced minstrels then prevalent in Europe and North America. He had thick lips, unruly black hair, and his hands and feet were paws. He was part man, part animal- which was how black people were often viewed. Interestingly, Golliwogs are not well known in USA- much more so in Europe. In the USA they had ‘Little Black Sambo’- whose racist origins were a little more difficult to dismiss!

      I always feel a little uncomfortable about the words ‘political correctness’. They tend to be used to push back against efforts towards equality- and even when some of these might be misguided, surely if we make an error, it should be on the side of the weak and disenfranchised?

      I love the story of your grandfather- I am a cricket lover too. And whilst I agree that it would be unfair and even foolish to make any judgments about individuals based on their archaic use of racist terms, we can surely still agree that the times they lived in were deeply prejudiced, and ideas of racial imperial supremacy set the tone for the misery (and in Australia the genocide) of millions? Things have changed on the face of things, but strangely the same racial divisions in terms of health, wealth and quality of life exist…

      • Hi Chris,

        Happy to be pushed back. Perhaps I should have clarified. Scotland has not had the black/white racial issue because it did not have African slaves and neither did it have a black or brown indigenous people. That is what I meant by no history.

        As to ‘least racist,’ I base this on having spent a bit of time in Scotland; having read histories of Scotland; having spent a great deal of time with Scots in the UK, US, Australia and having Scottish ancestry on one side and making comparisons based on living around the world including Canada, UK, Belgium, South Africa, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, India and having spent very long periods, months at a time, staying in the US, Russia and Portugal and perceiving racism in those cultures as well as in my home country and making comparisons.

        Historically the Scots have been amongst the more enlightened – read histories of colonialism in India and many African countries and also their impact on Australian society and for that matter on English society. Read histories of the US and its racism.

        This does not mean Scots are free of racism because no culture is, but, in thirty years of living around the world, mainly the Third World, I know without a shadow of a doubt that India and Africa are far, far more racist than any Western country and the most racist nation in the developed world is the US. Travelling with a very, very black friend from Martinique whom we had met in Belgium, and who was highly educated and fluent in half a dozen languages, brought to the surface the levels of largely denied racism in the US.

        So it is merely a matter of degree. Which is what I actually said with the term ‘amongst the least racist.’ It is all about comparison with other cultures. We also live in times when political correctness taken to fanatical degrees has created ‘racism’ where perhaps it does not exist in any true sense. And the media loves to sensationalise.

        Living and travelling in the US for instance, compared to the UK and it is very clear that inter-racial relationships, friendships and marriages are much more common in the latter. They are rare in South Africa.

        And yes, Scotland like so many nations was involved in the slave trade – it was the way of the times and condemned in a more enlightened world. However, it also needs to be remembered that the Africans invented slavery for themselves as reading histories, as much as one can, of Angola, Zambia and Malawi and South Africa where I have lived, has demonstrated.

        The Arabs arrived and knew a good deal when they saw it and commercialised the already existing African slave trade. The Europeans came along and turned it into an industry with the help of various chiefs and African leaders who were happy to capture and sell on their enemies when they could.

        Racism is a part of most histories. In India it has been turned into the very unpleasant caste system where religion has been rewritten to define blackness and levels of blackness as indicators of evil in past lives. Being born poor, disabled or female is also an indicator of evil in your last life. The Hindu caste system has light at the top and blackest at the bottom, whenever it can be managed.

        Indian men do not marry very black women but women have less choice. Marriage adverts in the Times of India, yes they do advertise, specify variations of colour which would be suitable and a favourite term is ‘wheatish.’

        In Australian indigenous societies those who seek to join the general community and better themselves are called ‘coconuts,’ – black on the outside and white on the inside. May societies will reject and mistreat half-caste babies as has happened in many indigenous societies and as was seen in Vietnam and other Asian countries after American-led wars. However, this tradition did not just apply to whites or Europeans.

        Most cultures have a concept of ‘other’ and only education and enlightened attitudes dilutes or removes racism.

        Actually I know many black people who also think Golliwogs are cute. And yes, I know the origin of it.

        I am absolutely on the side of the weak, disenfranchised and underdog but I also believe political correctness has done enormous damage and has created generations of victims based on beliefs in racism and discrimination which, in the developed world has been recognised and addressed in law.

        And if we do not recognise and accept that racism is actually worse in the Third World because they do not have those laws and have not addressed those wrongs then we are making scapegoats of Westerners in the name of political correctness.

        I am not sure I agree that the times in which people lived were deeply prejudiced. Research into the founding of Australia and reading English reports and records and those from their representatives in the colony reveal very enlightened attitudes to the indigenous people.

        And there was no genocide in Australia and certainly not of millions. At the time of settlement there was estimated to be around a million Aborigines. Many did die but as they did in the Americas and elsewhere, of disease.

        The stated English policy was to work with the Aborigines and they recognised the knowledge that the local people would have and which they needed. Of course there was violence in time, on both sides, and yes the Aborigines had a right to fight their occupiers, but they massacred colonists and colonists massacred in return and as was the way of it, the more powerful side won.

        The Australian National Library has a resource called Trove where you can access online reports from the earliest days, from London, Sydney and throughout the colony, from officials, missionaries, priests, settlers and others.

        There was never a policy of genocide but it is far too big a topic to tackle here.
        Those Aborigines today with poor quality of life are those who have not assimilated but who have been pinned to some mythical board of political correctness where they attempt to live a fantasy of a traditional life. They suffer in the same way indigenous do in New Zealand, Canada, the US, and yes, I have had personal exposure to indigenous in other countries – and they suffer for the same reasons.

        The Scots and British and Irish and countless other peoples would not exist today if there had not been assimilation. Political correctness in recent decades has brought enormous suffering to indigenous people around the world and turned them into eternal victims.

        So, just me pushing it further. 🙂

      • Just to be clear, I live in Scotland. I do not see Scotland as any more or less racist than most of western civilisation. There are pockets of overt prejudice, but the issue I have is the more insiduous kind- what we used to call ‘institutional racism’- where the very fabric of culture we are part of is based on a set of assumptions (growing from our history and self centredness) that favours white anglo-saxon Protestants over everyone else.

        I am not prepared to let my country off as easily as you are- but thanks for the good press! Remember that Scottish officers made up a vast slice of Colonial administrators/commissioners etc. That did not end so well for most of the world I am afraid.

        As for prejudice in the developing world- why would there not be? We have taught them well that to get ahead, get yourself a victim!

        As for Genocide as a word applied to Australia, it is certainly a word used by many (if not most) historians. The numbers game is an interesting one but few deny the fact of devastation, massacre and death – caused by acts of commission, omission and opportunism by white people (including many Scots) for whom Aborigines were less-than-human so did not really count . There is an interesting article about the myth of civilised white settlement here if anyone is interested; http://press.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/ch0550.pdf This article points out that we know the names of just about every colonialist that was died- including convicts, but know next to nothing about the deaths of people with black skin.

        To suggest that the wiping out of an entire people (in Tasmania, for example) was an accident of micro-biology, witnessed by a mostly benign white presence is one that most historians would surely take issue with. I stand by my original use of the word ‘millions’ as the deaths did not stop in the 1700’s, they go on today. Look at life expectancy rates, infant mortality, suicides etc etc. The fact of this should be a shame on the whole nation… and we Scots played our part in that one too.

        I have to say that the ‘assimilation’ idea comes very close to blaming the victim. The work of people like Bob Randal powerfully displays how when people lose a sense of who they are, it becomes like a chain of destruction through generation after generation- I have written about Bob previously here- https://thisfragiletent.com/2012/12/30/return-to-kanyini/

        Is this really a ‘fantasy of traditional life’? I am afraid I very much disagree. The issue is surely not political correctness- but poverty, brokenness and hopelessness, which has become endemic. Celebrating what is left of indigenous culture is not the cause of the problem and might not be its whole solution- although frankly who are we to dictate the terms of this?

        As for Golliwogs being cute- well that makes them OK then? Wrap a rascist idea in soft fur and it makes it acceptable?

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  4. Chris, Like many other posters here I cam across your blog while looking for background on the Jim Crow rock. I hope you have not tired of this subject – I think its highly topical and one that needs continued discussion and resolution.

    My childhood memories were prompted by reading this article in the New York Times about racist objects: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/09/us/confronting-racist-objects .

    My grandmother lived near Dunoon and we used to pass the rock when we drove into Dunoon. This was in the days of the US base in the Holy Loch when there were many Americans living in the area. As a child I was completely unaware of the connections or potential connections with racism and the Jim Crow laws – I took it as a straight forward depiction of a crow. However, with the benefit of many decades behind me I look at the pictures now and the direct connection with racist imagery is very clear. Even if the original name goes back to before awareness of the Jim Crow laws, the painting is undeniably linked to racist imagery.

    I’m with you that claims made elsewhere that there can be no connection with racism in the US are spurious – my family were seafarers for most of the 19th Century and travelled the world from the Clyde, including many trips it the US. You have documented examples of how Scots were active supporters of slavery. I seem to recall, Scottish ship owners participated in blockade running for the Confederates in the Civil War. My grand parents were fine people, but their views on race reflected those of society at the time.

    It seems very possible that the name predates the Jim Crow laws, but it really stretches credibility to claim that the current pattern of painting predates them and is not racist. Society’s attitudes change and what did not appear racist, or was acceptably racist, in the late 19th Century is now clearly offensive. By claiming that the paintwork is not racist the community risks becoming the subject of ridicule, a risk that rises every year as their denials appear more and more ludicrous.

    Scotland is blessed with many talented and famous artists – why not establish a rotating commission on the rock to attract a new wave of interest, whilst acknowledging the past and the continuing debate – this would be a far healthier outcome for Dunoon than becoming known as the place where racism is blind to the obvious. This would make the rock a reason to visit Dunoon, rather than a reason to avoid it.

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