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.

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