The battle against racism returns to Dunoon’s foreshore…

There is a rock about a hundred yards from where I live that has been decorated for about 100 years like this-

I have previously described some of the controversy that surrounds this rock (here and here.)

I recently came across another website run by someone I know in Dunoon, which was set up as a result of his concern about what the history and symbolism of the rock might mean…

He quotes someone called Dr Waters from the Institute of Race Relations as saying this-

“… 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.”

Last year someone took matters in their own hands and painted out the rock with some brown paint. They did a rather good job, and it was hard to tell that it had ever been decorated.

And as the local furore raged, someone else simply redecorated it as above.

Well, last night someone revisited the rock- this is what it looks like today-

Is Dunoon a racist town?

No more than any other I would say- although the largest ethnic minority here are the English, and we have a measure of anti-English sentiment like most places in Scotland. But narrow mindedness and prejudice are a feature of all our human communities and perhaps in small isolated towns like mine they can be long lasting.

There are not many black faces here. However, there used to be an American Naval base here until around 15 years ago, and there were lots of black American servicemen here then. Stories of race riots and segregated drinking are part of the local folklore. As are fond memories of the life and vitality brought to our community by people from African American origin.

Quite what these servicemen thought about the rock, I would love to know. Where they so used to such images that it was unremarkable? Were they told not to protest by their command structure? Or did it carry no racist meaning for them?

I hope that this latest act of direct action might yet highlight the meaning of ‘Jim Crow’ for Black Americans to people in Dunoon.

Because I think that we have should challenge prejudice wherever we find it- whether or not it is unintentional, or inherited from a previous generation with a different world view.

Jim Crow and the ‘Coon songs’…

I listened to a discussion on Thinking Allowed on radio 4 today about the role of comedy in racism, and anti-racism. It reminded me again of something close to home.

I have written previously about this rock, known as ‘Jim Crow’ which is across the road from where I live-

 

Photo by Scott Adams- http://www.flickr.com/photos/10021898@N02/797575782/in/photostream

The history of the rock is the subject of much debate- some of my friends who are local to Dunoon feel protective of it as a local landmark- it has been decorated in this way for well over 100 years, and is one of those local features that people remember, and celebrate, from childhood.

It has been suggested that the rock was so named after a garage owned by Jim Crow in the vicinity, although I know someone who has done some research in the public records and can find no sign of such a business, or of a person with that name.

In my earlier post, I pointed out the link with a tradition that emerged in another place- the ‘Minstrel shows’ of 19th Century America, in which ‘Jim Crow’ was a negative caricature of  a black man. The words ‘Jim Crow’ became an insult that was used alongside other offensive words like ‘Nigger’ and ‘Coon’. It also became a catch-all phrase for a set of segregation laws adopted by states across the USA that were oppressive and amounted to state sponsored rascism- the Jim Crow Laws.

The question remains however as to why a rock came to be decorated in this way in a sleepy little seaside town on the West Coast of Scotland?

I think the answer lies in the incredible popularity of the minstrel shows, and the wave of songs and dances that captured popular imagination at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries. Quite why this form of entertainment became so popular is difficult for us to understand from a post modern perspective. It was carried along by a new beat and verve brought by ragtime music and cakewalk rhythms but perhaps also by a rather more sinister human characteristic- the need to look down upon, or even demonise the other.

Coon songs‘ sung either by black performers, or more often, white men with black painted faces, were incredibly popular. Some of these songs sold millions of copies of sheet music all over the world.

The Coon songs were performed in popular shows wherever entertainment was required- particularly in mass holiday destinations- like 19th Century Dunoon, at the height of the age of steamers on the Clyde. According to an entry on Wikipedia, this is what they were all about-

Coon songs’ defining characteristic, however, was their caricature of African Americans. In keeping with the older minstrel image of blacks, coon songs often featured “watermelon- and chicken-loving rural buffoon[s].”[14] However, “blacks began to appear as not only ignorant and indolent, but also devoid of honesty or personal honor, given to drunkenness and gambling, utterly without ambition, sensuous, libidinous, even lascivious.”[14] Blacks were portrayed as making money through gamblingtheft, and hustling, rather than working to earn a living,[14] as in the Nathan Bivins song “Gimme Ma Money”:

Last night I did go to a big Crap game,
How dem coons did gamble wuz a sin and a shame…
I’m gambling for my Sadie,
Cause she’s my lady,
I’m a hustling coon, … dat’s just what I am.[15]

Towards the end of the era of Coon songs, it seems that people began to object to the racism at the heart of the formulae. There is also some evidence that black performers began to subvert the songs by turning some of the humour back at the white listeners. Laurie Taylor, as part of the discussion on the radio today placed these songs in a longer line of black comedy, including Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, who use humour to confront their audience with the narrow stereotypes they might otherwise regard as acceptable. However, there also appears to be a danger in this form of activism, as in some ways it gives permission to air these views.

There was also an interesting point about how certain popular performers can be seen  ‘exceptions’ to a more wider prejudicial view. In this way, they confirm the stereotype as much as they confront it.

Richard Pryor stopped making jokes using the word ‘Nigger’- here he is (WARNING– as ever, his language is a bit fruity.)

Back to the rock.

I had previously suggested that I would like to see it redecorated.

I certainly would still like to see more local knowledge of the tradition that this rock comes from, as I think we always need to learn the lessons of history, lest we repeat the mistakes again.

Lest we find a new section of the population to demonise.

Jim Crow laws, and a painted rock…

jim crow rock- from flickr

Photo by Scott Adams- http://www.flickr.com/photos/10021898@N02/797575782/in/photostream

On the shore a few hundred yards from where I live, is this rock.

It has probably been there since the last ice age, but at some point in the last 150 years someone thought that the point on one side looked like a beak so painted it black and began to call it ‘Jim Crow’. Quite who this was, and what the thinking behind the name was all about is unknown.

In June of this year there was much local controversy as someone painted over the decorations in the rock, restoring it to a natural stone colour. As far as we could tell, this seemed to be a protest against the symbolic meaning of a rock called ‘Jim Crow’. Here is the Dunoon Observers (somewhat partisan) take on the story at the time.

There was much debate as to what should be done about the rock- should it be repainted, or would it be better used as a different kind of community installation- perhaps decorated by different schools once a year…

However before this could be taken any further, someone had repainted the rock in its original colours.

So what is all the fuss about?

Well, the origins of the words ‘Jim Crow’ are pretty dreadful to most post modern sensibilities.

As far back as the middle of the 19th Century, ‘Jim Crow’ was a pejorative negative stereotype of people of Africanjim crow origin. ‘Jump Jim Crow‘ was a popular song and dance routine performed by white men with black faces in 1828 in the USA. The minstrel shows that began in this time became popular all over the world- and would certainly have spread to the music halls catering for day trippers ‘doon the watter’ towards the end of the Victorian era.

The words ‘Jim Crow’ were used as a description of black people at this time- in the same way that others would use ‘Nigger’ or ‘Sambo’.

But the infamy attached to the words was just beginning.

Following the widescale freeing of slaves following the American Civil war, the politics of the Southern states gradually returned to the Conservative whites, and from the 1870’s, a whole series of ‘segregation’ laws were enacted. These were known collectively simply as ‘the Jim Crow Laws’.

The effect of these laws on black Americans in the first half of the 20th Century has been well documented. It took the great struggles for freedom of the 60’s and 70’s to break their power.

There is a sample of the scope and extent of the laws here.

People fought and died over these issues, and for many the struggle against prejudice and narrow judgementalism continues.

JimCrow56

jim crow 2

So, back to our little rock in Dunoon.

I have heard it said that the name of the rock comes from the fact that there used to be a local joiners yard owned by Jim Crow opposite the rock. I doubt this myself, but in any case, the words ‘Jim Crow’ had too much resonance in the past to ever have been  neutral or value free, and the decoration on the rock is just too black-and-white-minstrel.

As you can see from here , there are strong opinions locally. One argument goes something like this;

Jim Crow is a local landmark- which has been there for over 100 years, and has nothing to do with racism.

The only people who have a problem with it are ‘incomers’ who have no connection to Dunoon.

For many years we had an American Navy base here, with lots of black sailors. No one ever protested about the rock.

It is a harmless much loved piece of local tradition, and should be left just as it is.

a_Jim_Crow_1905

Jim Crow on a photo dated 1905

But the sight of the rock, golliwogged up in garish new paint has always troubled me. I believe that where tradition and culture are in league with prejudice, then it is time to take a closer look at what we actually want to base our local tradition upon.

It’s symbolism may be obscure, but it is no less potent when set alongside recent American history.

I hear that the matter has been discussed in Scottish parliament, and there may yet be further scrutiny of the matter.

Get rid I say.