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;

doll2

Picaniny

…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.