How long does it take a nation to deal with it’s demons?

12-years-a-slave

I have just been to the cinema to watch 12 years a slave.

It is a great film- exposing the raw underbelly of the racism that was a formational part of the development of the nation that became the USA. It has to be said that we on this side of the Atlantic are ultimately culpable, but our convulsions in relation to racial equality have been more subtle on the whole.

Think about it though- slavery is entangled with much of our society that might be regarded as our sickness- our addictions to tobacco and sugar, our morning coffee pick me ups. The slavery age set the tone for the rapid economic expansion based on huge profits for an elite. In many ways we all stand on the backs of slaves.

What the film did quite well was to convey how ‘good’ people could come to accommodate such a great evil as slavery- how they regarded black people as less-than. Even there however, I found myself wondering if the film was guilty of showing us the drama through a set of goggles that were entirely of our age- it is impossible not to engage with these black actors as wholly rounded emotional beings, which is of course something that was almost impossible to do from a 19th C perspective.

The film also seemed to show two Americas- the evil South, and the north in which black people lived in nice middle class houses and had the respect of all their peers.

History teaches something slightly different- about how pervasive the imagery of the chicken loving, feckless, sexualised, untrustworthy and unclean negro had become. This stain on blackness spread all over the world- including the free states. Black people were not chained, but neither were they regarded as equal partners. This was true also in my country.

Picaniny

Some would argue that this remains the case today- demonstrated by just about every social statistic you care to examine- educational and vocational achievement, health, mental health, prison numbers, poverty, life expectancy etc etc.

What is it then that makes race such a stubborn social discriminator? Why should the colour of our skin really make any difference to all the things listed above? In the past eugenicists argued it was simply because black people were lower down the evolutionary ladder- they were closer to the monkeys, and therefore good at sport, but not as intelligent as the rest of us. Despite the science of eugenics having been shown to be totally bankrupt, the conclusions peddled by this despicable chapter in the history of science still has resonance with instinctive prejudices that people carry.

There was a point in the film (slight spoiler alert!) where Solomon is free, and standing in front of his family. It is no moment of triumph- rather he is broken, weeping. He has been nothing and he has come to believe this of himself. He has nothing to offer his family as he is nothing.

This is what prejudice does to us- it erodes our sense of self. This is what the ruling classes can never quite understand about the poor. The current discussion about ‘benefits scroungers’ in the UK seems to involve a government made up of privileged people asking why are these people living like this? Why do they not get up and get on? What is wrong with them? They fail entirely to understand the denuding impact of poverty and prejudice on body and mind. From their perspective of ‘everything has always been possible’ they have no concept of how people can become so restricted by circumstance.

American literature has been trying to understand this phenomenon in relation to race for many generations now- from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, through Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, onwards into Alex Haley’s Roots. It has always felt like the nation is lagging behind the literature. Perhaps this generation might be the one to finally put away the prejudice, but is seems we still have a long way to go.

We came out of the cinema today and immediately thought of our local murky past- symbolised by Jim Crow Rock.

I maintain that these things matter, because even though the physical chains have been taken off, there are still many hidden chains that are laced through our societies. Changing this is the work of centuries.

jim crow prejudice

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.

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.

Despite Mandela-adulation, racism persists…

Nelson Mandela

The great man is dead, and world leaders are tripping over themselves to cosy up to his memory. In the process, he becomes like some kind of neutral mirror in front of which others preen themselves.

He is a freedom fighter, a champion of western capitalist democracy. (Forgetting that he was also a communist revolutionary.)

He is the man of peace who chose the path of non resistance. (Forgetting that despite all the pressure to do so, he never renounced the need for an armed struggle against the state.

He is the icon of international statesmanship by which all others are measured. (Forgetting that a few short years ago many regarded him as a terrorist- including much of the Conservative government under Thatcher.)

He was the civilised face of Africa, the educated black man. (Contrast this with the way that our newspapers talk about all other black politicians in South Africa since.)

None of this should diminish the man, but it might be regarded as creating a degree of confusion, particularly as we consider the degree to which the racism that kept Mandela locked away in prison for so many years has really changed. Did his release and subsequent elevation to international sainthood mean that the battle was won?

We live in a world in which racism, of both the direct and indirect kinds, is alive and well. We still live in fear of the outsiders, who will take our jobs, ruin our NHS, steal our homes and drain our resources. When these outsiders are black or Asian, this seems to add a higher degree of concern. Australians have almost banned non-white immigration. Unfair trade relationships ensure that the white West will continue their economic ascendancy at the direct cost of the poor south- who send us their minerals and produce our goods for us. The abolition of most formal apartheid systems (African, American) has done little to change the distribution of wealth and power between black on white people, both within societies and across nations. Beware those characterisations of passive-Mandela that allow us to forget this- it does the memory of the great man no favours.

We the privileged have a reciprocal responsibility to act out the gift of it with grace. Part of this might be to confront the injustices that we inherit- both to understand the cost of this privilege, but also to confront our propensity towards self justification. This seems all the more important as the people in power line up to put a slice of Mandela in their top pockets.

In the spirit of ‘minding our privilege’ (a rather useful American phrase) I was reminded today of two other stories that carry more than a little of the old racist divisions. The first one is this one, concerning the tradition of Zwarte Piet or ‘Black Pete’ in Dutch traditional Christmas celebrations.

black-pete-netherlands

As the Netherlands gears up for its annual Saint Nicholas celebration on Friday, the festivities are in danger of being overshadowed by a growing row over his helper and clown, “Black Pete”.

While families exchange presents and eat cakes to welcome Santa Claus’s slimmer and more sober ancestor, criticism of the crude depictions of his sidekick, known locally as Zwarte Piet, has reached the United Nations.

The clown is usually portrayed by a white person in blackface, who goes around offering sweets to good children and, according to legend, threatens to collect naughty ones in a sack to be taken to Zwarte Piet’s home in Spain. But he is increasingly reviled by critics as a racist relic of Christmases past.

Momentum has been growing against the custom, in part thanks to campaigners such as Quinsy Gario, a poet and activist born in the former Dutch colony of Curaçao who was arrested two years ago for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Black Pete is racism” at a Saint Nicholas parade in the city of Dordrecht. Gario’s message is that the tradition perpetuates crude stereotypes.

From The Guardian.

The criticisms of Zwarte Piet have stung the Dutch, 91% of whom seem to want to keep it as part of their tradition, and will say it is harmless, and the black face is just because Piet comes down chimneys. However, the roots of the tradition seem to go back to ideas of good (St Nicholas) overcoming evil, and chaining the devil to service. The Devil of course, is African. He is less-than-human, a worthy recipient of our projected fears, hidden behind all the grease paint and derision.

Zwarte Piet reminds me very much of another blackface image that is a lot closer to home- about 100 meters in fact, the controversial Jim Crow rock;

Western ferries passing jim crow

The blackface/Golliwog imagery of Jim Crow and Zvarte Piet are a direct link with the racism that justified slavery, that built the wealth of the West, that created colonialism, that gave birth to apartheid,  and that Nelson Mandela gave his life to confront head on.

Perhaps a fitting memorial for his death might be to take another look at this history, and to mind our privilege.

Dunoon folk- I have said this before, and I respectfully say it again;

“… 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.”

Institute of Race Relations.

So –  are we sure that this is just a little bit of harmless local colour? And even if it is just that- are we really comfortable with the associations that are being made, and the offence that this might carry to the descendants of slaves who had to fight on for generations against the oppression of the Jim Crow laws?

If the rock is to stay, then we need to tell these stories.

If we are to keep the face on the rock- then let us also put a big sign on the foreshore dealing with the darker side of our past…

When does concern about immigration become racism?

Today, the Limp Lettuce Leaf that heads up the opposition in our parliament spoke out.

Not against injustice, overconsumption, unsustainable lifestyles- he spoke about immigration.

In an interview with the Guardian, he concedes that immigration is being discussed in “every kitchen” and that the Labour party has been too quick to dismisses the concerns of ordinary people as “prejudice”.

He says the government should strengthen the law so that employment agencies cannot – even informally – favour foreign workers.

He was at pains to suggest that the former labour government had got it wrong on immigration- that it had ‘let too many people in’. This from the son of an immigrant- his mother, Marion Kozak (a human rights campaigner and early CND member) survived the Holocaust thanks to being protected by Roman Catholic Poles. His father, Ralph Miliband, was a Belgian-born Marxist academic, who fled with his parents to England during World War II.

With this in mind, perhaps we might take a moment to reflect on the fact that in the middle of just about every renewal and innovation in our society has always been the incomer- the outsider seeking to make good. At the middle of industry, and at the centre of our professional groups.

Also of course, doing all the jobs we do not want to do, and in times of economic success, refuse to do.

To be fair to the Leaf, if and when he does speak out on issues of justice no one listens, but when he speaks out like this he is at the top of every news bulletin.

But our kitchen has hosted no debates over immigrant labour of late- has yours?

If it did however, I might find myself suggesting that the reason why so many Eastern European people, or so many Asian people, come to this country is very simple- economics. Our lifestyle is based in the need to sustain huge inequality, some of which was enforced at the point of an imperialist bayonet. The shadow this casts is over a dozen generations or more.

In the Eastern European case however, the opening up of the borders in the European Union did indeed cause a large movement of migrant workers far beyond what was expected. Working people in some cases were simply priced out of the market as workers from the East were cheaper, and willing to work long hours.

In the past this would not have been possible, because of something called Trade Unions. But we more or less neutralised them in the name of free market economics.

So- when does concern about immigration become racism? Remember the famous spat between Gordon Brown and the redoubtable Gillian Duffy? Was she a bigot as he famously was heard calling her?

The answer of course, is probably not- but at the same time, maybe we have to acknowledge there is something about our society that is instinctively hostile to the outsider, or the other. When this becomes part of our politics, it gets ugly very quickly and the victims are usually those with the least power.

Particularly during an economic downturn- when we have the need for a scapegoat.

If the Leaf should visit our Kitchen, we can discuss it in more detail.

A bit more on Jim Crow Rock…

There has been a little more local agitation in relation to our rather infamous local land mark-

There has been an upsurge in traffic on my previous post- here.

I did a quick google search, and came across this disturbing post on the blog of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris University– Michigan. They pull no punches. Here is the post in full-

It’s not Loch Ness, but it’s still a monstrosity.

Jim Crow RockThe Jim Crow Museum is familiar and disturbed by this painted rock that dates back to the early 20th century. It rests off the shores just north of the small Scottish seaside town of Dunoon. The local population is somewhat divided over the idea that it is a monument to racism. From the looks of this thing, it is obvious to us that this object isconsistent with the blackface caricaturesthat populate our museum.

The Jim Crow Rock is painted black, with the words “Jim Crow” in boldface white, and a red mouth. It’s blackface in an obsidian form. For us at the Jim Crow Museum, the question remains — why does this rock hold a special place among the local population? Or, are we as educators over-sensitive to the symbolism that Jim Crow artifacts represent?

The Jim Crow Rock has existed for over 100 years. At times it has been painted over and “vandalized,” only to be regenerated by “well-meaning” preservationists. Pro-rock defenders cite the historical footnote that the U.S. Navy had a base in Dunoon for many years without any complaints (on record) from black sailors. Local historians also claim the rock refers to a local builders’ yard once owned by a fellow named Jim Crow. However, the Jim Crow Museum has learned that controversy has enveloped this object for decades and that newspaper accounts debating the fate of the rock have routinely stirred passions among the local population.

The Jim Crow Museum has received reports via email of ongoing racial tensions in Dunoon. Originally, the painted rock may have served as a warning to minorities that they were not welcome and to“stay in their place.” Recently, individuals who find the rock’s symbolism offensive have been publicly discredited and ridiculed. In a newspaper poll taken earlier this year, voters in Dunoon favored keeping the rock intact instead of painting it over by a 5-to-1 margin. Today, we’re left with the popular notion that the only people who have issues with the rock are “incomers” with no connection to Dunoon and that it’s a harmless landmark of local tradition.

Jim Crow Rock

The Jim Crow Museum believes that in order to promote racial tolerance, people must understand the historical and contemporary expressions of intolerance. In Scotland, all myths aside, there are indeed monsters in the water and lessons to be learned.December 2010 response by Ted Halm, Webmaster, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

POSTED BY SANDY GHOLSTON AT 12/02/2010 09:28:00 AM

In a recent reply to a comment on my own previous blog piece, I suggested that if we are to keep this rock, then perhaps the best thing to do is to make it into something that we can be proud of again- a monument that reminds us of the past of this area, and the role of slavery in its prosperity.

What about an interpretive board, with an account of this history, and the role of the minstrel shows?

Perhaps someone from the Jim Crow Museum might be willing to work with us to make this happen.

Over to you local politicians. See if you dare to step into the firing line.

Jim Crow repainted- again…

So- another twist in the local debate about a painted rock on the Dunoon shoreline.

Photo c.1900

The rock has now been defaced twice by someone who decided that direct action was required to highlight the murky history that may be behind this local land mark. Local politicians have expressed their outrage-

Councillor Bruce Marshall, chair of the Bute and Cowal Area Committee, told the Standard on Tuesday: “I was unaware that Jim Crow had again been defaced and find it hard to believe that anyone can be so petty.
“Jim Crow has been a landmark on the foreshore at Hunter’s Quay all of my life and I would not like to see it permanently lost.”

From Dunoon Observer.

Two people were seen yesterday redecorating the rock with its golliwog face.

The local paper has dealt with the issue in a rather lazy and partisan fashion. It reads like the reporter was looking for a way to dismiss any concerns about the rock, and seeking to interpret history in this light. A quote from the article

In an age where international news was not widely spread, it is unlikely that Dunoon people knew about these laws when the rock was originally painted, possibly around 1900.

It seems more likely that the rock was originally named after a Thomas Ingoldsby rhyming story The Jackdaw of Rheims. which was popular in Victorian times, The poem, about a particularly pious jackdaw made ito a saint, ends with the stanza:

And on newly-made Saints and Popes, as you know,

It’s the custom, at Rome, new names to bestow,

So they canonized him by the name of Jim Crow!

The research the local reporter has done seems to ignore the pervasive influence of ‘coon songs‘ and ‘black face songs’ in the Victorian and Edwardian music halls (right through to the dreadful black and white minstrel shows that were on TV in the 1970’s.)

People in Dunoon, and holiday makers from the big city who flocked here around the turn of the 20th Century, probably did not know much about the Jim Crow laws, but they would have known that ‘Jim Crow’ was a derogatory caricature of a black man.

As for the Jackdaw of Rheims– written by Rev Richard H Barham (under the pen name Thomas Ingoldsby,) it makes one reference to Jim Crow- as part of a long poem about a Jackdaw. Here is the question- why did Barham use this name? The song ‘Jump Jim Crow‘ was a huge international hit, with sheet music sold over all the world- carrying the caricature everywhere it went. The song was written about 5-10 years before the Jackdaw of Rheims was published.

The Observer reporter appears to assume that before the internet, before radio and TV, communication of ideas like this between continents was unlikely- that there could be no real exchange of ideas between sleepy Dunoon and America. This is to totally misunderstand our history-

Looking back from a totally different culture and time, there is no blame that can be attached to whoever first crudely decorated this rock and wrote ‘Jim Crow’ on its side. It was probably a bit of holiday fun. Using terms and prejudices that were so pervasive that they were hardly noticed.

The issue remains how we come to understand the symbolism contained within this image now– how we engage honestly with our past.

And this rock gives us an opportunity to do just that.

I notice that the local paper did not quote 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.”

Institute of Race Relations.

So –  are we sure that this is just a little bit of harmless local colour? And even if it is just that- are we really comfortable with the associations that are being made, and the offence that this might carry to the descendants of slaves who had to fight on for generations against the oppression of the Jim Crow laws?

If the rock is to stay, then we need to tell these stories.

If we are to keep the face on the rock- then let us also put a big sign on the foreshore dealing with the darker side of our past…