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.

Football as litmus paper for prejudice?

So did any of you see this story earlier?

It seems that comments by Tennis player Andy Murray have been taken to a T Shirt. In 2006, whilst being interviewed by a Daily Mail journalist (and I know that many of you might agree with me that those words may contain an inherent contradiction) Murray got himself in trouble as follows-

So, for the hard of thinking, let me state here that: I did the interview with Andy Murray and Tim Henman a couple of years back where Murray talked about ‘supporting whoever England were playing against’.

It was a clearly a sarcastic remark. He was responding to teasing from your columnist about Scotland’s absence from the 2006 World Cup and derisive laughter from the mischievous Henman.

It was reported in that context in this newspaper at the time and the exchange was run as a transcript.

A couple of days later a red-top got excited about the comments, lifted a couple of them into a ‘story’ that took on a life of its own and from there the truth was lost.

But the story has carried on.

The latest incarnation of this can be seen in the sale of these T-shirts-

These shirts are being sold as Football World Cup shirts. ABE stands of course, for ‘Anyone But England.’

The perhaps overly zealous policeman who reacted to the shirts appeared to have some concern that the shirts might foster and encourage racism- which is of course an offence.

At very least it appears to tap into wider popular prejudice and division between our neighbouring countries. Football has this way of being a conduit for all sorts of prejudice and base emotions- it is like a kind of religion without a moral code sometimes.

I know my own reaction to this- which is that I find this narrow sectarian stuff very depressing. I do not often feel the heat of prejudice personally, despite living in Scotland and having an English accent (although someone did call me a ‘white settle’r today- albeit with a smile.) I just think that most of us should just know better. The fostering and celebration of narrow judgemental views is never really victimless- there are always vulnerable people who suffer, if only kids in the playground. There is also the fear in me that these fires, once lit, might become conflagrations- if not in our generation, then perhaps in the next…

So- what do you think?