The Camerons have posed for a photo with a group of Border Morris dancers (in their traditional blacking), and so the debate over blacking up rears its head once more. Whether or not it was a deliberate move by Big Dave to align himself in opposition to “political correctness gone mad”, one can only speculate. But it’s worth trying to understand why this debate perennially appears, why it matters, and what it tells us. The real answers would involve a lot more than a blog post, but here are a few thoughts on the subject…
The arguments on both sides would, at first sighting, seem simple enough: on the one hand people are outraged by the practice because it signifies (to complainants, at least) the kind of offensive racial stereotyping associated with (e.g.) the Black and White Minstrels, and other overt, dated displays of racism which should be considered intolerable in modern society. On the other side of the argument are the dancers themselves, who argue that the practice has nothing to do with the representation of black people, and that it was simply a traditional method of disguise so that dancers through history would avoid prosecution for begging, or persecution from the church.
As with most things to do with the performance of English tradition, the practice (and the debate around it) actually says a lot more about the contemporary English political context than it does about history. Specifically, it tells us a good deal about the politics of white representation in a climate of increasing dischord over recognising and performing Englishness in contemporary, multicultural British society.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the way the topic is handled in the press is that this traditional activity is seemingly “discovered” – as if for the first time – whenever the story comes around. The fact that blacked-up morris dancers are “news” to people is telling in itself: it’s been happening for quite a while… OK, so the border tradition had died out and was revived in the 1970s, but the traditions of the Britannia Bacup Coco-nut Dancers (who also regularly come under fire for blacking-up) have been going strong for well over a century. There are literally hundreds of border morris sides, many of whom black up. [A large number of sides go for the “safer” option of colouring their faces with multi-coloured face paints. It’s probably also worth noting that most border sides are represented not by the conservative Morris Ring (who every reporter runs to for a quote at moments like these), but by the relatively liberal/progressive Morris Federation and Open Morris.] They perform not in the shadowy recesses of private events, but openly, on the streets and outside pubs in centres of population and at the few hundred folk festivals that take place around the country. The fact that they are happened upon and presented as a shocking abomination by the press, then, says something of the status of traditional folk arts in the English consciousness (although, as I – and others – have written elsewhere, that tide has gradually turned with the new-found popularity of folk music).
As to the “real” reason for blacking up – this is a difficult one. Certainly there seems to be a certain amount of plausibility in the idea that this would have been done in order for the performers to avoid being identified by the local magistrate or clergyman as they went about illegally begging for money via the trappings of (apparently) pagan ritual. Anyone who’s ever tried to quickly identify a single member of a border morris side while the whole group is in full kit and blacked-up will know that the disguise is pretty effective. But there has been some excellent recent research – including from within the morris community – that would seem to “bust” this as myth. The practice of colouring ones face for ritualistic purposes could also be credible as an ingredient in this muddy mix, since it is a fairly common one worldwide (see for instance the whitening of faces in Xhosa circumcision initiation rites). The more uncomfortable possibility is that it did – at some time – perhaps have something to do with representing the “Moorish” people from whom it has been suggested the dances originated, or even that it did in fact originate with the rise of minstrelsy in early 19th century England. It’s interesting to note, though, that while some forms of morris dancing have this face-blackening as a feature, others (notably the most culturally “visible” form, Cotswold morris) do not. The fact is, then, that while historical contexts and narratives might explain the origins of the practice, they do little to explain the inconsistency of blacking-up, and even less to justify its continuation.
Which brings us to the next difficult sticking point: tradition as justification. BBC’s Newsbeat quoted the charity Show Racism the Red Card as branding the activity of blacking-up ‘no longer “relevant”‘. The concept of relevance is an interesting one to draw on in relation to this topic. It could, after all, be argued that to do something because it is “traditional” is precisely to do something that is “no longer relevant” in terms of its material content, but is significant only for its symbolism of arcana and history. The further from function or ‘relevance’ a practice is removed, the greater the strength of the historicity and symbolism. The impact of a judge wearing a strange white wig is now far greater than it was when the things were introduced (in line with standard polite fashion) in the late Stewart period: the sight now evokes a sense of awesome, mysterious antiquity not because it reminds us of Charles II, but precisely because it is totally removed from any specific associations that might explain it. It reminds us only of a judge. It is precisely because people don’t generally know exactly why judges wear the wigs that the wigs become so culturally significant.
The crucial question, then, is what does the blackened face actually represent (a) to the people who do it, and (b) to those who look on. The answer to (a) is easy: clearly (and I can rely on the evidence of many years’ ethnographic fieldwork, here) there is not a morris dancer alive today who associates the blackening of their face with the representation of black people. To these morris dancers, that association is an irrelevance. More significantly, a very large proportion of morris dancers are part of a larger “folkie” community that is overwhelmingly left-wing in its politics, and made up of people with an above-average awareness of – and concern for – intercultural cohesion and respect. For them, then, the idea that blackening their face speaks to minstrelsy and racism simply does not compute. It’s just a deeply upsetting accusation. And it’s worth mentioning that nothing else about (e.g.) border morris in any way mimics or stereotypes black people (as, for instance, minstrelsy did).
The answer to (b) is more problematic: clearly there are people for whom – on the face of it (no pun intended) – the activity indicates a regression to historic racisms, either because the complainants receive it directly in that way, or else because they believe it insensitive to do something that might elicit that association . Maybe the dynamics of historically rooted racial politics are simply too strong to be trumped by the “unrelated tradition” card – particularly when that card is being played by an overwhelmingly white, relatively privileged ethnic majority. To those with no experience of border morris dancing (that is, to the majority of people in England), even the words “blacking-up” are understandably pregnant with racist undertones. For such people the only cultural icon of such an activity is Al Jolson et al. In the face of such popular associations, it might be reasonable to argue that blacking-up in morris dancing – however innocent in its motivations – just has to stop. Maybe it is simply not possible to reeducate an entire, multicultural nation on this small part of English folk art in order to effect its complete rehabilitation. And maybe it’s simply not worth the inflammatory argument. But tradition doesn’t quite work like that: reason rarely prevails over more instinctive drives to celebrate local antiquity and identity; and the current drive to do those things continues to increase. The discussion will rage on.
As a final thought, perhaps it might be worth seeking the thoughts of a black morris dancer? There is – at least – one. I’ve interviewed him, and I know what he makes of the debate. But it would be interesting to see if any journalists covering this kind of story are ever moved to seek out that perspective…