Oh, Golly! This is 'no joke' say Black leaders

Thomas L Blair

The furore over a BBC radio reporter  "dissing" a Black international tennis player as a  "gollywog" is about more than a casual remark because the Victorian caricature has a tainted history and harmful effects.

In addition  "When casualised racism is allowed to flourish, you create a culture where more virulent strains of racism can thrive", says broadcaster, writer and political campaigner Oona King.

The Golliwog was the first mass produced  "nigger doll" to feature in English literature. Well-loved, its popularity grew rapidly in the early years of the 20th century in the form of book characters, dolls and jam labels. From 1895, the escapades of the large black stuffed doll with wild hair and a wide grin dominated the leisure time pursuits of children and adults for half a century, says world authority Clinton Derricks in his book Buy Golly!: The History of Black Collectables.

In the midst of the controversy, what the major dailies, Tv channels, web sites and bloggers fail to understand is that the golliwog was the birth-child of plantation slavery. The themes and features of the golliwog were set out then by respected authors. Luminaries such as Thomas Carlyle used The  "Nigger Question" (1853) to attack abolitionists seeking social justice for Africans in the New World.

White superiority and Black inferiority is of divine design thought the novelist Anthony Trollope in his 1859 book The West Indies and the Spanish Main.

By Queen Victoria's time, Everyman, journalists, scholars and policy makers all delved in the same pool of prejudice.  "Niggers are like monkeys ... (with) their subnormal sloping foreheads and large protruding lips", said G W Stevens in The Land of the Dollar (1897).

 "Blacks are lazy, vicious, and incapable of any serious improvement", the popular writer Rudyard Kipling told the nation's children in his School History of England (1911). History is not the final arbiter, however. What makes the golliwog curios and  "nigger" portraits relevant to today's concerns are their deep penetration into the minds, and the world outlook of 20th century Britain.

Popular children's storywriters modified the Black male caricatures to fit widely accepted prejudices about Africans and Caribbean men. The most notable children's writer of the day, Enid Blyton, defined the modern golliwog. In her Five Fall into Adventure, we encounter a character  "with nasty gleaming eyes, and it looked very dark; perhaps because it was a black man's face".

It took the entry of peoples of colour to Britain in the post-war years to make a difference. Robust workers and veterans of British fighting forces sought to break the links between racial prejudice and the colour bar in housing, jobs and education. Public outrage and anti-racist campaigners contested Blyton's story line in Here Comes Noddy Again in the 1960s. The golliwogs' villainous mugging of Noddy, the harmless, lovable toy man, was, they said, likely to fuel race prejudices in perilous times.

Demand soon declined and by August 1981, a correspondent to The Times diary page noted, "only 2,500 golliwogs a year are sold compared with up to 200,000 when the species was in demand after the war".

We now know that golliwogs in their varied forms are an important feature of British character and social history. Racist attitudes have persisted and cross over generations - from Granny to Mummy to little Goldilocks. Their impact on impressionable children and adults may be benign today, some say. In fact, the researcher David Rudd suggests this in Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature.

However, no Black commentators have shown themselves in favour of this assertion. When asked  "What  'golliwog' means to me", three prominent Black personalities target their own experiences with  "nigger-baiting" on the streets, school bullying, ignorance and racism  "

"It was used against me as a child and those saying it certainly weren't smiling", says broadcaster and children's campaigner, Floella Benjamin.

 "Nobody comes up to Black people and says:  "Hello golliwog" because they know what it means says poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

 "It's not whether someone intends to be racist", says Oona King, a former member of the British Parliament:  "it's whether we allow a culture of racism."

So-called personal prejudices are rooted in historical stereotypes and emotional biases towards Black people. Moreover, the golliwog stories reveal the motive power behind the biases and their harmful effects. On this point, Lord Herman Ouseley, the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, is adamant. Media journalists and leaders of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, must, Ouseley says,  "set standards of conduct" to assess the nature and expression of offensive terminology.

This seems an appropriate goal as Britain enters a sustained period of economic crises, joblessness, and political upheavals. Unchecked, casual racism can become virulent and breed more discrimination, violence and racist attacks on minorities.

* Thomas L Blair is a sociologist writing on creative renewal in Black Britain and Afro-Europe, see Chronicleworld web site http://www.chronicleworld.org

* The-Latest threw its weight behind a campaign to get the symbol removed from the wrapping paper of a popular Finnish liquorice stick. See image-finally-finished-off