Golliwogs: in public and in private memory

In response to my post on comparative racism, leannenz left a comment that made me realize I’d left something important out of the post—a part of my thinking that was clear enough to me but invisible to anyone else. So I’m bringing the issue out of the comments zone and into a post of its own.

Leannenz wrote that she grew up “in the age of Enid Blyton, Noddy, Big Ears and Golly. I had the book Little Black Sambo read to me as a child. Nowadays there is a lot of talk of Noddy and Big Ears being in a homosexual relationship and the racist facet to Golly.

“I look at them now as part of history. They were what they were back in the day, a child’s toy, a child’s book but the thank goodness we have made progress and they are now no longer the accepted norm. Thank goodness people are willing to say they are derogatory and demeaning and don’t have a place in the modern classroom. I would say, let people remember a childhood toy with fondness BUT I would like to think that now people would realise these dolls originated from the colonial era of class system that put people down and would chose not to make or purchase them although I suspect they are still out there.”

I understand that some people have fond memories of golliwogs as childhood toys, and those feelings are their own and no business of mine or anybody else’s. It’s when people assume that their feelings and memories justify the public use of golliwogs that I object.

No more than a few weeks ago, a charity shop in a nearby town decided to celebrate the town’s jazz festival with a window display that included some golliwogs. Somebody objected on a town chat site and was jumped all over by multiple people who use the site—and defended by others. I don’t read the page so I don’t know the numbers, but it sounded like only a few people defended him and a lot of people attacked.

It got ugly quickly, as these things do online.

I was in town just after I heard about it, so I stopped by the store to voice an opinion. They must have already gotten an earful, because the woman I talked to started answering me before I’d gotten to the end of my sentence. It wasn’t her decision. The manager would have to decide. And so on.

They took the display down and wrote on the chat site that the person who put it up had meant no offense. Which I’m sure is true. It was an act of pure cluelessness.

The person who initially raised the question ended the discussion by saying to the people who’d attacked him, “You may not understand this, but your children will.” Which strikes me as a moment of pure grace, under the circumstances.

Thanks to leannenz for her comment, and to the many other people who left thoughtful comments.

22 thoughts on “Golliwogs: in public and in private memory

  1. This is exactly right in my opinion!

    As I said, for years I didn’t realise how derogatory golliwogs were, even after I had it pointed out to me that the name was the origin of a pejorative term. It has taken me a long time to realise the full origins and implications of them.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I would like to congratulate you on your previous excellent post (this one is also great, of course) which I see has been shared all over and has brought up an important topic for discussion. Great writing and a great message.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a confession that shames me even though I must have been under three years old at the time. Once, when I was on a bus, I pointed at a young man with a massive afro (which I thought was supremely cool) and said to my mother, “He has golliwog hair”. My mother died on the spot with mortification and thence forward we were not permitted to have Robertson’s jam in the house – since their golliwog symbol was the source of my learning about such things. My point is that even though my mother had not read me Enid Blyton books or a toy golliwog , presumably at least in part because she recognised how wrong those things were for a child to possess, she had totally overlooked the importance of messages coming from things like food packaging. I like to think that the humiliating bus incident made her more vigilant.

    I am not for the expunging and sanitising of history. I think for us to move forward in a positive direction, to make progress as a global society, we need to be aware of the mistakes and horrors of history in order to learn from them. We cannot do that if we shield people from what came before. However, that history does not have to be held with fondness. It should not be a source of nostalgia.

    Here’s another example from my own life because apparently all my conversations require ancedotes. When I was sorting through all of the hundreds upon hundreds of books that I owned to decide which were being donated and which were going to make it into the shipping container, of the small proportion of books that I chose to keep was an old world atlas that had belonged to my grandfather. In the back of the book there are a series of photos of “people of the world” and the captions for the photographs are terribly, horribly xenophobic and racist. I kept that book not because of nostalgia over it having belonged to my grandfather, not because it might be a useful book to refer to (I don’t even allow it to sit on my open book shelves), but because at some point I will show it to my kids and get them to understand that such a terrible degree of racism was once so acceptable that it was in school textbooks and that that is why we must all endeavour to do what we can to fight for equalities and tolerance and fight against prejudice.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Some years back my aunt and uncle were starting to clean out their house, and offered me a set of books for my kids. “They’re pretty old, and probably valuable, do you want them?” I looked at them, and it was a multi-volume set of “Uncle Remus” books. Were they are awful and racist as I remembered? I looked through a couple, and they were even worse. As much as I wanted to be gracious and accept their gift, I really couldn’t. Eventually my children were going to need to learn about the history of racism in our country, but when they were small there was no way I was going to expose them to this sort of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was called several names when I was younger, one of which was, Golliwog. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning, after all, they were on the back of jam jars so how could it be a terrible thing. I was named as such because of my hair. I promptly rifled through the drawers at home to find a pair of scissors so that I might cut off some of my ‘big hair’ and in the hope they’d stop calling me names. Now, my hair is pretty big again and I actually quite like it that way. It isn’t appropriate to be displaying them in a shop window but I do believe it was done purely out of ignorance.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was not familiar with golliwogs before this post. Having now looked at some images online, well…*sigh* Reminded me of several neighbors who had black “lawn jockey” figures in their yards when I was a kid.

    Because these memories — yours and mine — are leaving a bad taste in my mouth, I thought I’d ask if you are familiar with the work of Kara Walker? She’s an artist who often works in 18th c. style paper silhouettes, reusing and reimagining racist images from US history. A reminder I share that while we cannot (and perhaps should not) leave the ugliest of our histories in the dirt, it is possible to make new art and thought from that pollution.

    Some examples of Walker’s work: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/7679?locale=en

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link. They’re powerful images that I find unsettling–but surely that’s part of the point.

      Your mention of lawn jockeys reminds me of a story a friend told me. He’d worked on a newspaper in Miami, and they had a rash of lawn-jockey beheadings–someone going through neighborhoods and beheading a whole series of the little horrors. There’s something so satisfying about that.

      Liked by 1 person

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