This may sound like a boring post, but it really isn’t. I have to read Absalom, Absalom by Falkner for my Literature of the Americas class, and in chapter three I came across a very old parlance which I won’t repeat here because I hate the N-word, but that W.C. Fields apparently rephrased in his film My Little Chickadee as “an Ethiopian in the fuel supply.”
I don’t like the phrase, but I did grow up with it, along with other racist comments that my parents, who grew up in the 30s and 40s, and grandparents, who grew up in the 20s, had no problems using. I have had to kill some of these from my own vernacular, though the phrase “Chinaman’s chance” is intriguing given the supposed history behind it regarding the often deadly jobs that immigrant Chinese workers were given while mining and building railroads. The phrase here is not totally racist per se, but the way the Chinese workers were treated certainly was. The phrase has long since been removed from my usable vocabulary.
Let’s be absolutely clear that my mother and my father had views that were typical of the culture in which they grew up. My mother’s family lived in a huge house in Andover (paid for by my grandfather’s association with the Lawrence mill industry of where his family owned the Emmons Loom Harness Company) and had a black cook and gardener/chauffeur. She is actually pretty racist, though she does not admit to it. Her words are evident though, and she seems to take great pleasure in my discomfiture. My father’s mother, Alma, was very clear that he be kind to anyone regardless of race and that my dad give up a seat to any elderly person regardless of color, race, or creed, but he still used the phrases without much thought to their being racist. Dad was about the least racist person I knew, actually, but back then, using the phrases just wasn’t an issue or a topic for commentary. They just were.
Fortunately, Falkner’s quote never made it into my repertoire, even though I heard it and knew what it meant. At least, I thought I knew what it meant, and so, to be sure, I ended up going to the computer to double check. Wikipedia did indeed confirm that I was right in thinking that the heavily British phrase did (and still does to some older politicians who have used it at the wrong time in the UK) mean that there was something beyond what it obviously seen, something hidden from the view of the casual observer. Apparently the phrase may have come from the Underground Railroad movement, though there is some question as to whether that was its only progenitor, or whether there is a further tie to the train cars of lumber that often had enough space for a man to hide in and remain unseen.
Regardless of its origins, I do tend to read all Wikipedia articles fully. I admit to liking Wikipedia, not for its actual and possible questionable information, but for its links to the original articles. This section can be a veritable source of interesting information. Like the link about marmalade.
Now, what does marmalade have to do with this topic, you ask? Apparently one of the UK politicians who made one of the official gaffes had referenced a certain brand of marmalade(Robertson’s)whose trademark character is, or was until a few years ago, a creature called a Gollywog. A new Wikipedia search, and I found myself faced with this image:
This is from a 1895 book entitled The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg by Florence Kate Upton. Apparently, the Gollywog was listed as, and I quote: “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome” (Upton). This in itself could be seen as crucially racist, but at the time, it probably was originally not meant to be. It indeed inspired the creation of the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls that freaked so many of us out as children.
In later years, there have been a great deal of collectables derived from this image, and these toys are even being sold in stores to this day. However, in recent years, from about the 1980s on, the remarkable bulk of the PC steamroller has done its best to remove this image from the sight of people both in the UK and America as being horridly racist. Upton’s books are no longer being printed and several other books that had black characters, such as Mr. Golly from the Noddy books or Little Black Sambo, have also had a lot of negativity applied to their images, so much so that a Noddy character was replaced by a white version of the character in the last few years. This replacement caused its own stir as Mr. Golly was a garage owner, and some African American garage owners have apparently felt that the character’s replacement by Mr. Sparks was a slight to them. You know the old saying – you can’t please anyone.
So what does this all have to do with Falkner? Well, a lot actually. Absalom, Absalom does not stint with its use of the N-word any more than Huck Finn or To Kill A Mockingbird do, and it seems to follow the same anti-racism pattern of the other two books. The attitude of the South is clearly portrayed in the entire story, and even though I am not through with it yet, I can only imagine where it may well be headed. The story reflects the way the world was and uses that lens to see the problems inherent within.
This is where the Gollys come in. They are a symbol of the way things were. Things were racist, yes, and the name Gollywog has spawned all sorts of racial epithets that I refuse to use or name here, but you can guess. What is not seen in all of the news reports about Carol Thatcher using the term to describe an African American tennis player, or people seeing them in stores and sending angry letters that they be pulled from the shelves is that there is a piece of history here that is being swept under the rug. The Gollys reflect the way the world was when the story was written many years ago by a woman who had gone to America as a little girl, seen little black children playing with little black rag dolls, and returned to England, eventually writing a children’s story years later about toys.
While we do not want to embrace these ideals, we don’t want to forget them either. The old axiom that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it is very true, and by banning everything and changing things to suit the PC vultures, we are ignoring a history that we should remember, not to encourage but to grow from. If people who looked at the image and Upton’s book went beyond the line about the Gollywogg being “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome,” they would find that the character revealed himself to be a noble, kind, and generous figure who was loyal and true to his friends – something positive that should be lauded in that time period. These positive characteristics were not true of other Gollywog characters, however, especially those created by Enid Blyton in her Noddy books, and this is why there is so much dislike of the character as a whole.
My final word on the subject is this: don’t embrace racism but don’t forget the history that it comes from. Remember that the characters were created in a time when there was no PC policing force to tell us what to think and hide a past that might not be so lovely. I am under no illusions about what the past views of my ancestors were. I am totally aware about the social injustices that people have been forced to face. The Native Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans, Asian Americans, Russian Americans, and, most recently, the Islamic Americans have been the targets of hate crimes unnumbered. As we forget one racial bias, we find another to take its place. Hiding from racism and pretending it is not there has not solved anything. From the evidence of Chinese students being harassed at colleges around the country to Middle Eastern businesses being threatened and mosques being attacked, the ideals of racism are alive and well in America.
If I ever buy a Golly doll, and I might before they disappear entirely from the picture under the PC machinery, it will be because of this reason: I won’t forget, like so many others, that many people have fought and died in this country for their worthy beliefs and goals of freedoms. And I don’t mean my forefathers, either. I mean all of the people, ALL of them, who have fought to gain their rights in this nation. Their fight is not over. Not by a long shot. Pretending otherwise is being blind to the reality that exists all around us in schools and workplaces across this country. Getting rid of the symbols of racism is not the same thing as getting rid of racism. It is just another way to turn a blind eye to the problem.
For more information on the history of the Gollywog, view this link: http://www.ferris.edu/JIMCROW/golliwog/
For a history of the Gollywog and its creator, check this out: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1136016/How-golliwog-went-innocent-childrens-hero-symbol-bitter-controversy.html#axzz2KVvgg83B