Return of the golliwog?

When I see a golliwog in a toy shop I feel distress. Even when I calm myself, the feelings of hurt remain. Over recent years I’ve watched golliwogs make a comeback, as if their old fashioned charm rendered them inoffensive. I’ve been shocked by the presence of golliwogs not only in old-style dolly shops but also in contemporary boutiques.

As a child in Australia in the 1970s, I was ignorant of the history behind the Black characters I encountered: golliwogs, Black Sambo, the Black and White Minstrels, watermelon babies. Nevertheless, I experienced a profound emotional response to what I recognised as pejorative representations of people who looked like me.

As an adult I’ve learned that these caricatures were born of, and promoted, attitudes which furthered the subordination of Black people. The racial segregation and discriminatory laws which followed US emancipation were known as ‘Jim Crow’, named after the minstrel character that had become popular during the years of slavery. In 1895, a year in which there were 113 recorded lynchings of Black people in the United States, Florence Upton created a literary character based on her American minstrel doll. She called it the ‘golliwogg’.

Upton’s golliwog, although less well known in America, was a huge success in Britain and Australia. Other authors, most notably the prolific Enid Blyton, added to the numerous children’s stories featuring golliwogs during the first half of the twentieth century. The golliwogs that appeared in these children’s books were a product of an era in which even reputable publications such as Encyclopaedia Britannica surmised that Black people were infantile and of inferior intellect, being more closely related to apes than white people.

It wasn’t until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s that the stereotyping of Black people began to be publicly questioned. During this period, golliwogs and other derogatory characters were removed from toy shops and gradually phased out of children’s literature. In the mid-1990s the Australian company, Arnott’s, changed the name of its golliwog biscuit to ‘scallywag’ and in 2002 Robertson’s jam finally retired its golliwog mascot.

Could we put aside what we know about the golliwog and pretend that it is only a toy; that it doesn’t represent anything? After all, there is nothing inherently offensive in its appearance. My children could miss those cues in the look of a golliwog’s face, hair and clothes that convey its derogatory meaning. They could see it as a jolly, slightly surprised, clown.

But the fact is that circumstance has given the golliwog meaning, just as real as the meanings of the words we use. Ignorance of meaning, or refusal to acknowledge it, doesn’t make it any less meaningful. We can’t claim that ‘nigger’ is simply a neutral term meaning ‘black person’, although it may once have been. Those who like golliwogs can’t make them inoffensive by wishing, or even believing, them not to offend.

My mother used to buy my children golliwogs. Then she discovered rag dolls which have been designed and made in Zimbabwe. Some of the Zimbabwean dolls have stripy pants and shocked hair, but they lack the distinctive googly eyes and red clown lips. They are black rag dolls, but they are not golliwogs. The difference, for me, is that my children are not going to wake up one morning and wonder why I’ve let them love a doll which is a racial slur. They won’t be torn between the doll they love and its hateful connotations. They won’t love something that causes pain to people who recognise the doll’s meaning and who have experienced being treated as inferior on the basis of the colour of their skin.

There is no need to continue the golliwog legacy when there are so many other toys to delight in: monkeys and teddy bears for those who want a sub-human; clowns for those looking for a character or buffoon. There are even dolls for people, like my mother, who want a doll whose features reflect those of their own child. And for people who want to see golliwogs, there is the museum. Just as other racist artefacts should be handled with discretion, golliwogs should be understood in context and not mistaken for meaningless playthings.

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