Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Bias in the eye of the beholder

While some fret over the missing Nigerian schoolgirls or the plight of the North Koreans, elsewhere the fuss over black-faced morris dancers continues unabated, with problems this week over the labelling of a guest beer nominated for the House of Commons' Strangers bar.
Parliamentary chiefs threw out the pale ale which had been specially crafted by a multi award-winning Rossendale brewery, saying the imagery ‘may have caused offence'.
Actually, they were happy with the beer but not with the name chosen by the local MP, Jake Berry:
"We thought of several names, but as the boundary dance was saved earlier this year, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to name the beer after the Britannia Coconutters, to celebrate their huge contribution to traditional dancing and their charity work across Rossendale."
The proposed pump badge featured the same Britannia Coco-nut Dancers whose appearance in Will Straw's twitter image recently drew comparison to American 'minstrel' make-up, despite the clear absence of the caricaturing white highlights that typified the genre.

Those around in the 1970s may remember Pam Ayres' poem 'I Fell For a Black and White Minstrel' (conspicuous, perhaps significantly, by its absence from the internet), in which the deserted protagonist forlornly hugs her pillow:
'You can still see the place where he laid his black face
And the gap where he laid his white eye.'
The Bacup dancers, on the other hand, look as if they have just come up from a day at the coalface, which is not surprising, given the area's long history of mining. There's a certain irony in the fact that, since images of 'minstrel' blackface have been largely expunged from popular culture, there are few examples around on which the would-be offended can base any objective judgement.

Instead, just as the word 'black' has become a potential minefield (remember the 'chalk-boards' fuss?), blackening a white face, whatever the context, is now automatically assumed to be racist - although, oddly enough, no-one seems to be applying the same principle to, for example, Xhosa tribesmen daubing themselves with white clay.

Even Molly-dancers have been, so to speak, tarred with the same brush (tough luck, offence seekers; the phrase, too, originates far from the American South*). According to widespread tradition, in the winter slack season for farm labourers, funds would often run short so, to raise beer money, groups of ploughmen would go from house to house on the first Sunday after Epiphany and dance to solicit cash (and alcoholic) donations.

As the donors would be the same farmers the dancers would be approaching for work later in the year, they disguised themselves; one of the group would dress as a woman - the Molly - and they would blacken their faces with soot. As well as evoking ancient masked fertility rituals, the disguises allowed everyone to pretend they were strangers, circumventing the potentially awkward situation of begging from future employers.

It is also quite likely that, given the availability of ale at a numerous succession of venues, a bar to recognition also helped to ensure that the antics of the participants later on in the evening were less likely to be attributed to the perpetrator. The long association between morris-dancing and beer suggests a similar principle at work in the black-faced border morris of the Welsh marches, where the widespread use of disguise among mummers and dancers in the area was clearly documented in 1584.

While it may well have some root in the emulation of other cultures (if 'morris' is indeed a corruption of 'moorish'), Occam's razor surely indicates that the ready availability and effectiveness of soot or coal dust, along with the practical difficulties of managing a mask whilst energetically hopping about with one's hands full, played a major role in the popularity of this method of concealing identity. In any case, the association of ritual dance and disguise goes far further back into our pagan past.

The fact that the origins of most of the dances in question are lost in the mists of time has enabled some academics, reasoning backwards from the premise that all blacking-up must be motivated by racial prejudice and mockery, to claim that the various historical explanations can only be spurious retrospective attempts to justify a clear manifestation of racism; folk dancers are, it seems, guilty until proven innocent.

According to one Canadian scholar:
"[...] it seems unlikely that North American audiences, who encounter Morris at dance-outs at local shopping centres, pubs, and so on, far from geographical associations with coal miners, would see in blackface dances anything other than a white peoples' representation of black culture."
An obvious answer would be to instruct onlookers - American or otherwise - in the traditions associated with the performance, but that is presumably far too old-fashioned for today's image-led media culture. What matters these days is not the actual intention but whether someone, somewhere is likely to take offence - and, if it is deemed that they might, up goes the inevitable cry of 'Ban it!'

Despite the fact that the patronising caricatures of minstrel comedy and blackface vaudeville routines originated on the other side of the Atlantic, it seems our English ancestors are not to be forgiven so easily for the atrocities perpetrated by the George Mitchell Minstrels four hundred years after their time**.

As for the beer; since those opposing it were not themselves offended but merely taking hypothetical offence by proxy, why not put it in the bar as intended - introduced by the local MP, who can explain the whole thing - where those customers who dislike the label can exercise their right not to buy it?


*The idiom appears in print in Sir Walter Scott’s 'Rob Roy' (1818), describing - wait for it! - the Scots;
“They are a’ tarr’d wi’ the same stick — rank Jacobites and Papists”,
Nothing whatsoever to do with skin colour; it's a less than flattering reference to the practice of marking sheep.

**George Mitchell, oddly enough, was a Scot.

1 comment:

  1. Mixed thoughts here, Macheath.

    Firstly, I'll be delighted if they can find those girls unharmed - it's one international push I'd support.

    As for the dancers and the beer, the whole thing, it seems to me, depends on the quality of the beer. If good, it would smooth over all these other little difficulties.

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