Border Morris Blackface
Recently, the Shrewsbury folk festival in Shropshire, and the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) both decided to refrain from booking Morris sides who use full black face paint, because of the racist implications of this practice.
The EFDSS stated:
Following the decision of Shrewsbury Folk Festival not to programme dance sides that “black-up” and the ensuing publicity this brought, EFDSS would like to be clear about its position.
As we understand, historically dancers used soot or burnt cork to disguise their faces but there is evidence to suggest that the boot-polish, full-face, blacking-up tradition gained popularity during the boom of the late 19th Century Minstrelsy tradition.
EFDSS wants to engage all people in the folk arts, regardless of sex, age, race and religion, so we do not support actions that can alienate sectors of the community. We use contemporary images of dance sides that disguise their faces with the use of masks or non-black paint and patterns in our print, online, and teaching resources, and engage such dance sides for EFDSS events and education projects.
After last year’s festival, the festival was accused of racial harassment and threatened with legal action by an organisation called FRESH – Fairness and Racial Equality in Shropshire – following performances by Morris sides wearing full face black make up in the town centre. The festival finds itself caught between two sides of this opposing argument and believes this is a national issue that should not be focused solely on SFF.
The use of full face black make up is an age old tradition, particularly within Border Morris. The Morris movement has always evolved over time and some sides have made their own decisions to move away from using full face black make up towards other forms of colour and disguise. In the past 18 months, of the three sides we booked for this year’s festival, two have already moved away from wearing full face black make up of their own volition.
We are aware that is an emotive issue and it is not a decision we have made without a great deal of thought but we have taken our lead from the Morris teams who have already changed their disguises.
This will only impact on a very small number of dance sides and festival visitors will still be able to enjoy a diverse range of traditional dance from the UK and beyond including Border Morris.
There was a fairly informative article about this on the Wild Hunt Pagan news blog. The reason that this is an issue of interest to Pagans is that there is a big overlap between the Morris community and the Pagan community. Indeed, many of the Border Morris sides that do use black face paint have a strongly Pagan identity.
There has also been a lot of discussion on this issue in the Morris community, including in the public group, How many Morris dancers on Facebook? Opinions were expressed both for and against modifying the practice of black face painting.
People who argue in favour of using black face paint say that it was originally a disguise, or that it represented the coal dust or soot from working in the mines or as a chimney sweep. This may indeed have been the case for part of its history; but there is strong evidence that it was influenced by the black-and-white minstrel shows which occurred from the 1830s right into the late 1960s, and that songs from Border Morris were used in black-and-white minstrel shows, and vice-versa.
The well-referenced Wikipedia article on Border Morris states that
“By the early 20th century, border morris dancing was referred to colloquially by some as “n***er dancing” or “going n***ering”.”
It also shows that whilst a link between black-and-white minstrel shows and Border Morris cannot be completely proven, it cannot be ruled out either.
An article on the history of Border Morris states that:
Blackened faces were also used as a form of disguise in the “Rebecca Riots” in South Wales in the 1830’s, which were a protest against toll roads, and also involved men dressing as women. There was also a more general use of face-blacking to disguise criminals – in the early 18th century a band of footpads and ne’er-do-wells known as the “Wokingham Blacks” were a major criminal problem in the forests and roads between Wokingham and Windsor. Their lawlessness was eventually resolved by sending in the army, and led to the “Black Act” of 1723, making it a criminal offence to have a blackened face, with harsh penalties.
The use of blackened-faces in Morris may have been revived following the Minstrel Shows of the early 19th century – with echoes in the 20th century TV show.
So there is plenty of evidence for the disguise theory, but also a considerable amount of evidence for the link with black-and-white minstrelsy – which was indeed an offensive caricature of Black people:
The stock characters of blackface minstrelsy have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. Every immigrant group was stereotyped on the music hall stage during the 19th Century, but the history of prejudice, hostility, and ignorance towards black people has insured a unique longevity to the stereotypes. White America’s conceptions of Black entertainers were shaped by minstrelsy’s mocking caricatures and for over one hundred years the belief that Blacks were racially and socially inferior was fostered by legions of both white and black performers in blackface.
A very well-researched and balanced article, “To Black Up or Not to Black Up: a Personal Journey” by Chloe Metcalfe (who is doing her PhD on English dance traditions) in the Morris Federation newsletter in 2013 demonstrated the link with black-and-white minstrelsy. She writes:
The first dated reference to blackface Border Morris that I found in my research was to a team in Broseley (Shropshire) in 1885 where blacking was teamed with military uniforms decorated with paper. [page 8]
The minstrel show arrived from America in the 1830s. As Dommett and Schofield have been at pains to point out the show was exceedingly popular. No amateur village hall performance would have been complete without a minstrel band or solo performer. Henry Mayhew charted white buskers in the street who often adopted this (popular and therefore profitable) guise as one of several performance personas. By the mid 1800s and continuing in popularity well into the 20th century face blacking in racial imitation was a commonplace entertainment phenomena, on a scale which is hard to appreciate now. It is not only the faces in Border Morris thatwere probably inspired by minstrelsy. Further links can be identified: shared tunes (e.g. Not for Joe), instruments (e.g. banjo, bones), the use of blacking the hands and the reference to Morris dancing as ‘going N*****ring”. (see Cawte ‘The Morris Dance in Hereford, Shropshire and Worcestershire’. JEFDSS Vol.9, No. 4:197–212). [page 8]
She also cites evidence that Morris dancing in the 16th century used black face paint because it was regarded as a “Moorish” dance.
Chloe Metcalfe references earlier research by Roy Dommett into the links between black-and-white minstrelsy and Border Morris:
The so called Border Morris of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Staffordshire included black faces and groups of percussion intrumentalists and often used the song “Not for Joe”, which mentions n***ers, banjos and the Wild West Show. It is hard to believe that this preceded minstrelsy! Most intriguing is that amateur minstrelsy followed on after the decline of the traditional Mummers and Christmas dancing troupes in the 20th century when the objective became more the raising of money for charities.
In the March 2014 issue (page 9), the letters page of the Morris Federation newsletter carried some interesting responses, including this one from Tony Forster:
Whatever the truth of the disguise theory – and it is a plausible argument for the 1600s – it changed its connotation in an imperial Victorian Britain. It has changed again….in a multi-racial society such as much of Britain is today, it is offensive to black people and impossible to defend. We can argue but the messages it sends are stark and aggressive to those whose skin is not white. I will be blunt: I think the day for blackface has gone. There are lots of other ways of achieving whatever we think we are trying to do when we black our faces…masks, other colours, intricate designs. None of them risks identifying putting border or molly dancers as part of a white supremacist philosophy…and whatever the origins and whatever the motivations of those who wear it, blackface sends clear messages that are acceptable nowhere else today. The world has changed….just as most nineteenth century Morris was male, but the vast majority now see that as outdated in today’s society. Blackface is equally if not more offensive. Let’s join the modern world and think more creatively, re-inventing the traditions of disguise or strangeness or weirdness to send the messages we want to, rather than the ones we have to argue we don’t mean.
Given the research of Roy Dommett, Schofield, and Chloe Metcalfe, I think it is fairly clear that there is a strong link between black-and-white minstrelsy and the black face paint used in Border Morris, and that the disguise theory, while it may hold some truth, is really not very convincing. It would be more convincing if people used splodges of black to look like soot or coal dust (don’t use real soot or coal dust, because they are carcinogenic).
Research by Black British academics has found that Cornwall’s Mummers’ Day, formerly known as “Darkie Day”, includes white people wearing black face paint and singing racist songs such as “Where do all the good n***ers go?” (Need I point out that most Mumming in the UK is performed by Morris dancers – so this is another highly suggestive piece of evidence.
I agree with Tony Forster (and the huge numbers of Border Morris dancers who have already modified their practice) that there are other ways to disguise the face and make it look scary, without using black face paint. Other colours of paint are available, and many sides have switched to green paint, orange, blue, and so on. Some sides have got creative with black face paint and only paint part of the face, so it still looks scary and unusual but not like like full black face paint.
If a practice is offensive to large numbers of people – some of whom will never ask you for an explanation, but assume that you are presenting a racist caricature – why not modify it to avoid offence?
Many people have suggested that the proposed modification is “political correctness gone mad”. I used to think that myself, as I too believed the disguise theory, and saw no connection with racism. However, Black friends have stated that they find it offensive. One of the commenters on the Wild Hunt article, Jonathan, stated that several Black friends of his have said privately to him that they do find it offensive. However, it is difficult for Black people to speak up on this issue without being subjected to a barrage of people whitesplaining to them that they are wrong to find it offensive, and citing the disguise theory. I myself have had some pretty exhausting discussions on this topic on Facebook. Here is Jonathan’s comment:
I think this is an extremely positive step on the part of the Shropshire Folk Festival. Folk culture in England rightly belongs to everyone – regardless of race, creed, or ethnic origin – and something as divisive and potentially upsetting as blacking up isn’t acceptable, irrespective of whether or not it is “traditional”. Black British friends of mine have expressed privately to me how upsetting they find it to see Border Morris sides donning black face, and so it is for their sake that I take this view.
Border Morris sides used to use coal dust. Nowadays, it’s more usual to use face-paint – it’s easier to get hold of, less toxic, and washes off more easily. That’s already a change in the tradition to reflect changing circumstances; there should not be no controversy about doing so again. Custom in England is constantly changing; and I see that as no bad thing.
Wanting to avoid upsetting people unnecessarily is just good manners. I fail to see why this is a problem.
Of course, most Morris dancers who paint their faces black probably believe the disguise theory and they are certainly not doing it to be intentionally racist. But when the subject is raised for discussion, the tone of many people defending the practice becomes incredibly shrill, and sometimes even racist, accusing Black people of being “oversensitive”; accusing any white person who has raised the issue of being “just another liberal do-gooder”, and so on. Those of us who have raised the topic for discussion have been accused of importing American racial politics to the UK (as if the UK didn’t have a racism problem of its own – as has become increasingly evident in the last few years, especially after the referendum on leaving the EU).
Several other people have questioned whether blackface Border Morris is the most pressing issue in race relations currently. Perhaps it isn’t, but it is something that gets raised fairly frequently (and by Black people themselves), and seems to be a barometer of people’s willingness to try not to be offensive.
Cecily Walker, a Black woman in Vancouver who encountered a blackface Morris side was offended, although she recognised that the practice was not intentionally racist, and what happened next was typical of the sort of reaction that often follows:
the belligerent woman who shouted in my face that this was “older than Shakespeare” and that I was wrong to criticize the dancers because “(she) liked it”, and I could talk about the other dancer who, growing testy, tried to talk over me to try to silence me.
She also suggested that it is high time to change the practice of blackface Morris:
When your tradition, when your art causes people pain, you have a responsibility as an artist, but what is that responsibility, and what is the correct response? Is it time to think of another way to honour your tradition without causing emotional damage? Should you be given a pass because your art is old and time-tested, or because it was the ways of your forefathers? What is your responsibility as a thinking, living, feeling member of the society you inhabit? You aren’t excused simply because you’re “just trying to have fun” or “just trying to be respectful to (your) history”.
Given that many people do find Morris blackface offensive, and given that there are fairly clear historical links to the black-and-white minstrel shows, which did present racist caricatures; given that there are many other ways to continue the tradition of disguise – I concur that it is time to modify this practice. People could use a different colour of face-paint; they could paint their face only partially black, or use patterns, or combine black with another colour so that it doesn’t look like blackface. Green paint is very effective and makes you look like a Woodwose — very Pagan!
Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. Her most recent book is “All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca”. She has also written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.