Christine Ammunson is a Samoan New Zealander who was brought up on The Black and White Minstrel Show, Golliwogs and Little Black Sambo books. You’re allowed to let the past go without disrespecting those you love, she writes.
As a kid in the 1970s I used to watch the BBC variety hour The Black and White Minstrel Show and try to work out why people thought it was so great. White guys with their faces painted black, big exaggerated white lips and big white rings around their eyes, talked and sang pretending to be African American even though they were clearly pasty English men. They weren’t funny or even very good but it was one of the most popular BBC shows for years.
Us watching that video in 2018.
A much better show that was on around the same time and that I was fixated on was Roots, the story of an African American man’s search for his ancestry, and justice for the cruelty he had suffered under slavery.
What I didn’t realise back then was that The Black and White Minstrel Show was born out of the system of human misery and segregation that the Roots miniseries was based on.
The Black and White Minstrel Show, like Golliwog dolls, are icons of a time when white people lampooning black people as stupid, ugly and evil was normal, entertaining and acceptable. These symbols were born in the United States during slavery and transported as popular culture across the Western world to countries like the UK and New Zealand. And it’s not just white people who accepted Golliwogs and minstrel shows as background furniture in our cultural lives. I’ve had Māori friends tell me, guiltily, about their Golliwog dolls. I’ve just rummaged about in my shed and found two of mine.
My teen was “grossed out” by them and said maybe I should burn them.
I also used to love reading Agatha Christie mysteries, and I had a copy of Ten Little N*****s, a book that featured on its cover a Golliwog with a noose around its neck as he was being lynched. Horrific.
American author Kate Upton created the Golliwog character in the late 1800s, inspired by a minstrel doll from her childhood. The doll wasn’t beloved by the Upton children, they used him for target practice.
Recently, when it came to light that a Waiheke shopkeeper was selling Golliwogs I questioned on my social media whether it was appropriate. She’d (incorrectly) explained to some dumbfounded African American tourists that the dolls were actually sooty-faced chimney sweeps and not meant to be black people (funny, Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins never reminded me of a Golliwog). She defended her right to sell Golliwogs and she continues to do so. I think if people want to make money from selling a racist icon, they should at least take the time to understand its history and origins.
Someone messaged to tell me that my comments were disgusting and that her nana wasn’t a racist because she’d made her a lovely Golliwog. While I wasn’t having a go at anyone’s nana or family, the truth is they are not benign, no matter how much we once loved them nor how innocently. I had two of them! But just because we’ve always done things a certain way, it doesn’t mean we have to keep doing things that way mai ra ano. Ka pai if that present from your nana symbolises love. In that spirit we must encourage others not to use symbols of racism and bigotry as tokens of love in the future.
Take the Little Black Sambo books. Those books taught me how to read. Literally. They were published by our own Ministry of Education and thousands were distributed in schools across the country. I still have a copy and will keep it for nostalgia but also as a reminder of how far we’ve come. But as for reprints? Like making and selling Golliwogs, I think not. Some things have passed their use by date and it’s up to us to make sure we don’t restock the shelves.