Heritage and Blacking up

The recently circulated photo of David Cameron posing with some ‘blacked up’ Morris dancers in Banbury raises some interesting heritage issues. In essence, this is a question of whether a claim of being an authentic ‘heritage practice’ can justify an activity (of blacking up) that in almost any other circumstance might well be considered racist? Is it ever ‘OK’ to black up in the name of ‘heritage’? Should people who are offended by the sight of people blacking up, therefore feel less offended in the knowledge that ‘no offence was intended’?


Typical of the media comment on the debate was the article by Martin Kettle in The Guardian:

Essentially, the argument is that the practice of blacking up is not racist, on three counts. First, the practice of ‘blacking up’ is an old tradition. It has been around since at least the early 20th century, and can trace its roots back, perhaps, 200 years or more. The second argument that is deployed is that the practice is ‘rural’, and so (somehow by definition) cannot be intended as ‘racist’. Indeed, Kettle’s basic message in his article is that the UK is made up of many regions, and so a practice that is carried out in one region (e.g. blacking up in rural Oxfordshire), should not be ‘taken out of context’ and misunderstood by people from another region – that people in urban and metropolitan Britain who are offended by ‘rural folk’ blacking up should be put at ease. The third case, which is often a central strand of the argument that Martin Kettle, Will Straw and many more ‘liberal-progressive’ commentators deploy, is that the practice of such rural blacking-up is actually part of an otherwise hidden tradition of rural radicalism. Rather than being a sort of “we don’t intend to be racist” line of defence that the first two arguments contain, this third case is actually more of a provocation; that those (left-leaning and ‘politically-correct’) liberals who are usually offended by such behaviour, ought to be actually supporting such ‘authentic traditional and radical practices’.

Let’s have a look at each of these claims through a critical heritage frame of reference
In terms of legitimising certain practices simply through claiming ‘great age’, I feel that this claim is always on thin ice. While many ‘invented traditions’ are actually not very old at all, the support of any act simply due to its great age is never very convincing. On the one hand, bear baiting, witch burning and the trading of enslaved people each have very strong claims to be ‘very old practices’, but their claim to great age should not insulate them from critique. On the other hand, all ‘traditional practices’, however old, have a beginning at some point, together with a context of development, re-interpretation and change throughout their life histories. They should not be merely ‘copied’ as some sort of essential and stable practice, proverbially inscribed in stone. Indeed, I am slightly troubled by the very vagueness of the deep histories of blacking up. I read about rural workers using coal dust to hide their faces while protesting; or rubbing charcoal onto their faces to remain hidden while begging for alms – always in a very general sense. In Padstow (Cornwall), there is even a particularly durable story of blacking up as a form of celebrating the times when passing slave traders would land their human cargo on the quayside to given them some exercise. (This Padstow legend has been debunked several times both by writers who support the blacking up ‘tradition’ and those that are critical, and has also been ‘disowned’ by the organisers of the Padstow “Mummer’s/Darkie Day” events).

How the music, dancing, bells, and bright costumes runs alongside an ambition of ‘hiding from view’ is often glossed over – these things do not seem to be a very good way of ‘hiding’! I can certainly see some resonance to a ‘rough music’ tradition of early modern England (and I will return to this below), but rather than celebrating instances of specific grievances, the whole genre seems to be one of performing a vaguely symbolic act. This is not very satisfactory, particularly when this symbolic act rarely seems to lead to any deeper analysis, nor celebrate a particular story in any active/living manner.

Furthermore, in most cases that I have read about, the claims to ‘ancientness’ simply do not appear to be supported by deeper evidence – or at least there appears to be much evidence that, whatever antiquity might once have existed has long been smothered by more recent re-interpretations – mostly 20th century and mostly overtly racist. The group that David Cameron posed with uses the ‘Border Morris’ style, which, according to the Daily Telegraph, was known as ‘N-[word] Dancing’ in the early 20th century. In other words, whatever the authenticity of the claims to great age, the practice has certainly picked up some unsavoury baggage in the meantime, which should not be ignored.

How about the second line of defence – that people in Metropolitan areas should not be offended by such noble ‘rural’ traditions? This line of argument seems to be suggesting that ‘rural England’ must be insulated from racism – implicitly on the basis that there are ‘no black people in rural areas’. This is certainly a disturbingly common refrain, which seems to attract a surprising level of ‘taken-for granted’ acceptance. (See my recent paper in the International Journal of Heritage Studies: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13527258.2014.955812#.VEjbycmescs)

Such narratives seek to locate the practice of blacking up in a place that is insulated from criticism by virtue of being supported by ‘locals’ in a region that is predominantly white. By proclaiming this view, the narrative suggests that rural areas must remain ‘white’, and that non-white people are ‘out of place’ in such a region. In other words, there is a tacit acceptance that blacking up would not be appropriate in urban and metropolitan areas – where non-white people (are supposed to) live; but blacking up in (predominantly white) Rural Oxfordshire is just fine. Martin Kettle’s image of ‘diverse Britain’ ends up being a world of neatly segmented, stable and essentialised regions: the North is where ‘Rugby League’ takes place; ‘Cornish Identity’ is stable and singular, and rural Oxfordshire is where people can black up without further reflection – on the ‘bleak picture’ of day-to-day racism within rural England, as reported by Barnado’s for instance.

What about the third argument that is deployed – the one that is perhaps the most provocative for liberal and progressive people – that practices of blacking up actually celebrate authentic radicalism; one that challenges authority and seeks to undermine the Establishment. I have read the work of EP Thompson, and many others, and can see that this is certainly the strongest argument for blacking up: the only one that is a positive endorsement rather than an ‘excuse’. I feel, however, that the best answer to this line of argument comes from Martin Kettle himself: In defending the practice of blacking up, he makes a direct link to an authentic English radical tradition, suggesting that “if you make the assumption that those blacked-up 18th-century English peasants are first cousins to the 21st century Occupy movement’s masked protesters, you won’t be far wrong”. This is a great answer, the consequences of which seem to be entirely lost on Martin Kettle and the blacked-up ‘radicals’. What this implies is that if you want to find an authentic heritage performance practice that celebrates the tradition of a radical (rural or urban) tradition that has a genuine connection to at least the 18th century, then follow the example of the Occupy Movement (and don’t waste your time hanging around with blacked up Morris dancers).

If there is a symbolic link to radical and anti-establishment practice to be celebrated, then it is through the masks and (perhaps more importantly) actions of the Occupy (and other) protest movements. The key elements are all present: playful, loud, highly performative and ‘in your face’ carnivalesque practice, carried out by progressive and marginalised people who need to keep their faces hidden. The ‘Surveillance Society’ is not a 21st century invention – and neither is the playful mocking and evasion of such authoritarianism, nor the need to undermine the Establishment hegemony.


This would be a heritage-in-action; standing up for the oppressed and actively celebrating a radical past. The celebration of any radical tradition should be innovative, inclusive and sensitive to present-day cultural realities, not a vague, nostalgic and thoroughly problematic pastiche, in which the narrative is simply deployed as a means to justify an out-dated rural imaginary and obsolete view of the world. This is why David Cameron was quite happy to be photographed standing next to blacked-up Morris dancers (and probably would not be too keen to do a photo-call with Occupy protesters!). The Guy Fawkes mask of the Occupy Movement has been adapted and redeployed as a device that invokes a radical past, and celebrates an inclusivity amongst marginalised people. It is a device that works and is sensitive to contemporary culture; it is a device that has a direct and authentic historical connection to the radical past that many blacked up Morris dancers claim for their ambition. So, why not use it?


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