Blacking up

The issue of blacking up in morris has once again raised its ugly head this week, following abuse received by Alvechurch Morris at Jockey’s Plough Tour event in Birmingham. It again led to national headlines and even a discussion on the BBC’s Daily Politics (from 45:48)

I wrote most of this blog when blacking up became an issue at Shrewsbury last year. I never published it as loads was written at the time and I didn’t think I was really adding anything new.

However, with the renewed controversy I thought I’d put my thoughts out there. So here’s seven thoughts on blacking up, which will ultimately make my opinions on the subject clear:

  1. Traditional kit. I can just about accept that at some point in history, dancers would need to black their faces with burnt cork, coal or other dirt as a disguise to avoid being identified ‘begging’ (as dancing for money was classified) – although the evidence for this is by no means watertight. Faces were black, therefore, because it was what was available at the time. Today morris kit, whilst often mimicking what would have been worn hundreds of years ago, contains all sorts of elements that wouldn’t have been available then; from jeans to sunglasses to modern trainers. I don’t therefore think it’s unreasonable to question why black face paint defines the tradition. Surely the essence of the tradition is a disguise; any other colour face paint could therefore work equally well.
  2. Explaining the origins. Now, how about the argument that we just need to better explain to people what the origin of the tradition is, and they’ll then think it’s all fine and dandy? In an ideal world we’d speak to every single member of our audience and explain that there were no racial overtones intended. We’d ensure that every tourist or foreign student who took a photo and shared it with their friends and family included a disclaimer. But this is clearly impractical. People see a black face and think minstrels and, again, the evidence is by no means clear that they would be incorrect. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it was.
  3. Getting new members. I’ve written before about morris and cultural appropriation, and how a potential recruit to our team  was unsure because he was black and it seemed like ‘a white man’s past time’. If us, as a Cotswold team that doesn’t even black up, has this problem, how can any border team that does black up hope to recruit members from other backgrounds? The folk community I know is open and inclusive to everyone and would be horrified to think it was putting people off entering our world. But the abysmally-low number of none-white dancers in the morris world would seem to imply that something is stopping people from other ethnic groups from giving morris a go; and black face really can’t be helping.
  4. It distracts the audience. When people see a border team in black face paint it’s this that immediately catches the eye and raises questions. Even as a Cotswold and sword dancer, I have been questioned about this custom and asked why the teams I dance in are not blacked up. I have always talked about the need for a disguise in the past; but I’d much rather not have to talk about it at all. Wouldn’t it be better if people asked about the stepping or the tunes or the rag coats (or even better about how to join), instead of immediately being drawn to the black faces?
  5. Unsavoury allies. I suspect that this latest controversy has gained more attention mainly because of the ethnicity of those being abusive. Twitter and newspaper comments sections are now full of people to whom morris is suddenly a treasured cultural icon, rather than something that the rest of the time they are more likely to take the piss out of. It might be that many of those dancing in black face agree with these opinions and the philosophy that drives them (and let’s be honest, it’s not from a deep love of the morris tradition), but I suspect not. I suspect most would be horrified to be co-opted into an argument about race and immigration by those with, shall we say, less savoury political views, who are more than happy to make trouble on Twitter but would never lift a finger to join or support a morris team.
  6. Let’s get some good press. Or at least let’s stop the bad press morris gets. It seems that whenever morris is in the news there’s always that slight smirk, that knowing smile. I hate it. I hate that we only seem to be featured in the media is when we’re begging for members or defending a practice many see as unacceptable in modern society. Let’s move past this issue, put a progressive foot forward and show that morris is a tradition that should be valued not because it is preserved exactly as it has always been done, but because it lives and adapts and, most importantly, is bloody good fun.
  7. Literally any other colour would work. What frustrates me most is that this could become a complete non-issue with just a small change. Dark green or gray instead of black. Black stripes or a strip across the eyes instead of the full face. Masks. Any of these would remove any lingering racial connotations. The border tradition has in many ways been the strand of morris most open to evolving and change. It should be about so much more than what colour face paint it worn.

Having said all this, I don’t think anyone should be subject to threats, intimidation or a ban of the practice. The incident involving Alvechurch was completely unacceptable and unnecessary, but speaking as someone who was at the event with a Cotswold side, we faced far more hectoring and intimidating behaviour from the majority white football fans than we did from anyone else – again, very relevant in relation to point five above.

I know how protective we feel about our sides’ kits. When we get comments about ours my automatic reaction is to go on the defensive and discount what I’m being told. But the lack of colour in our kit doesn’t result in headline news.

Finally, I also know that those that do black up really do have no intention of causing offence. I do not think they are bad people. But I do think that we should reconsider how necessary blacking up is to our tradition in the 21st Century.

So there’s my two-penneth. I know not everyone will like it. Please feel free to comment and share.

4 thoughts on “Blacking up

  1. As a former Cotswold, Molly and Border dancer, I agree. Whatever the actual origins of the tradition, this practice has little to do with the world we live in now and if only to avoid confusion, it would be better to discontinue it. As you have said, there are plenty of alternatives and these are clearly displayed by many sides already. I have never met a Morris person that intended blacking up to be seen as a racist statement, but it’s obvious that many ‘civilians’ do, so let’s move on.


  2. This is a disingenuous piece. As one who was involved in said Plough Tour, can I tell you that the first person abused was a Cotswold dancer who had a puppet?! Perhaps on the basis of your arguments above you would like to dissuade morris sides from having puppets, lest they commit Shi’rk (qv). Your argument seems based on, “if it might offend someone, let’s not do it”. We are a blackface side in Birmingham who have a multi-cultural membership, we have danced “blackface” in the city centre many times and never had any negative reactions. The tone of this “article” is sanctimonious and paints those who chose to dance blackface as a bunch of under educated, unthinking individuals who, if only they would take the wiser counsel of those who know better could sleep easier in their beds. This is a nuanced debate, folk traditions are, of their nature, rough and often unsophisticated; the clue is in the name really. Perhaps you need to listen again to “Prince Heathen” or ponder on the incipient domestic violence in Punch and Judy. The general tendency, post Brexit and post the Trump election is for pat phrases and simplistic answers as in the above article. If you cannot recruit, you perhaps need to look at yourselves first, we have a young, vibrant multi-cultural membership with more joining regularly.
    Before you characterise me as some Ukipper, I have spent a lifetime fighting racism and inequality, and will continue to do so, as will the rest of our side. The plough tour was one isolated incident which is not representative, I had a number of messages from Asian friends after it, apologising. It was no more their fault than the British empire was mine. The whole thing is used by the right to demonise either “Youth” in general and asian youth in particular or by articles such as this to demonise black face.
    Let me know next time you are in Birmingham, we can meet and I will buy you a pint. You can see how wild morris can be ,and what a blast. Just keep dancing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tony,

      Thanks for your comments. Firstly I want to say that I wouldn’t characterise you, or anyone else who dances blacked up a Ukipper or similar.

      I realise that it is a nuanced debate, and I don’t mean to strip out the complexity of it. As I say above, I too was at the tour and we also received some aggro from white football fans. But neither this, nor the incident with the puppet, is what makes headline news. What does, unfortunately, is an argument about whether blacking up is racist in a morris context (which I of course know it’s not intended to be). What I suppose I am basically saying is, is the colour black so vital to border morris that it is worth this amount of negative press and attention? It’s not just the risk of offending someone, (although given the connotations blackface has I don’t think this should be wholly dismissed) it’s that morris becomes used as a political football by people who really couldn’t care less about the tradition, except when there’s a political point to be made.

      I will never turn down being bought a pint!



  3. The current debate gives us just the opportunity to “explain ourselves”. Black is really the best for performance, blue = smurfs, red = heart attack, yellow = a no no, flowers or “rainbow” really do not go with our vibe. The paint heightens the performance vibe.Could you honestly say that Silurian or Wychwood, to name but two would have the same impact without the black faces? As for offence, we have more criticism from those who are offended by men and women dancing together in public to be honest, for some muslims this is an issue. I worry that we are aiming to sanitise everything and lose the roughness and authenticity of folk traditions.
    The shame is that these traditions belong as much to the guy who protested as they do to us. I play melodeon and whiffle for Beorma morris, Birmingham’s top light entertainment morris side and we have been dumping tradition on the unwary since 2012. What morris needs is a greater exchange of ideas, more cross pollination. The lunacy and edge of much border is a great counterpoint to Cotswold which is why we like to dance with Cotswold and clog sides. Morris is such a diverse and brilliant series of traditions that we all need to sell it in all its multifarious forms.
    The beers are on me


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