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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.