The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #161296   Message #3831839
Posted By: Howard Jones
11-Jan-17 - 04:36 AM
Thread Name: blacked up morris dancers abused in uk
Subject: RE: blacked up morris dancers abused in uk
The ifs, buts and maybes of blacking up we discussed on here at considerable length only recently. The problem is that the "experts" do not agree, and there is very little hard evidence on either side of the argument. The waters are undoubtedly muddied by the minstrelsy craze. My own opinion favours the disguise argument, since blacking up is most associated with the begging customs such as Border and Molly (the Plough Monday customs are little more than demanding money with menaces). If minstrelsy were the origin, why did Cotswold morris not adopt blacking up? Surely the south Midlands were just as exposed to the minstrelsy craze as the Borders and East Anglia, and it certainly adopted some minstrel tunes, so why did they not black up?

However the origins are probably irrelevant in a modern multicultural society. We can't expect a casual audience to know, or care, about the origins of a tradition, they will form their own conclusions based on what they see. Whilst I think it takes a lot of imagination (or perhaps too little) to look at a morris dancer and think they are impersonating a black person, this is the perspective of a white person with some knowledge of folk customs. It is understandable that the uninformed, especially if they are black, see only the blacked up faces and jump to conclusions.

So what to do about it? Had this happened to any other culture celebrating their traditional customs it would probably be regarded as a hate crime. Dancing blacked up in such a multicultural city as Birmingham might be seen by some as provocative, but a poll by the Birmingham Mail following the incident showed that the majority of respondents supported the dancers, and at least one of the supportive quotes was from someone with an Asian name.

Using a different colour is the obvious solution which many sides have adopted, but while this can be striking I don't think they have the same visual impact as black, neither are they as successful as a disguise. Shropshire Bedlams have changed to wearing masks, but I haven't yet seen these live.

I think some sides which continue to black up could do more to explain the custom, both on their websites and at events (maybe hand out leaflets?). I regret the move away from blacking up, as I don't think the alternatives are as effective, but I think it is probably inevitable. I think we will lose something, but if it means the morris can continue to thrive perhaps this has to be accepted.

I am also disappointed that the EFDSS couldn't have taken a more nuanced approach and been more supportive. However it is now a branch of the Arts Industry rather than an organisation which supports folk traditions so its position on this is unsurprising.