Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A Black Day

Trying to work out how old I must have been at the time.

Primary school age. Before Star Wars but after Spider-Man.

Let us say that it was All Saints Day and that the Sunday School put on a pageant in which each child represented a real-life Saint.

Actually it was more elaborate than that. A full-length play in which both adults and children took part. Possibly it involved a man, possibly played by my Boys' Brigade captain, being questioned by Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter had a big red book like Eamonn Andrews. I suppose he was played by the Minister. But it certainly involved children from the Sunday School proceeding around the church in the personas of various saints.

Someone recited The Son of God Goes Forth To War as we walked in. (*) I didn't know that "matron" just meant "an older woman" and "maid" simply "a younger woman". I took it that "the matron and the maid" meant "the woman in overall charge of a hospital, and also the woman who does the menial cleaning tasks." Childhood is full of those kinds of confusions.

"Which saint was Andrew selected to play?", you are all asking

I dressed up in a white shirt and a grown-up tie; and presumably some kind of jacket; and for reasons I do not quite understand, a false pair of glasses. This was before I had been prescribed glasses of my own. My "saint" was Martin Luther King, who I had never heard of. So naturally, I wore make-up on my face and my hands. Another girl in my class also wore make up. Of the same colour. I have literally no idea who she was pretending to be. Surely not Rosa Parkes? Mary Seacole was not much known-about in those days.

That narrows it down. I know that I did not wear glasses in Miss Beale's class and did wear them in Miss Griffiths's class. So I must have been eight years old, which takes us 1971 or 1972. Had it really only taken three years for M.L.K to become such a safe, uncontroversial figure that he could be represented in a children's Sunday School pageant? In England? A few years later the Minister mentioned in the course of a sermon that men like Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, however flawed as human beings, could, in a very real sense, be seen as pictures of Jesus in our own age. I remember my father blustering that if they hadn't had "the extreme good fortune to be assassinated" he would still regard them both as far too "political" to mention from the pulpit.

Fast forward a couple of decades.

It is the middle 1980s. I am at college doing my second degree and playing more Dungeons & Dragons than is good for me. This was the period when I single-handedly and without precedent created the genre of "theater style" live action role-playing games out of my head.

I read it on the internet so it must be true.

A LARP is a game where you dress up in costume and fight monsters with rubber swords. A free-form game is a LARP where you dress up in costume and mostly talk to other people dressed up in costumes. Game guru Paul Mason once said that he couldn't take free form games seriously because they called to mind an image of Andrew Rilstone dressed in a blanket.

One of the freeform LARPs we ran was pirate themed. I think it was set in a dockside tavern. There were people with hooks who said "arr" and other people with hooks who also said "arr" and ladies disguised as cabin boys and kings' custom men disguised as beggars and a treasure map and a black spot and a cannibal witch doctor.

Dressed in leopard skin.

With a plastic bone though his nose.

And black make up.

I believe photographs exist. I would be mortified if anyone saw them.

It is a mistake to say that a racist thing is a thing done by a racist person and that it is therefore impossible for a non-racist person to do a racist thing. This was the circle which the editor of Doctor Who Monthly got into last year when the conversation turned back to Talons of Weng Chiang. Some people thought that the story, which involved a white actor in yellow make up playing a villain who was to all intents and purposes Fu Manchu, was racist. If the story was racist, then Robert Holmes and Phillip Hinchcliff were racists. But the editor had met Bob and Phil and there was no one in the world less racist than they were. Therefore Talons of Weng Chiang cannot possibly have been racist. So it follows that anyone perceiving racism in a story about a Chinese villain who says things like "I understand we all rook arrike?" had been infected with porritical collectness.

I imagine that there were people in my church in 1972 who I would now consider to be racists. There were certainly no black people in the congregation, or indeed the town. We were four years out from "rivers of blood", in a parliamentary constituency which had not returned a Labour MP since 1945. From time to time we had a lady come to talk to us about Home Missions, which meant "children less well off than ourselves" and another to talk to us about Overseas Missions which meant "children in far away lands". There is nothing wrong with sending charity to foreign countries and I doubt if Methodist missionaries at that time were much given to marching into native villages and burning their religious shrines. But there was an undercurrent of grass huts and primitivism about the whole thing. Poor benighted heathens who needed our pennies if they were ever going to learn to read or write.

You can see it in Blue Peter as well: poor strange dark skinned children who won't have anything to eat unless we send them our old teddy bears. Do they know its Christmastime at all? People still told us without irony that we had to eat the burned scrambled egg because they were starving in Africa.

I do not think that there was the slightest racist intention in the first of my two forays into blackface, which is not the same as saying that it wasn't racist. No-one was consciously making fun of black people. Certainly no-one was consciously making fun of Martin Luther King. One little white boy in a collection of twenty little white boys had put black boot polish on his face. Others presumably had swords and dragon-heads and collections of injured animals. Someone's mum had to produce a John Wesley costume.

I would have to place it in exactly the same category as my much-loved and now disintegrating gollywog. The lady who made the toy and put into the sale-of-work was not a racist. My granny, who bought the thing and put it in my Christmas stocking was not a racist. My parents, who let me play with it, were not racists. I was certainly not a racist toddler. And yet there it was: my favourite toy, a Jim Crow caricature of a black man.

We couldn't see the wood for the trees. Which is to say we couldn't see the racism because of all the racism. Lenny Henry was a regular guest star on the Black and White Minstrels. Jim Davidson told Chalkie White jokes in front of the Queen. Robertson's Jam had a gollywog on the label. (He finally retired as recently as 2002.) "Maybe you could think of a contemporary Christian hero which didn't involve blacking up a nine-year-old?" was not a question which had occurred to anyone.

Once someone asked the question, everyone knew the right answer. Nearly everyone. The world split neatly into the majority who said "Dear God in heaven what were we thinking of?" and those who said "We didn't mean anything by it then we don't mean anything by it now so we are going to damn well buy MORE gollywogs to stick it to the liberals."

The live action role playing incident is completely inexcusable, although I hope everyone see the difference between "inexcusable" and "unforgivable". I can hardly believe it happened. The most I can say in my defense is that everyone did stupid things while they were students. A friend of mine immersed himself in a bath of green poster paint in order to play the role of a goblin, and found the next morning that the stuff was almost impossible to remove. Another friend found that he was the only boy who had signed on to a course about feminist literature. He attended the final seminar of term in full drag. And I am told that some of the more sporty students, who were not on speaking terms with us D&D nerds, would occasionally take the bet to run out of the changing room showers and do a lap of the sports center with nothing on.

We didn't think we were doing something awful. I don't think we even thought that we were doing something a little bit naughty, like the streakers and the drag. It was just the kind of thing that people did. RPGs deal in broad, over the top caricatures. There had to be pirates who said "Ahh, bejabbers, me hearties, belay and belike" and admirals who said "I say, blast the bally blighters, what?" and Frenchmen who said "Sacre bleu, oh la-la." So naturally there had to be witch doctor who said "Dis um some powerful magic man."

There are lots of things in my life which I am acutely embarrassed about. Embarrassing memories creep up on me in the street for no reason and make me literally cry out, or bite my own fingers to distract myself. They are nearly all examples of social gaffs and being a show-off. There was one Boys Brigade camp when a different boy was invited to lead prayers each night. This generally ran to "Thank you God for a lovely day, and thank you for the ladies who cooked the sausage stew." When it was my turn I took it upon myself to explain to the assembled multitudes, including the vicar, what I understood by the doctrine of the Trinity. I would like to say that I am acutely embarrassed about having blacked-up for a role-playing game; that I come out in a cold-sweat whenever I think about it. But I don't. I ought to, but I don't. In fact, the only feeling I have about that long-ago evening is a vague sense of pride because I improvised a passably decent one-liner on the spur of the moment.

Cannibal Witch Doctor: To work magic, put powder in mouth, go to bad man, and spit in face.
Governor's Beautiful Daughter: In his face, or in my own face?
Cannibal Witch Doctor: You know how spit in own face, you got more powerful magic than me!

I am offering this up as a piece of data. I ought to be embarrassed, but as a matter of fact, I am not.

In 1972, I didn't know any better. In 1985, I damn well should have done. But apparently I didn't. Neither did anyone else. Not the person who scripted the game (one of the most right-on guys I've ever met). Not the other players, at least one of whom I believe to have been a left-wing student union rep. Not the astonishingly humourless joke-shop man who sold me the plastic bone. ("I can also do you a bone through the neck, if you'd like one.")

"Would you have done it if there had been any black people in your RPG group?"

Of course not. But there weren't. Which is probably the point.

"What would you say if someone asked you do it now?"

I would say dear god have you entirely taken leave of your senses fucking hell of course not. And if Present Day me could walk in on Past Me, preferably before he put the damn make up on, I would say for goodness sake Rilstone what the hell are you thinking of?

I don't know if bad words or bad costumes or bad make up or bad jokes are less bad in some context than others. I don't know if "Yes, I did say the n-word, but I was rehearsing a play" is ever an excuse, or a partial excuse, or a mitigating factor. I am disinclined to believe that some words and concepts exist as free-floating signifiers, obscene or racist regardless of where you say them and who you say them to. Mrs Mary Whitehouse believed that merely pronouncing the f-word caused concrete social harm. Anne Widdicombe MEP claimed to be physically unable to watch even one minute of In The Thick of It, even after she had agreed to appear on a talk show in which people try out things they don't think they will like. I think they would both have struggled to see any difference between the rugby club prank and a pervert displaying himself to young children in the park.

Jonathan Miller thinks that theater is a special space where anything goes. Could I argue that a live-action role-playing game is a highly stylized piece of improvised theater, so what is permissable for the RSC to do at Stratford is acceptable for the SF&F Soc to do in meeting room L049? Is the stage so sacred so that words and actions which would be unacceptable anywhere else become magically sanctified? I suppose the arch represents an invisible barrier: you aren't in the same room as a naked dude or being sworn at by someone, you are looking at them or listening to them through a mirror or across a wall. I wouldn't take my clothes off on stage for any money. And some sort of subversive racism for a high artistic purpose is a lot different from me playing a stereotype in what was basically a pantomime.

I suppose that they still do Aladdin as panto, and I suppose that it is still set in China and I can't believe they cast exclusively Asian actors. Dear dear Sir Ian once played Widow Twanky, but he conceptualized her as an English lady who had once married a Chinese sailor. Has the D'Oyley Cart quietly dropped the Mikado from its repertoire?

The past is a foreign country. I was an asshole when I was in my twenties and when I am in my eighties I will think that I was an asshole when I was in my fifties. You shouldn't judge someone on the basis of one stupid thing they did a long time ago. I am not a racist: I once did a racist thing. I once did a racist thing: therefore I am a racist. If your society permits gollywogs and minstrel shows and Jim Davidson and what-not then even people who are not racists feel some how permitted to put bones through their noses. People who are racists feel permitted to do very much worse. White people can't see racism when it is literally painted on their faces. "Check your privilege" is not just a cliche. There is stuff which you and me and everyone else are doing now which twenty years down the time line is going to make everyone say "What the hell were we thinking?" So think about what you are doing before you do it. I never wanted to be president of Canada in the first place.

(*)A noble army, men and boys
The matron and the maid
Around the Saviour's throne rejoice
In robes of light arrayed
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil and pain
O God to use may grace be given
To follow in their train.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Mike Taylor said...

I don't know if bad words or bad costumes or bad make up or bad jokes are less bad in some context than others.

Really? Really? I find that genuinely hard to believe.

You don't know if an English teaching analysing out the text of Huckleberry Finn is different from a while footballer abusing a black opponent?

Everything is context. Context is everything. It's all in Stewart Lee. Dear me, what do they teach them in these schools these days?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes, there is such a thing as context. The question is "are there some things which are always equally bad regardless of context".

I do not think that the entire text of Huckleberry Finn, taken as a whole, can be said to be racist. I think that a white teacher who read on of the offending passages out loud without eliding the bad words could be said to be doing racist thing.

Quite possibly, creating a classroom atmosphere in which the bad word can be said with impunity is much more racist than using it as a cuss-word on a football field.

Mike Taylor said...


I think we are ranging uncomfortably close here to political-correctness-gone-mad.

Consider your church pageant, performed by a set of kids who, though no fault of their won, were all white. The choices were:
1. Omit all black saints
2. Have a white kid portray a black saint dressed up as him
3. Have a white kid portray a black saint without dressing up

I hope we can all agree that simply writing black people out of this history of the church is a bad approach to take. So we are left with #2 and #3.

If you were portraying a saint who had a beard, you would wear a false beard.

I think we are in a sad place when the same can't be said for portraying a saint who had black skin. But the upshot seems to be that the Least Worst thing to do is have a white kid, looking white, nevertheless claiming to be Martin Luther Kind. Doesn't that strike you as a bit ... silly?

I get that for some people the symbol — the very thought of a white person with black make-up — is ritually unclean, an abomination of desolation. Perhaps in deference to them, the kind thing to do is respect their taboo. But let's not go pretending it's rational.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I expected this article to cause a bit of fuss, but I wasn't really expecting to be accused of excessive political correctness....

Mike Taylor said...

Well, never mind what you expected. What about the actual issue?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that all taboos are "irrational". Naturists sometimes say "there is nothing wrong with public nudity, everyone has got one." This is rational but unhelpful.

My understanding of this issue has developed over the years. I used to think that the n-word was in roughly the same category as "fuck", "cunt" and "prospective conservative party candidate". It was not a nice word; it could be used to wound and harm; it was better avoided; but it's degree of badness depended on context and humour excused practically everything. I now thing that the word has a particular, unique status: you can't use it accidentally or unconsciously, and if you make a conscious decision to use it you are indicating that you hold to a set of values which I reject. If for some reason I was asked to read out loud from Huckleberry Finn I would say "n-word" rather than say the bad word out-loud. Some time ago I quoted Woody Guthrie quoting a black lady using the n-word, and reproduced the passage directly. If I were doing that today I would use asterisks, or a circumlocution. I suppose if I was in court or making a police statement and was told to use "the exact words" I would do so. This is what I understand black people would prefer white people to do. Please tell me if I am over compensating or hyper correcting.

No-one at the Sunday School pageant would have said "My God -- where is Martin Luther King" if I had dressed up as St Alban. (That would have been a challenge for my mother. Would I have to somehow have had my head tucked undernearth my arm, or would a Roman toga and a pitcher of water have done the trick?) If we had decided to put on some play in which a black character were absolutely essential, then we should have thought of a different play.

Again, I used to think that racial caricatures in general were not very nice; but that they could me more or less unpleasant depending on circumstance; and since such things as "teasing" and "making fun" exist, it is possible to "send up" a foreigner in a spirit of friendly joshing. So dressing up as a black man with a leopard skin and a bone through his nose was not necessarily any worse than dressing up as a frenchman with a beret and a string of onions. I now thing that because of the history of "minstrels", "blacking up" has a specific and offensive meaning. And again, once you are aware of that meaning, you can't black up "accidentally": you either say "I know what this symbolizes, and I am going to do it anyway" or "I know what this symbolizes, and therefore I am not going to do it."

I recently saw a very good stage production of Moby Dick, performed in promenade around the S.S Great Britain. Queequeg was described by the other characters as coming from a named island and possibly collecting shrunken heads; spoke in a slightly foreign accent; and didn't know who Jesus was; but he wore similar clothes to everyone else and there was no suggestion of make up. It worked very well -- much better than if he had been a caricature south-sea-islander, in fact. (Ahab was played by a lady. That worked fine as well.)

Richard Worth said...

On the one hand, I knew what this article was going to be about without actually reading beyond the title. On the other hand, in the SF version of those games I came within an ace of playing a space Nazi (there was a nice German airforce uniform at the fancy-dress shop..) before settling for something more SF-Ruritanian with weird eye -shadow (photos of me and my second-in command, Margaret may still exist...). As the old Nite Owl put it in 'Watchman', 'Hey, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis....'

Richard Worth said...

As an aside, from what I have seen of historical re-enactment, Saracen warriors and Japanese samurai are not blacked-up. Rather like a mixed group of actors in a Shakespeare play, it is assumed less that there were black soldiers at Agincourt or Bosworth Field, but that there were soldiers, some of whom are being played by black people.

Louise H said...

I think, and this is very much a comment not a justification, that many of us who grew up in virtually all-white environments had a view of racism back then as primarily a matter of personal unkindnesses of the sort that teachers disapproved of. You oughtn't to do anything that would hurt other people's feelings, but obviously if they weren't going to be there for their feelings to be hurt that wasn't a factor you needed to consider. The idea that your costume can be racist even if you know that your audience are going to be all well-meaning white liberals who don't believe for a moment that Africans are like that and they'll all be fine about it didn't really sink in until much later.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Surely the key feature of racism is that it is reductive? In which case, your MLK costume wouldn't qualify, as it was a celebration of the individual in question, rather than a derogatory depiction of blacks in general. Not in the best possible taste, but well-intentioned (ie don't beat yourself up about it).

On the issue if culpability: supposing you were to visit a country where it was illegal to feed the birds in the park (let's say for health and safety reasons) and you did so and were arrested and convicted. Would it be fair to call you a criminal? Most people will make a distinction between a bank robber and somebody who breaks the law inadvertantly. Or indeed, between a murderer and somebody who doesn't pay a library fine.

Mike Taylor said...


I am still not clear on which of these three options you think would have been the best:
1. Omit all black saints
2. Have a white kid portray a black saint dressed up as him
3. Have a white kid portray a black saint without dressing up

Or whether you have found a fourth option that I overlooked.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I wouldn't have featured any black saints.

Mike Taylor said...

So that the entire history of Christianity would have been presented as the work of white people alone? You don't find that problematic? To me, that seems far more offensive than the alternatives, what with being an actual rewriting of history.

Andrew Rilstone said...

We were not presenting the entire history of Christianity. We were presenting a little scene featuring ten or twenty kids representing "famous Christians from history."

If some African Christians were essential for artistic and theoretical purposes then I would have constructed the thing in a completely different way -- say, by giving each child a banner with the face of a famous historical Christian on it.

Mike Taylor said...

Well, *shrug*, I guess we have reached an impasse.

I feel it is more troublesome to to present "famous Christians from history" in a form where every famous Christian was white.

You feel it is more troublesome to have a kid dress up as someone who looks different from them.

Andrew Rilstone said...

But didn't I say that "blacking up" has a very specific cultural meaning, which "bearding up" does not?

Mike Taylor said...

That is true.

I suppose the broader question is to what extent we want to acknowledge — and in doing so perpetuate — such specific cultural meanings. I assume we can agree it would be sad indeed if, a thousand years from now, we still have cultural prohibitions on children of one race pretending to be children of another race. We want to get to the point (don't we?) where a child with light skin pretending to be a child with dark skin is exactly on a par with a child with light hair pretending to be a child with dark hair. If we agree on that, then the question becomes how soon we can realistically hope to reach that point, and what behaviour will best serve to accelerate the process. I don't want kids to be any more self-conscious about the colour of their skin than about the colour of their hair, and I'm assuming the same is true of you. But will we ever reach that point if we keep honouring old prohibitions? I understand where they came from, and why they have arisen. I just don't necessarily feel they are still serving a useful purpose.

* Disclaimer: this no doubt varies between one place and another. I would be more worried about someone blacking up in Alabama than in Bristol.

Richard Worth said... Not quite a blacking-up story, but rather that the black actor can play the Samurai warrior and still be authentic.