Gollies are a product of our racist past

I read Annemarie Field’s column on the sale of golliwog dolls in Eastbourne with great interest. From it I gather you are unaware that these dolls are a product of our racist past. A past that is now, happily, becoming a thing of the past. Except perhaps in the narrow minds of a few.

Allow me to help engender your entry into our brave new world with a brief history of the doll, courtesy of journalist Richard Seymour:

“Perhaps it would be useful to discuss the tradition of dehumanising racist caricature to which these dolls belong. The English-American author Florence Upton invented the golliwog in a series of picture books produced at the onset of the Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation in the American South. She described the character as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”. He was clothed in the same apparel as the black-faced minstrels then prevalent in Europe and North America. He had thick lips, unruly black hair, and his hands and feet were paws.

The golliwog, like many related stereotypes of “primitive” black people (“picaninnies”, minstrels, “mammies” and so on), quickly found a commercial market, producing a flood of cartoons and advertising imagery. It was taken up as a symbol by Hamleys, Harrods, Trebor and Robertson’s jam. This imagery was consistent with a tendency to represent black people through the prism of biological racism. For example, the colonial exhibitions through which European states celebrated their global power featured “human zoos” and “negro villages”.”

Mr Seymour goes on to point out that “The most insidious feature of these images is that they were intended for consumption by children, part of their socialisation into the adult world”. The adults that those children grow into, to a degree understandably, then sentimentalize these racist images.

It is this insidiousness, Annemarie, that I fear you may have fallen victim to. However, as Mr Seymour says, there is always time to grow up.

Then there is the issue of language. The words associated with the doll – wog, and golliwog itself– are used as racial slurs. To use either term of a black person is an unequivocal insult. There’s no other way of interpreting it. When thinking of these words, I would recommend employing that most useful of writer’s tools: empathy. That would be imaging how another person might feel about those words. In this case, a person with a skin colour other than your own.

One last thing – perhaps you recall Carol Thatcher getting sacked from the BBC’s The One Show when she referred to a black tennis player as resembling a golliwog. Deary me Annemarie, did a lightbulb not go on then?


Cavalry Crescent.