Racism does not always appear as blatant as a skinhead or as archaic as Jacob Rees-Mogg. On occasion, it manifests itself in a quaint souvenir shop in the middle of Bath. It’s hard to see Bath as a modern city when it appears as a town that has never aged. Perhaps that is the explanation for the Golliwog on blatant display.
Diversity, and particularly Black people, can seem rare if not alien here with 94.6% of the population of the city identifying as White British. The presence of people of colour enrolled at University of Bath is better, with around a quarter of the 17,000 students from a BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) background. Although, whatever percentage of colour is present around these parts, it seems I was perhaps the first black person to enter this store. Or at least the first to care.
The history of Golliwog seems innocuous without the consideration of the connotations or context. Instead of even attempting to portray the figure of a black person, in the way that the average doll would, we are met with a fantastical, exaggerated version of the black individual, created for nothing more than the entertainment of white Europeans. The golliwog has skin blacker than I, or that of my mother, or indeed any black person. A wide gaping smile, bright red rouged lips, a fanciful little jester suit and wild woolly hair. Even in the autumn years of the British Empire in the 1950s and 1960s this caricature was considered questionable, but it has been racist since its origin.
The golliwog, also called a golly, is a fictional character envisioned by the American children’s book author Florence Kate Upton as a form of doll or in her own words, “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”. Her illustrations in the 1895 work entitled The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg created the Golliwog as a frightening creature, but later attained a “kind face” during the book. This more palatable and child-friendly “toy” became fervently popular in the U.K as a mascot gracing everything from Robertsons’ Jam Jars, Blackjack Chews to literature by Enid Blyton. It rose in prominence as a toy becoming as coveted by children almost as much as the teddy bear. Their popularity in the early 20th century and relative rarity now, makes them a still highly sought-after collectible, with sales of Steiff golliwog dolls produced in 1908 reaching £10,000 in recent sales.
It is easy to imagine the happiness and love that these toys aroused from a generation of young impressionable white children throughout the 1900s. It is also easy to imagine the pleasure and laughter at blackface and minstrels which were commonplace in the 1800s. Or the human zoos that exhibited exotic “peoples” as an attraction. In Paris, for the 1931 world fair, up to 34 million people passed through a colonial exhibition of which a ‘negro’ village was a core attraction.
There is a tendency for criticisms of history and traditions of the UK to be seen as political correctness gone too far as many in the press, some politicians and some tourist stores in Bath would have you believe. Today, Britain is a modern, cosmopolitan, and diverse nation of people from every background, and such history must be addressed before the dehumanisation and racial oppression of the past can be allowed to hold back our future.
It is not so much the golliwog itself that attracts the ire of people of colour and the non-far right political spectrum, it is what they stand for. These relics of an older Britain are not criminal, it was not illegal for me to buy the golliwog I saw on display nor for this particular store owner, or the many across Britain, to sell this item. However, whether something is permitted by law or not should not be the deciding factor in action, there are hurtful actions that take place in society that cannot be prosecuted in a court of law.
Moving beyond the injustices of the past is complex and nuanced process. What is seen for some, as symbolic of a childhood fraught with laughter and humour, also serves as warning sign to others that this home is not theirs and their welcome is overstayed. In becoming the tolerant country that we all seek, we must confront bitter racial divisions and legacies that make us a not-so-United Kingdom. Bath remains a beautiful town, overflowing with history, heritage, and a small, black, unfortunate reminder of hate.