It’s 2019 and yet people in Britain can still quite easily get their hands on racist toys.
A few days ago I went on a trip to the quaint market town of Stratford Upon Avon. Famed for being the birth-place of Shakespeare, there’s a lot of picturesque places to see. One thing I came across was the cute looking traditional toy shop, pictured below. If you know me, you’d know I love toys and thus I was quite looking forward to seeing what was inside. So when I had some free time, I took to explore the shop and its neighbours.
I wasn’t particularly blown away by what I came across during my browsing but I was quite impressed by the craftsmanship of traditional English teddy bears (for the most part they’re more stiff than they are cuddly). This all changed when I took a look at the toys by the counter and came across a small Golliwog. I was completely taken aback and did not expect to see it. Heck, I never thought I’d ever see one in person, and was quite comforted by that. In my surprise, I told the shop worker and his potential colleague/friend that “I didn’t know people still sold these”. Their faces transformed into eerily friendly grins and a simple “Yes, they do” escaped from the worker’s lips.
I asked the man “Don’t these come from questionable origins?”. They smiled and the man responded; “Well it depends on whether you still regard them as a racial stereotype, or just an innocent toy”. I told him that I did regard them as the former and then succumbed into the awkwardness of their stifled smiles. I wanted to discuss it further and bounce around thoughts, or simply walk out like a boss; but alas I took my cue and walked to the other side of the suffocatingly small shop.
I took the photo above as I turned from the corner of the till to look around the remaining section of the small shop. Eventually, I saw even more Golliwog toys and photographed them too. These are what you see at the start of the post.
So now here’s some overdue historical context. A ‘Golliwog’ (aka: Golly, gollywogg) is the toy you see at the start. [Btw I took a few days off from writing this as I was commemorating Ashura but I was still as annoyed by reading into the topic as was when I first started thinking about writing this. For this reason, I shall give you a summary of key points and articles you can for further elucidation.]
An aspiring artist ‘Florence Kate Upton’ from New York drew illustrations for childrens books as a means of raising funds for her tuition fees. Her book ‘The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls’ (1895) was written by her mother Bertha and illustrated by herself. The main characters were two Dutch dolls, Peg and Sarah Jane, and the Golliwogg. The Golliwogg was a caricature, described in the story as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome.” It had red trousers, a red bowtie, a white shirt and blue jacket. In essence it was a caricature of an American caricature, the American black faced minstrels. Upton used to play with a minstrel doll when she was young. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Upton’s family did not favour the “negro minstrel doll”. For instance when they played with it in the garden they would use the rag-doll to knock over items as they all thought it was ugly. Fast forward a bit and the Golliwogg became a popular character across England and Europe. Upton did not copyright the character and so it featured widely in storybooks and other merchandises. In England it was commonly found on the side of jam jars and many parents made the doll for their children. For some time in the 1960s there was a ban on Golliwoggs due to an increase in racial tension in Britain. Now the character is seen by many as a symbol of nostalgia. I find this very strange.
I felt kinda sick inside after seeing those toys. I know, sounds dramatic but it’s not a feeling you can control. Even browsing past the photo in my phone gallery feels weird, and so I had to delay writing this for a day. If you want to read more about the history of the Golliwogg for yourself then you can click here. I’m not sure what it is specifially that makes me so uncomfortable. I’m not black (if you didn’t already know), but I don’t think that matters. Part of me sees this toy as a symbol of power, or the lack thereof. The ability that a mere ‘artist’ has to turn a beautiful and complex people into a tacky object of ridicule, an insignificant plaything; it does astound me. I think we forget the power that people and images, or so called ‘art’ can wield. Today this is translated into more modernised mediums…
I’m getting off topic now but I’m sure I’ve talked about something along these lines before.
What do you think about the Golliwog? Are they a symbol of racism or is it just an innocent toy? Have you heard of them before or ever seen them in person? I’d love to know. To my disappointment, the majority of the British public do not regard the character as a racist toy. You can read more about that here.
I thought I should add the toy shop and stall that I did actually enjoy perusing…
If you come across a toy that makes you feel uncomfortable, good luck 世界。
此致敬礼，欣妍 – From Nabeela.
P.s. I just iht my 5 year blogging anniversary!🎉Thanks for reading💜