GEE GOLLI: Why it’s Time to Say Haere Rā
Updated: May 2, 2021
Dear reader, specifically, dear reader who persists in believing that one’s childhood toys are free from any kind of racial prejudice, please, sit down, we need to talk.
My name is Daisy Remington, and I’m an African-American woman who has been living in Aotearoa for the past 13 years. Over the last three weeks I have watched the various responses to the ‘golliwog’ incidents that have taken place across this land, with a mixture of astonishment and frustration.
The first occasion was when my friend brought my attention to the fact that a garden centre in Auckland, yes, New Zealand’s most diverse city, was selling ornamental golliwogs. Soon after, a visual artist in Whakatane decided it was a good idea to make a blanket embroidered with these caricatures; and the final item that hit the headlines was a cafe in the Bay of Plenty, called ‘Golliwogs’ which have the dolls on display.
I found it fascinating, not just the recurrence of the same trope and deep-seated racist propaganda, but the fact that, for the most part as revealed by the comments, New Zealanders are quick to deny any racial attachment to the joy they experienced during their childhood; and subsequently, by failing to acknowledge this racism the rallying cry proclaims its ‘cancel culture gone mad’.
These examples have got me thinking.
Golliwogs are racist. Period. I'll never forget the first time I was confronted by New Zealand's affinity for emblems of white supremacist propaganda. It was one of my son's first invitations to a friend's birthday party! This homemade invitation to a two-year-old’s sbirthday party featured an abc train and a giant golliwog smack in the middle! It made me wonder, were we even welcome at this party? In that moment, I felt that racism is so ingrained in this country that even a friend would feel comfortable sending me such images - images riddled with racism. Right then, in that moment, I saw how white supremacy could, and would, affect my son even before he was able to form his thoughts into long strings of coherent sentences.
In case you’re wondering, I did not reply to the invitation, how could I?
My experiences, as a black woman, have shown me that my words and my perspective are not valued. A couple of days later I got a call apologizing for including the image, but quickly followed by the defensive ‘it's always been a favourite part of our childhood’ argument. I was like cool, you have been happy at the black community's expense. Sadly, that particular person is not alone and today’s raft of incidents showcases that there seems to be far too many Kiwi’s who appear to be willfully ignorant of the history of these dolls.
Barbara Key’s response disregards the very real pain and trauma experienced by generations of people; and from the article, their (black folks’) oppression pales in comparison to her personal feelings. What's more, it’s evident from her comments, if you happen to be offended, you must be part of the problem.
She says, "this is the first time I have ever had such a negative response to it… People are making mountains out of molehills and putting ideas in people's heads that were never there originally.”
Barbara’s response sounds very much like emotional reasoning, the cognitive process of seeing her feelings as the only truth while discrediting alternative information.
Furthermore, the reporting appears to play into an emotional response in its manifesto about how Barbara feels: how much time was spent, the fact someone could buy the piece, and the overall support for the quillt. The NZ Herald in its choice to focus exclusively on Barbara’s rationale (or lack thereof) has failed its readership by not providing diverse perspectives. This in turn, allows Barbara to become the victim when others have pointed out the trauma these dolls represent.
But let’s be clear - the ability to completely disregard history and the feelings of members of the African diaspora is a direct result of white supremist propaganda, that contains and sustains a collection of signs, symbols and ephemera to which the golliwog belongs.
Golliwogs were born out of minstrel shows, and one of the pioneers was Jim Crow. You know Jim - segregation, public lynchings, and the destruction of whole communities of Black Americans.
If you have not heard about 100 years of Jim Crow and the onslaught of violence against black bodies here are a few things you can google: Jim Crow laws, public lynching era, and Tulsa race massacre. Do your research.
Minstrel shows were intentionally designed to mock black people and the atrocious conditions of slavery often performed by a white man in black face. These shows portrayed the black community as unkempt, lazy, hypersexual, ignorant, and criminal. These shows rapidly grew in popularity amongst white audiences and they even had merchandise, for example the minstrel doll. To learn more about minstrel shows and the evolution of black face throughout all forms of media you can start by visiting the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
These minstrel dolls worked to further dehumanise the African diaspora. Often made to appear as part animal or having paws instead of hands. They were grotesque, something to be used as target practice, something to shoot at and till this day, mass shootings and killings occur everyday because black bodies continue to be considered disposable.
Enter the golliwog.
Having played with the minstrel doll as a child, American author Kate Upton decided to write stories about them and called him a ‘golliwog’.
In her books, he is described as a horrible sight’ and a ‘black gnome’. Upton attempted to rebrand the golliwog while maintaining its ‘hideous’ appearance; almost human but never beautiful. She would write about how he did gallant and adventurous things. Upton displays a classic colonial mindset, if the story is rewritten, any other interpretations, (including those by people who have been affected) are unequivocally wrong.
However, attempting to erase history does not make that history go away. That history continues to live on and always resurfaces. Over time the golliwog went right back to the original stereotypes: disposable evil criminals.
Similarly, Enid Blyton’s books are explicit in her golliwog stories, from the use of the N word as a name to having the golliwogs singing ‘Ten Little Nigger Boys’.
Ugh. A song that exalts in the killing of black children one by one. Even the beloved Agatha Christie got in on the golliwog train in her book, ‘Ten Little Niggers’.
It's the cover for me! (Have a look to see the image below)
But wait, there’s more.
A look at Ferris University’s in-depth explananation of the history of the Golliwog will highlight not only it’s deeply insensitive racial profiling but how that has continued across manufacturing, toydom and even in the military.
For example, as the site explains, During WWII the Sutherland Highlanders, a noted regiment in the British army, would wear a golliwog brooch for every brown or black person they killed. Wog became a popular slur used against north Africans particularly those of middle east heritage, which was expanded to include other black and brown communities after the war.
Of course, in true white supremist fashion, another attempt was made to remove the racist history behind golliwogs and maintain some sort of innocence by removing ‘wog’ from the name.
However, at this point it should come as no surprise that the term golli, golliwog, and wog are still used as a racial slurs in a number of countries including Australia. History cannot be erased. These dolls were used to teach children how to dehumanize black people while upholding the belief in white superiority.
So my dear reader, golliwogs are racist, they always have been and will continue to be!
As the saying goes, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We have seen that time and again too many people want to believe that their love for the golliwog can erase the negative history that they represent.
But that history does not go away.
The whole point behind the smear campaign that golliwogs embody is to ensure that black communities are seen as inferior, sinister, and lacking. If you hear a person of the African diaspora tell you of the pain and trauma these dolls reflect, and dismiss that, then the dolls are serving the intended purpose. They are continuing to blind people to the humanity of the black community.
To those bemoaning the loss of their beloved childhood character, I understand that it must be difficult but you cannot change history to accommodate your feelings. We are all directly affected by systemic racism - racism so ingrained in our everyday life that it has some people believing they can blame the woke left or cancel culture.
But in this instance these are just thinly veiled attempts to diminish the oppressed, silence black voices, and maintain a system built on racism.
It’s just not good enough and we need to see the change, from garden centres, to exhibitions to cafes - and yes, birthday invites too.
We deserve better.
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Raised in the well irrigated coastal desert of California, Daisy Remington spent a lot of time in her imagination. While the early part of her adult life left little room for sharing her ideas she always knew that she had more to say. In 2001 Daisy started finding ways to incorporate writing into her life, whether that was a newsletter or a pamphlet. In Aotearoa, Daisy began her writing career doing advertorials for a lifestyle magazine and you can now find Daisy’s work on The Black Pulse, interviewing amazing black creatives and sharing her black perspective on current events. Obtaining degrees in business management and psychology has allowed Daisy to relate to people with compassion and understanding. When not writing you can find Daisy working on her farm, homeschooling her children, absorbing knowledge, or daydreaming.
Written by Daisy Remington. All articles remain the copyright of Black Creatives Aotearoa and may not be republished without permission.