Golly! Some things just won’t go away

 Today, someone on Twitter* drew attention to a photograph in a Norfolk newspaper. It was one of those nostalgia items featuring a carnival parade and, without remark, included a photograph of someone on a bike dressed as a golliwog. The date of the photo was 1977 and so perhaps it is to be hoped that things have improved since then, but I wonder.

Years after that carnival parade, when I first came to Norfolk, I worked for a charity in Norwich as an advice worker. Our offices were above a charity shop. One morning, first to arrive as usual, I saw a “golly” soft toy proudly displayed in the window. I mentioned it to my boss, a former social worker, and then explained to him why I thought it was objectionable. Soon afterwards the toy disappeared from the window. I later discovered that my boss had bought the toy himself, so as not to “upset the staff.” My colleagues upstairs made it clear that they disagreed with me and thought I was being stupid. Mind you, this was the same organisation that responded to my suggestion that we looked at how we served ethnic minorities with “but there aren’t any black people in Norfolk.”

This is not an attack on the people of Norfolk though. I have come across similar attitudes all over Britain and Ireland. I decided to take a quick look at some obvious places where such images might be found. The first that came to mind was Ebay and – bingo! – I found plenty of “collectables.” Here’s a link to one: http://bit.ly/igv6G9 (when that is eventually deleted, a simple search on Ebay should find plenty of other examples.)

But it’s not just Ebay, of course. I googled “Robertson’s jam” which was famous (notorious?) for hanging on to the golly image long after it was acceptable and found some interesting sites:

And a Facebook site dedicated to the revival of the Golliwog: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=43608157587

A little research told me that Robertson’s only abandoned the Golly badge in 2006 (!) when it was replaced with Roald Dahl characters. The company insisted that they were emphatically not discontinuing the badges because of “political correctness.”

So, what is the history of the “Golly” and why is it racist? I would have thought it was obvious but I have had arguments with many decent people who have failed to understand its offensive nature. Some people try to argue that Golly is a version of Dolly, but it isn’t. It’s short for Golliwog and the wog bit is definitely racist. According to a Guardian article of 2001, the image was created by Florence Upton in her 1895 children’s book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. Robertson’s started using the image in 1910 and later Enid Blyton caused controversy with her version in her Noddy books.

This article, from Ferris State University in the United States, discusses the arguments very reasonably.

In a previous blog, I looked briefly at the way that Irish people were stereotypically depicted in literature and cartoons. This doesn’t occur very often now, apart from perhaps in some of our worst tabloids. Most people agree that such caricatures are offensive, so why do people want to retain the Golly? Is it nostalgia for childhood toys and story books? 

I learned some fascinating things from googling the word “Golliwog,” including that ABBA’s very own Nordic beauty, Agnetha Fältskogrecorded a song of that title. It was not a success. Other recent controversies have – unsurprisingly, perhaps – involved Carol Thatcher, UKIP and the Conservative Party.

Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University sums up very well in the above-mentioned article: “The Golliwog was created during a racist era. He was drawn as a caricature of a minstrel — which itself represented a demeaning image of Blacks. There is racial stereotyping of Black people in Florence Upton’s books, including The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls — such as the Black minstrel playing a banjo on page 45. It appears that the Golliwog was another expression of Upton’s racial insensitivity. Certainly later Golliwogs often reflected negative beliefs about Blacks — thieves, miscreants, incompetents. There is little doubt that the words associated with Golliwog — Golly, Golli, Wog, and Golliwog, itself — are often used as racial slurs. Finally, the resurgence of interest in the Golliwog is not found primarily among children, but instead is found among adults, some nostalgic, others with financial interests.”

 * Thank you to Paul Saxton for giving me the idea for this.


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