It’s 2020 and Black Lives Matter, therefore Glory of the West feel that we can no longer support the practice of wearing full face black makeup within the morris community. We have therefore taken the decision to disassociate ourselves from morris sides who perpetuate this tradition. In practice this means that we will no longer share stands or spots with sides where any members are wearing full face black makeup, or ‘blackface’.
Sides who wear blackface today, particularly Border Morris and Molly Dance teams, do so as part of a long-standing tradition of disguise and maintain there is no connection with race. However, information linking the history of this tradition to that of black and white minstrelsy has become increasingly widespread throughout the morris community. The roots of disguise may well be true, but it is undeniable that the popularity of minstrelsy during the 19th and 20th centuries had an impact on the use of blackface within the morris.
It is plain to see that any white person wearing full face black makeup will evoke memories of a time when dressing up in a demeaning fashion that dehumanised plantation workers and freed slaves was classed as entertainment. Whether or not intended, the tradition of blacking up by morris sides is likely to cause hurt and offence and in fact could constitute harassment under the Equality Act 2010, by creating an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” As a result of this in 2016 Shrewsbury Folk Festival banned teams who wore full blackface. The subject is also being debated by the Joint Morris Organisations who will be voting on the issue at their respective upcoming AGMs.
(See below for links to more information)
Glory of the West is a Cotswold side (and therefore does not traditionally wear make up as a disguise), so you may be wondering what this has to do with us. From the 1980’s onwards, Glory used to join forces with another local morris side, blacken our faces and dance Border Morris on the streets of Exeter every Christmas. We wholeheartedly believed in the history of disguise and were not aware of any racist links. Although we were aware at the backs of our minds of the potential for the practice to be misconstrued as a racist act, we firmly believed at the time that its roots in non-racist traditions was justification to continue as long as we explained this to the watching public in the event of any misunderstanding. However, as time went by, we found that explaining this to members of the public was difficult and we felt increasingly guilty about it.
It’s been many years since Glory of the West have “blacked up” but we recognise that there is still work to be done as the practice continues to exist within the morris community. Prioritising tradition over the potential to hurt others has, for us, become untenable. As such we are taking a stand by disassociating ourselves from all teams where all or any of the performers wear full blackface.
Further to this, we recognise this is an ongoing subject in which we are continuing to learn and we will carry on with discussions about the impact of partial blacking, used by some teams as an alternative to full blackface.
Many of these sides are our friends with whom we have danced for many years. This is not a choice based on personalities or friendship. We have absolutely no doubt that the intentions of any of these sides are unequivocally not rooted in racism. We accept that all morris sides are at liberty to decide for themselves how they choose to present their craft, and would not wish to prevent them from doing so; just as much as this is our choice to disassociate from these sides, as we are uncomfortable with the image that full black face make up presents. We are not wishing to evangelise, however we feel that it is our obligation to be actively anti-racist in our actions in order to maintain inclusivity for all in our corner of the morris and folk community that we so love.
It’s 2020 and Black Lives Matter – Morris dancing is not a reenactment of the past, it is a living tradition and therefore changing with the times is imperative to its survival. We want the morris community to be a welcoming and respectful environment for everyone.
Links to further reading:
“Dear White West Country People” by Louisa Adjoa Parker
“To black up or not black up – a personal journey” by Chloe Metcalfe featured in The Morris Federation Newsletter Winter 2013 edition.
“Blacking Up – a Response” by Ben Moss featured in Morris Matters January 2017 edition: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.morrisfed.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/MM-36-1.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwjSkfTw95frAhXfWxUIHdY3BpIQFjADegQIAhAB&usg=AOvVaw0BHZZ-3IHAFTPhZKfg7YyT
“Anti-Racism and the Folk Revival” by Ezra Fischer
“’Blacking Up’: English Folk Traditions and Changing Perceptions about Black People in England” Submitted for the degree of Master of Philosophy by Patricia Bater: