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Yesterday’s Racist Books and Memorabilia – To Acknowledge or Ignore?


We look at many, many, many books in a day as part of the AbeBooks marketing team. They go as far back as ancient times, long before the printing press, and I see books from centuries ago every day. So it should come as no surprise that very often I end up reminded of the way things used to be, and how different – and in some cases, not different enough – things are now.

My specific case in point – the golliwog, and other stereotypical depictions of black Americans (or any ethnic minority, actually, but it’s a lot of the old golliwog books I’ve been coming across lately). The golliwog was a character who originated in children’s books in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Enid Blyton, for instance, had a golliwog character named Mr. Golly in her Noddy books, who ran the Toytown garage (he was replaced in later revised edition by the caucasian character Mr. Sparks). The word golliwog (originally golliwogg – the spelling evolved) is thought to have first come from the books of Florence Kate Upton (1873-1922), a children’s author who found one of the blackface-style dolls in her aunt’s attic, nicknamed it Golliwogg, and used it as the central character in her series of books. Ostensibly a black man, the golliwog was a cartoonish caricature with the classic big, white lips and wide eyes and fuzzy hair, looking much like Al Jolson doing “My Mammy” or a minstrel show performer, or any grotesque portrayal, usually by a white person in blackface makeup. The golliwog was popular enough to make it off the pages of children’s books and into the forms of rag dolls, toys, figurines and more.

I have no question around the idea of the golliwog (and other similar portrayals) as a racist and problematic portrayal – I think that goes without saying. But I found myself asking how to handle these items that still exist. They are for sale on the site, I come across them in secondhand stores and at garage sales. People collect them, for differing reasons, not least of which is their slow disappearance. So – do we reference them? Do we include them in our features about the appropriate era, region or subject matter? The truth of the matter is, books are used as a record of events, circumstances and history, as much as for entertainment or information. Our history is full of some shameful, dark, unforgivably unjust things. And ignorance. And backwardness. And we have the books to show for it.

These things happened. And not as long ago as we seem so fond of thinking. Is it better to take the “I won’t even dignify that with a response” approach, and refuse to acknowledge these painful pieces of history and hope that they fade further into obscurity, eventually to be buried? Or is ignoring them, sweeping them under the rug and smiling nervously – EVERYTHING’S FINE, NOTHING TO SEE HERE – doing a bigger disservice to the problem? Is it better to bring them out into the open, acknowledge the grief and problem still surrounding them and start a conversation?

Slavery, oppression, racism, and systemic, ingrained bigotry – it’s all such a sensitive, painful, delicate subject that it’s intimidating to even talk about it at all. It’s been made taboo. But that doesn’t mean it might not be a conversation worth having, and that silence might not hurt just as much.

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.