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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.

5 Responses to “Yesterday’s Racist Books and Memorabilia – To Acknowledge or Ignore?”

  1. A very interesting and important post. And I think it is a very hard subject to get into, as everyone will have a different opinion about it, but the advantage that we have today is that we can look back at these books with (hopefully) more enlightened eyes which makes us tend to look at them all condescendingly. Yet we must not forget the culture of the time in which the books were made. Also, it is hard to know the intentions of the authors when they wrote/illustrated them. Were they meant to indoctrinate children into hating black people? I somehow doubt it. And isn’t the fact that they included any representations of minorities at all a good thing? I’m not sure I can answer that question, but it’s one worth thinking about at least.
    I would be interested in seeing some examples of racist books from Canada. I’m not implying that there weren’t any, by any means (I’m sure there were plenty about the First Nations in particular), but rather it’s just that I’ve never personally come across any. Whether that is because they have been intentionally suppressed or not, I don’t know.

  2. Beth Carswell

    Interesting points Tim, and thanks for the comment. I was specifically focused on the old black-Americana focused examples I was coming across, but I have no doubt there would be plenty of ugly examples of Canadian racist materials as well, or Australian, or really anywhere. I wonder whether the intentions of the authors (then), are even relevant factors anymore? The ‘N’ word was in common day-to-day usage for a long time, and widely socially acceptable. But it would still be hurtful and marginalizing in today’s context. And while I disagree with the people who would censor or ban any book containing the N word, I do find myself questioning how much responsibility we, as promoters of old materials, have in the ways and methods in which we do that.

  3. Thanks for sharing some of the book covers to illustrate your point. I had not seen golliwog references, although I had seen tar baby used in an old Uncle Remus book. As a child, I assumed a tar baby literally was a doll or toy, and it never occurred to me that it meant to represent black people or black children. I brought my own 70′s kid background to what I read. The racist context or assumptions did not translate, perhaps because it is a good story featuring underdog, country boy cleverness. Remus is who I recall, and he is very much the hero. So it’s interesting to see that features laden with racism can lose their meaning as things start to change. Perhaps there was racism, but it didn’t get under my skin in the way it might have if these weird tar/golli/blackface depictions had been everywhere.

    I think it’s valuable to keep racist (or xenophobic or whatever) artifacts to see how deep, perverse, and desperately nasty things were in past days. I happen to have inherited some quite casually racist novels that make my jaw drop. They show how thoroughly scared some folks were of seeing black folks as people like themselves, and how deep the distancing went. One book is highly sensational about a white girl’s downfall; wtf!? is what I thought as a college student finding this book and reading bits of it.

    That said, it ain’t literature, and wasn’t then. What struck me was how it was deemed a book suitable to give my grandmother as a young woman- -unless she bought it herself while at nursing college away from home.

    My point is that I would not have understood the great depths of racism and self delusion of those times so sharply without holding this object and having its tiny worldview projected forward to me.

  4. Beth Carswell

    That’s an interesting perspective, ChristyRenee, and true. I think for those of us who see the world around us now (arguably, comparatively, and relatively less racist), it mght be hard to understand the way it used to be, how enormous a deal and struggle civil rights was (and is), and the context of that struggle and where it comes from. It’s interesting to think that even educated, otherwise kind, good people were so steeped in the fear and xenophobia that it was entirely normal. Frightening and weird, and the souvenirs (for lack of a less cheerful word) of that time do serve a purpose. I just get uncomfortable, as someone promoting vintage, rare books and items, with whether or not to ever call attention to these items for collectors, because marketing them seems backwards.

  5. What would be the alternative? It’s judt not practical to hunt books out of existence. Those of us who regard the killing and exploitation of nonhumans have to read about these unlovely human acts all the time: a vegan Harry Potter? We wish…..One only has to read, for example, Alan Corens’ pastiche’s of Dickens – or Stephen Leacock’s “Dry Pickwick”, come to that, to see it just doesn’t work…..