For this post something of a look behind the scenes, a slight lifting of the curtain, on the process of blog post writing at Watermelon.
Sometimes I use objets trouvee to prompt a thought, perhaps a memory. The other day I happened to see one of my old children’s annuals. Do they still exist? Perhaps in relation to pop stars or movie spin-offs, not sure. But once upon a time they were very big and popular with children. Reflecting in turn the popularity of children’s magazines. Not comics, though these of course have also long been popular, but junior magazines, part of a spectrum of publications which went up to adults and indeed to old people. Magazines still popular of course, but nothing like what they were in their heyday, and probably destined to die out as they are totally replaced by the internet.
Anyway the children’s magazines, as a way of cashing in on their popularity, almost all (or perhaps it was all) produced an “annual”, aimed at the easy-Xmas-present-for-desperate-relatives market, and, I guess, providing a welcome cash boost to the publishers. But they were also eagerly awaited by children, containing, as they did, new stories about favourite characters, interesting facts, puzzles, games and so on.
The spectrum began with the very young, and the oldest example I have is the “Chicks’ Own Annual” of 1950, sent by relatives in England for a Xmas present in December 1949, my name carefully filled in in the space provided on a frontispiece which said “This Jolly Book belongs to…”.
Anyway. I looked at this, and its familiar front cover of a sack race by the popular characters, triggered the kind of memories other authors seem to get from eating bits of cake soaked in wine on a spoon. And I was all set to write one of those remembrance of times past, remembrance of times passed, kind of memoir posts that regular readers know and love. But then I thought I’d have a look inside.
And was suddenly plunged, unexpectedly, on page 19, into a new subject for the post.
You probably can’t read the text of the little poem, and so to avoid you missing the full flavour of the humour, here it is (note that the hyphens to break up longer words into syllables is house style throughout the book, presumably making it easier for young readers):
“When eb-ber I am making tarts,
De nigs soon find it out,
Dey creeps in-to my kitch-en and
start monk-ey-ing a-bout.
Dey eat de jam, dey tease de cat,
Near drive me off my head,
De on-ly time it’s safe to cook
Is when dey’se all in bed.
‘Why don’t I chase dem out”‘ you say.
H’m! Just yo’ come and try!
While I am catch-ing hold ob one,
An-nud-der eats a pie!
De mis-chief dat dem boys can do
Is plain for all to see,
Dat wo-man who lib-bed in a shoe
Was be-ter off dan me!”
It’s hard to know where to start with this page of totally forgotten (by me) humour.
Remind yourself that this is an English magazine for very small children (I was four), not an American one. Remind yourself that this was written by a white man (or woman, but I’m guessing a man, there is no indication of editorial team or writers anywhere). Remind yourself that although there were a few people of Caribbean (and African) origin in England for several hundred years by this time, this poem was being written not long after the 1948 British Nationality Act gave British Citizenship, and full rights of entry and settlement in Britain, to all people living in Commonwealth countries, and that as a result the first ship (the MV Empire Windrush) carrying 492 Caribbean immigrants had arrived in London on 22 June 1948.
So the presence of this “funny cartoon” in 1949 is a bit strange. As is its form. These, I presume, are intended to be some kind of comic idea of American blacks. Based on what? Some memory of Hollywood movies or American comedians doing a parody black voice? Why was it thought suitable for four year old English (or Australian) kids in 1949? And was the use of the term “nigs” really seen as jolly good fun and not offensive in that year?
Finally the big question. Was this sort of thing common in children’s comics, magazines, annuals of the day, and did it affect the racism of the public later? Caribbean migration began in 1948. Race riots and attacks built up in the 1950s. Twenty years later came Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, perhaps the most offensive words ever to come from a British politician. Were these public attitudes at least partly built on the playful pages of Chick’s Own and others like it? Many families try to restrict their children from playing with toy guns, concerned about the effect on their attitudes in later life. Should they also have been concerned about those harmless looking children’s annuals stuffed innocently into Xmas stockings?
Anyway, I thought I should check out the rest of this Annual, see if page 19 was just the tip of the iceberg, see if my young mind had been unknowingly but permanently warped by subliminal racism and turned me into the adult racist I so famously became (just as my cap-firing cowboy gun, proudly blasting away at about the same time, turned me into a gun fanatic blasting kangaroos in national parks with an AK 47).
And there we had it. Straight away on page 2 we have “Nigger” the black chick (one of the jolly chick chums of the title of the Annual) and later “Golli” the golliwog and “Golly” the golliwog, who seems to be a different character. All appear in several different stories. On page 26 “Neddy and Nellie Nigger” appear asking “some jolly riddles”. They are also cartoonish, but more humanised than the “Naughty Nigs”.
At one moment you think this is all quite innocent, reading too much into a long-ago children’s book. But then you think, just a moment. Why is the black chicken called “Nigger”? What’s with the golliwogs? Why is it “Neddy and Nellie Nigger ” who are asking “jolly riddles”? And, looming overall are those “Naughty Nigs” (note that, as if to underline connections, a golliwog appears in the scene, as one does on the front cover, falling over, and therefore coming last, in the sack race), as offensive, in retrospect, as caricatures of Jewish people would have been before the war.
But did any of it have an effect on me and my contemporaries, make us predisposed to be racists? I don’t know. It is just one of tens of thousands of influences on you as you grow up (and another time I will have a look at Lion Annual 1957 for what was going on in the big boy equivalent of Chick’s Own), and who knows what results in one prevailing over another.
It is worth noting the reverse though. That this kind of content was thought absolutely appropriate in a magazine for young children (remember that this Annual reflected content produced week after week, year after year) in an office in London in 1949. And by inference, by at least a good proportion of the population of England at the time. And that, this one little lone Annual of mine representing a very small tip of an iceberg, this kind of unconscious/conscious racism in publications must have been widespread in society. Therefore creating, in its representation of black people as definitely “other”, as not quite human even, fertile ground for the violent racism that was to come.