Black-face Morris in a storm

(October 08, 2014)

Possibly considered one of England’s least offensive, quaint and most misunderstood cultural pastimes, Morris dancing has stirred up a storm, with members of Border Morris and their blacked up faces helping David Cameron make another photo-opportunity gaffe.

Apparently, David Cameron has enraged anti-racism campaigners by posing with Border Morris dancers at Banbury Folk Festival. The image, immediately screamed its way through the ranks of Twitter activists, variously describing Cameron’s decision as ‘crass and insensitive’ and also stating that ‘blacking-up’ is outdated and unacceptable.

Hold on a second, few could be more anti-racism than I but take two minutes to look at the culture and traditions of Morris dancing rather than leaping on the ‘race’ bandwagon.

Folk cultures argue that Morris dancers blacked their faces because such dancing was seen as pagan and they didn’t want local church luminaries to know who they were. Another theory is that as begging was illegal and ‘dancing for money’ fell into that bracket the dancers, especially Border Morris dancers from Wales didn’t want local English law to recognise them. Many believe the name Morris Dance traces its cultural roots to ‘Moorish’ pirates who settled in Cornwall and became employed in local mining, not much racism there I guess. Whatever the reason for painting their faces, and there are a few others put forward by folklorists, we’re talking about dancers wearing make-up as part of a costume. Black faces matched to black clothing, boots and hats. I cannot imagine that it’s designed to offend. And I wonder how many rational folk are offended, unless of course you choose to see it that way. And surely we’ve all seen David Cameron, and dozens of other politicians botch up too many other photo-opportunities to get in a lather over this one.

It’s true that a ‘blacked-up’ face as part of music hall tradition where white performers pretended to be black is offensive. These performers, offence intended or otherwise, deliberately parodied black cultures and accents. They even parodied gospel songs. Now that’s begging to cause offence, which it usually did. Those of us old enough to remember the Black and White minstrel show on television not only recall its patronising racism but also regarded it as utterly crap television, which it was.

But a style of Morris dancing involved in racism?

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