AFRICANGLOBE – Folk dances that involve ‘blacking-up’ are an English tradition and should not be regarded as racist, a Labour candidate for Parliament has insisted.
Will Straw, the candidate in the marginal seat of Rossendale and Darwen, said people who claim it is offensive for rural English dancers to blacken their faces are ignorant of history.
Straw was criticised this weekend after posting an image of himself on Twitter with the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, a 150-year-old troupe of Lancastrian clog dancers who perform every Easter.
Critics claim the practice is offensive, because blacking up has often been used by White performers to parody Black people and culture. The Black and White Minstrel Show, which featured White performers in black make-up singing American calypso songs, was removed from the air in 1978 after protests.
The Britannia Coconut Dancers, who wear turbans, kilts, clogs and make-up and tap the coconuts tied to their hands and knees, perform to celebrate the arrival of spring.
The origins of their costume is unclear but the group says it reflects both their mining origins and north African pirates who settled in England.
Jake Berry, the sitting Conservative MP, also posted an image of himself with the group.
Straw, 32, whose father is former Home Secretary Jack Straw, is the associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank.
Critics should “mug up on their history”, Straw said, saying the town should be lauded for maintaining its traditions.
“As many small towns throughout Britain struggle to maintain their identity against a tide of national retail chains, betting shops and fast food outlets, Bacup’s annual dance provides a window into a previous era.
“But it’s traditions from the past which give communities a sense of common identity for the present and the future. May the Coconutters continue for many years to come.”
The future of the troupe was jeopardised last year after the council said spectators standing in the road posed health and safety concerns.
In response, the dancers appealed for protection by UNESCO, the UN cultural body, under the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a status that would place the dance alongside flamenco and tango, and oblige the council to ensure its survival.
By Will Straw:
Like hundreds of people across Rossendale, my wife, six-month old son and I went to Bacup yesterday to watch the Britannia Coconutters–a Morris dancing troop which date back at least 150 years.
Every Easter Saturday, members perform dances for ten hours from one side of the town to the other in a tradition known as “Beating the Bounds”. The dance, which marks the return of spring, is believed to trace its roots to Moorish pirates who settled in Cornwall and became employed in local mining.
As more mines and quarries opened in Lancashire in the 18th and 19th centuries, a few Cornishmen are said to have headed to the area, taking with them mining expertise and the costume of red and white kilts, breeches, bonnets and blackened faces.
Bacup’s fortunes have changed over the years. From a bustling town of 22,000 a century ago making a living from mining, weaving and shoemaking, the population halved as Britain’s industrial heritage declined in the post-war period and was decimated in the 1980s. Through all these changes, including two world wars, the Easter celebration has endured.
There is now a sense of excitement in the area following a £2 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant which will help refurbish historical buildings and tidy up a number of shop fronts.
The town centre yesterday was packed with a bouncy castle, a busy market and an Easter bonnet competition, among many other attractions. Locals and tourists came together to share in the history and enjoy the spectacle. There was even a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal.
After the dance in the town centre I caught up with Neville Earnshaw, the Coconutters’ treasurer, who I had interviewed for a magazine article a couple of weeks ago. I tweeted a picture of the two of us in a local pub. Imagine my surprise when I checked back on Twitter three hours later to see a string of accusations describing me – and the Coconutters – as racist.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This was clear not least from the number of tweets from outraged Rossendale residents defending their tradition and urging our accusers to mug up on their history before making false accusations.
As many small towns throughout Britain struggle to maintain their identity against a tide of national retail chains, betting shops and fast food outlets, Bacup’s annual dance provides a window into a previous era. But it’s traditions from the past which give communities a sense of common identity for the present and the future. May the Coconutters continue for many years to come.
The Britannia Coconut Dancers Of Bacup