Britain’s ongoing love affair with the golliwog

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By Kuba Shand-Baptiste

Kuba Shand-Baptiste


One hundred and twenty eight years ago, a little-known children’s book by a British-American author landed on the 19th-century literary scene, just in time for Christmas.

It didn’t take long for it to make a splash. Within the first few years of its publication, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog and its sequels inspired a frenzy. For decades to come, white Britons in particular would come to associate its main character with their fondest memories of childhood.

The golliwog figure was born from the mind of Florence Upton, inspired by a black minstrel doll found in an attic by her aunt. Upton had played with the doll as child, using its “kindly face” as a “target for rubber balls”.

Like a 19th-century Toy Story, the book follows two toys who come to life in a toy shop on the night of Christmas eve, only to discover a strange and frightful figure on their travels throughout the store: “The blackest gnome….The ‘Golliwogg’ my dear”. Realising the toy is harmless, the trio soon become friends and leave the store for larger adventures. A nice enough tale for white children, who had the privilege of overlooking the golliwog’s racist overtones, however friendly the character was depicted to be.

It’s not hard to see how, from that perspective, affection for the golliwog could give way to a sentiment that its defenders still rely on now: that regardless of the disturbing, uncomfortable narratives that surround it, the golliwog was only ever born of benevolence. It’s clear Upton thought so. It wasn’t until the golliwog – which wasn’t copyrighted – took on a life of its own that it transformed into something she wasn’t too proud of.

“I am frightened when I read the fearsome etymology some deep, dark minds can see in his name,” she complained, seemingly seeing her creation – a figure modeled on racist ideas about black people – as worlds apart from the kinds later found in Enid Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs, or Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N*****s.

Or the kinds more recently found in pubs like The White Hart Inn, an Essex-based venue which has insisted on displaying Golliwog dolls – some hanging by the neck – for all to see despite receiving warnings from police over the years.

Upton’s Golliwogg was slightly more animalistic, with paws instead of hands and feet, and wasn’t depicted as “naughty”, but there’s no real difference between Upton’s original Golliwogg and the White Hart Inn version. The same ideas that convinced Upton her “caricature of a caricature”, as Ferris State University Sociology Professor Dr David Pilgrim wrote, was a force for good, is the same one that the Essex publicans have used to justify their display.

This maddening cycle predates the Golliwog. In early blackface minstrelsy, Jim Crow was a character based on stereotypes of enslaved black people that the comic actor Thomas D. Rice performed in the US and Britain in the 19th century. It was so popular it inspired a wider wave of performances in the UK, eventually moving from the stage to TV and radio much later on.

While those early performances may have served as “light” entertainment for white audiences (with some defending the idea that they were positive), the ideas on which they were based – that black people were inferior, stupid, lazy and comical – were derived from racist post-abolition worries about black people and their place in society, according to historian Christine Grandy.

By the time it had come to Britain, those worries were similarly widespread. As Grandy observes in her 2020 paper, ‘The show is not about race’: Custom, Screen Culture, and The Black and White Minstrel Show, these performances “articulated British anxieties about black men in urban settings and the slippages of class and racial formation that accompanied this”. In the face of such worries, turning this threat into a punchline was arguably an act of disarmament, transforming the once fearsome prospect of the “blackening” of Europe or the threat of the black man specifically into something much more manageable. Even laughable.

That the golliwog, second only to teddy bears in popularity during the 20th century, later became synonymous with white people’s joy has long been enough to convince people that this link doesn’t exist. Or that their affection for such imagery comes from a good place. British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark once remarked that to him, the characters were “examples of chivalry, far more chivalrous than the unconvincing knights of the Arthurian legend”. Others, including Asquiths Teddy Bear Shops founder Joan Bland, have claimed that “the golliwog’s duty is to spread love and happiness.”

It’s the same reasoning that convinced Upton her character – even the doll it was based on – were somehow forces for good. The same reasoning that led Christopher Ryley, the Essex pub’s licencee, to write on Facebook that complaints about displaying golliwog dolls were merely the gripes of “snowflakes” who “decided that” the dolls “are racial”, when in fact, they are inherently so. Or indeed our Home Secretary, who suggested police action against the pub was “nonsense”.

Dismissals of this kind speak to Britain’s lack of understanding of how nuanced racism can be. The birth of the trope of the “magical negro”, heavily inspired by the racism that gave way to blackface minstrelsy, has similarly been rebranded as flattering by non-black people. It’s a stereotype that persists across entertainment to this day, reinforcing the idea that black people are other-wordly, childlike, exotic and thrilling commodities, with cultures as laughable as they are fascinating.

What’s particularly interesting to me in all of this, especially now the debate has become even more inflamed following vandalism of the Essex pub over the weekend, is that defences over showcasing these dolls often invoke the usual British dismissal of racism as a uniquely American problem. How could Britain be in any way influenced by the extreme displays of hate we’ve come to strictly associate with the US?

Well, pretty easily, actually. Had such sentiment truly been foreign to Brits over the centuries, the arrival of Jim Crow, or indeed Upton’s golliwogg, would never have taken hold in the first place. It wouldn’t have staunch defenders to this day either.

That’s the problem with undue focus on the intentions of golliwog enthusiasts. They don’t matter. What does, is what shields these people from recognising the harm the golliwog has caused since its inception: whiteness. Only from that position in society can people like Upton, the publicans in Essex, and many others, ignore the roots of something that is and always has been an inherently racist relic