Golliwog, Mickey, Buckwheat and Sambo: Racial Kitsch, Performative Utterances and Resistance
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Dubois: 1903)
In Racial Kitsch and Black Performance (2002), Tavia Nyong'o shares a critical racialised perspective that literally and figuratively had my hairs standing on end with thoughts of how displaced bodies, colonised bodies, more prone to marginalised perceptions, resist racial kitsch and racial performative utterances. Through the use of experiential narrative and exploring the Nyong'o criticism, I will expose these themes by telling a true story.
When I was seven years old, I knew there was something inherently wrong with the fact that other kids called both my sister and I "Buckwheat". My siblings and I were sent to various exclusive boarding schools in England. When we first arrived in Great Britain in the early seventies, very obvious methods were used to assimilate us into the dominant culture. Eliza Doolittlesque makeovers that included elocution and deportment lessons, and the de-africanizing of our hair with straight chemical perms. In other words how we spoke, how our bodies moved and how we looked physically would be transformed to satisfy the cultural norms of Her Majesty's England.
We were simultaneously all "given names" in our various geographic locations in Great Britain. The common rationale for the use of these racially performative utterances, I will describe as namings. These "namings", used by our peers and usually initiated by our teachers who though many were well meaning and sometimes loving, claimed that they could not pronounce our indigenous (other) names. So we were "given names". there was no concern or question of whether being given these names was our wish or not or whether they were even insulting. These names were drawn from and based on racial kitsch stereotypes in popular media and popular cultural images of black children.
Would it then be worthy to explore the possibility that these "namings" were performative utterances that Judith Butler speaks about in Bodies that Matter (1993)? Meaning that the engendered nature of pronouncing for example, "It's a Girl!", signifies and directs the child to "act out", "perform" girlishness all her life. This utterance dictates that she will perform female characteristics all of her life. J.L Austin explores a number of terms relating to the assumption of philosophers that the business of a "statement" can only be to "describe" some state of affairs, or to state some fact. Later on Austin theorises in How to do Things with Words (1995), that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action - it is not normally thought of as just saying something. The utterance has binding power whether as an insult or as praise.
I will use the same theory about performative utterances to apply to namings, or nicknames and draw from the customs of Africa where any names given to us, as in the performative African practise of naming a ceremony "Outdooring" in Ghana which according to an old friend and scholar Nicolas Anim, in Names as a Factor in Cultural Identity among the Akan, Ga and Ewe Tribes of Ghana (1992), is the most important function in the entire ritual surrounding the birth of a child. This cultural practise where from the day of birth until seven days thereafter, the new baby is kept indoors and from public view since he is believed to be a visiting spirit who may decide to leave any time to his spirit world. On the seventh day he is brought out from seclusion, and people other than the select few may see him and even handle him for the first time. This is when the baby is accepted as a human being and given a human name which signifies his own human identity. Such was the case when Prof. Anim outdoored our son giving him the name Munufie, "Welcome Home" who claims he was simply assisting us in establishing a path, likeness to which our son would draw references from for his identity.
The naming scenario was a political act in my birthing context. I do not own a traditional birth certificate for the specific reason that my parents were required, as was the case of many people in colonial Northern Rhodesia, to give all "native" children Judeo-Christian names . My parents resisted this "naming" and consciously chose to not document our birth. So goes one of the many myths about the lack of certification of birth which also includes a fire which burnt our documents. I am more willing to believe the first story being as my father was a Pan-Africanist during the 1960's movement for independence in Africa at the time.
The path and function of my naming changed radically however when I left my birth family, and was assigned European strangers to raise me as legal guardians at the age of seven in boarding school. Wabei (Happy, Joy Blessed) was replaced with Buckwheat, aka Bobby (androgynous), aka Wobbly Golliwog, after a black face golliwog used as the registered trademark on Robertson's marmalade. A "wog" was the derogatory performative used almost universally in the former British Empire for the darker peoples of the world and has many derivatives that include nig-nog, dog, blackie and on and on. My sister Lileko, from the Silozi and SeSotho Lerato, Love, Beloved, was re-amed Buckwheat, after the character in Little Rascals, the popular television show, played over a fifty year period by black child actors Calena Beard, Willie Mae Taylor and most famously Billie Thomas (Nyong'o: 2002). My sister and I were both given this name on account of a Congo inspired hairstyle my mother had once sent us to school with in Washington D.C., where the hair is partitioned in to up to sixteen equal parts, which are then wound individually with a nylon thread upwards around each other and left suspended in the air. My brother Sitali (Litali, Leaf from a Tree) was named the generic Sam, as was customary for whites to call the Pullman on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad in the 1920's or any West Indian conductor on the London Underground during the 1950's. As he grew older into a young black male, to emasculate him, he was named Sambo. The 'fraidy cat looking, androgynous character, who continues to endure living within a fiction of how edible he is to Tiger. My younger sister Mwaka (A Year) was called Mickey on account of her simply having a cute round face like I guess Mickey Mouse. A face that got her a special spot as one of the first black kids to integrate the Bozo the Clown Show in 1972.
We were supposed to take ownership of these grotesque names, and were constantly the brunt of racial jokes, which we initially participated in with ironic laughter not understanding the dehumanising effect of the practise on our persons. My sister, after nearly forty years has been known to sign affectionate notes to me as "Buckwheat". Is this her performative resistance to the kitsch images conceptualised to define who she is to the world that has "othered" her? Where did this point of friction, resistance to these performative utterances, which have permeated the global landscape through the mass reproduction of images first begin for me? Anecdotes are abundant.
Conscious resistance to this double consciousness that W. E. B Dubois speaks about in The Souls of Black Folk, happened in my early twenties, when I had a supporting role playing Tenjy Mtintso in Lord Richard Attenborough's motion picture about Steve Biko and Apartheid, Cry Freedom (Universal). I realised only as a professional actor, through actually performing the politics of my blackness, in the heavily racialised world of South Africa we recreated in the film. By participating and depicting real people in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in southern Africa, I remember staying up all night before I met Denzel Washington, who was to play Biko, and reading I write what I like (Biko: 1976), Decolonising the Mind (wa Thiong'o:1981) and Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon:1967). It is here I began the slow journey to Self. However I didn't realise that I would have to assist my own children let alone whole nations of black people to this realisation.
In this post-911 moment of racial isolation and intolerance, I am reminded to drag by the nappy head this shame of racial kitsch every time I look at another black person in parts of the western world where blacks struggle for daily identity and place. I have had to learn to look within myself past the mass produced kitsch images and utterances, abuses and atrocities, and have found black libratory narratives that make these recent constructs redundant. During Kuomboka and Kufuluhela ceremonies of the Lozi people of Barotseland my name is Mukwae (Princess) Wabei (Joy, Happy) Mbile (Peace,the Second) Siyolwe (Lucky). These names are powerful and are worth keeping.