Good golly

Why is it okay to buy a golliwog for your child's toy chest, but not okay to use the word as an insult?

Since when are golliwogs cute? I didn’t even know it was acceptable to discuss the little cultural throwbacks again, let alone display them in chic children’s stores and be seen buying them.

Yet, here I am on golliwog alert, years behind the curve no doubt, and in high dudgeon. Perhaps it is because I was living in California a year ago, in the Bay Area, home to a large population of African-Americans who would whup your ass if you were crass enough to display golliwogs in your home, or worse, teach your children that they are cute and harmless. I had got used to the idea that golliwogs were unacceptable, like burnt flags and swastika armbands.

Back in New Zealand I notice golliwogs perched on shelves at chi-chi designer stores and heaped in bins at craft stalls, and they’re all over Ebay, described as collector’s items. What happened? When did they creep back out from the cupboard under the stairs? When did they become hip?

It does not feel like a coincidence that as golliwogs have made their way back onto retail shelves and into the popular consciousness, ‘golliwog’ has cropped up again and again in the media as a racial slur. I do take comfort in the fact that there was such a furore when British broadcaster Carol Thatcher referred to tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as a golliwog a few weeks back. I don’t think she should have lost her job, but a course of cultural sensitivity training, loathsome as the phrase is, might have done her some good.

The Queen got pulled into the golliwog debate, albeit in a remote via-her-spokesman way, when golliwogs were discovered for sale at the Sandringham gift shop. Oh dear. At least the dolls were speedily scooped off the shelves and an apology issued.

Here at home, our record is not so good. Okay, yes, Tony Veitch was chided when he described Serena Williams as an ape and Paul Holmes got his comeuppance over his absurd "cheeky darkie" comments about Kofi Annan. But aren't people quick to start slinging around the "political correctness" epithet when anyone criticises such racist nonsense? And while the golliwog began life as a children's storybook character, which makes some folk wax nostalgic, does that make its influence less harmful--or more? Even Florence Kate Upton, creator of the golliwog, was horrified by its later use in popular culture and its distortion in the minds of some.

Have we regressed to the days when black people were the punch line in adverts for oatmeal and maple syrup? Huge lips, blindingly white teeth and jolly cheeks served as shorthand for the ‘happy fools’ who cooked and cleaned and made life easier for the upper classes in the US and Britain. It is not our heritage and there is something quite disgusting about paying top dollar for a well-executed example of the traditional golliwog dressed in minstrel garb which recalls those times.

I have heard golliwogs defended as cute, and with their googly eyes and ready grins, they do present an appealing face. Like a Labrador or a Panda bear. But golliwogs are supposed to represent humans, not animals, not creatures from some mythical land, like the Munchkins from Oz or the pitiful Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Seems to me that golliwogs are about as cute as people who turn up at parties in blackface, or pull at the corners of their eyes to pretend they are Asian.

There was a golliwog in one of my Enid Blyton books when I was a kid. I’m not sure who gave me this book or where they got it from but even as a five-year-old I was dubious. This particular golliwog—I don’t remember him having a name—stole things (a briefcase, if my memory serves me, and a car) and took off with them into the woods. He was naughty, no-one liked him, and he was the cautionary example in the tale. Steal and run off into the woods and you, too, will find yourself friendless and alone. Bad golliwog.