Members of the Morris dancing and folk community have defended their practice of using black facepaint against allegations of racial insensitivity amid concerns from students in Oxford.
The debate was sparked by the appearance of Morris dancers wearing black face paint in Oxford’s city centre last weekend as part of the annual Folk Weekend. Pictures of the dancers appeared on the Facebook page Skin Deep, a forum linked to the Oxford zine of the same name used for the discussion of race issues.
A number of students responded negatively to the practice. One commenter said, “It kind of doesn’t matter what their intentions are if the end result is something that looks, to all intents and purposes, like blackface.”
However, others defended the use of black face paint, arguing that the origins of this tradition are unrelated to race. According to one commenter, “Its origins are not completely agreed on, but it is widely acknowledged to have nothing to do with ‘blackface’.
“They come every year as part of Oxford folk weekend, and like most Morris dancers, love English tradition and working hard on learning the dances to travel round the festivals and perform. The two people in this photo would probably be incredibly upset about being demonised in this post, but unsurprised, as I’m sure they’re well used to explaining why they’re dressed the way they are.”
These comments were echoed by a spokesperson for Folk Weekend Oxford, who told Cherwell, “There is an awful lot of debate raging about the blackface tradition within the Morris world at the moment.
“Many, many people believe that it originated as a disguise, or relates to chimney sweeps bringing good luck, and there are sources from early texts which do support this argument, suggesting the workers blacked their faces with soot when they were dancing (and collecting money) as they would likely lose their job if their boss knew they were out begging.
“However, there is also an argument that (whether or not the origins lie here entirely) blackface didn’t really catch on in a widespread way until the time of the black and white minstrels.”
She added, “From my perspective as a festival organiser – we respect the right of individual sides to choose their own kit and costume, and are not going to discriminate against sides who choose to wear blackface, any more than we would discriminate against a group of visiting African dancers wearing white face paint.”
This debate comes in the wake of a similar controversy last year, after an article published in The Oxford Student on the same subject was taken down after complaints from the Morris dancing community about the sensitivity and balance of the reporting. Speaking to Cherwell at the time, the Morris Ring area representative for South Midlands said, “There are a number of different reasons for this and no one really knows where the tradition came from.”
The origins of the use of black face paint in Morris dancing remain unclear. Some research has suggested that it grew in popularity concurrently with minstrelsy, an entertainment that does use racially-motivated blackface, although a definitive answer has never been reached.