Recently, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Southbank Centre hosted an event called ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ based around Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It was an incredible evening of poetry, music, video and readings from the book. I was excited to listen to Shingai Shoniwa’s acoustic version of ‘Never forget You’, to be hypnotised by Inua Ellam’s poetry and to see Lemn Sissay – who performed a song by Gil Scott Heron. Although those were the acts I was familiar with already, I could not have picked a highlight. The people performing were diverse in terms of both gender and race, and there was a real feeling of unity between the acts, as well as the audience. The whole show left me feeling hopeful, inspired and positive.
Then the other day I saw an article by Lemn Sissay about a recent visit to Shetland, where he was featured at a literary festival called Wordplay. This article was about coming across a tourist shop that displayed an array of golliwogs. He also wrote about it on his blog. The Shetland Times also wrote a piece on it, seeming to sympathise with the shop-owner. What sickened me were the mass of comments taking the shop-owner’s side, the ignorance and implicit (at times explicit) racism embedded in their words. I can’t even comprehend the woman of African heritage who advised that Sissay ‘read a bit’ and insulted his literary status. Whilst I don’t imagine the non-poetic will have always heard of him, these comments were ridiculous.
For me, the fact that the white shop-owner, Mrs Leask, dismissed the “rare” complaints she had received (which Sissay tentatively enquired about) and refused to stop selling them, to the degree that she would close the shop before she stopped selling them, means that she is not someone to sympathise with. Whilst I would not condone Sissay’s emphasis of the word ‘old’ in his piece, I’m not going to chastise someone who has had to fight racism his whole life. I find it hard enough myself to imagine the hurt, anger and frustration at seeing a golliwog as a black person. The golliwog is a well-known emblem of racism, and serves as a reminder for a horrific past. To sell one in a shop as fun, toy memorabilia is ignorant. Mrs Leask has made the choice to ignore the complaints, and as Sissay says, she is making a statement with her display in the same way that writers may do with words. You can decide who is right and who is wrong.
It is such a shame that this can still happen at a time where such a celebration of progress at the Queen Elizabeth Hall has taken place. Whilst I can understand that someone is going to get defensive about their actions when being accused of being racist because they think they are “not a racist” – supposedly indicated by the Mohammed Ali photograph Sissay mentions was also on display – it would be better if people could admit such mistakes and be open to learn how to right their wrongs. Otherwise, the photograph of Ali and polite exchange with Sissay simply becomes nothing more than a pathetic reasoning such as “my best friend is black”. This reasoning may make Mrs Leask feel better about herself, but it doesn’t promote positive change and is a backwards movement in the fight for equality for all.