Painting it black

It’s not often I walk out of a lecture hearing the students describing the speaker as amazing and inspirational, but that happened this week when author and publisher Verna Wilkins visited as part of Black History Month. Verna talked about how years ago her five year old son had brought home a book project with a painted self-portrait on the front as the start of a story about himself. Rather confused that the painted image had pink skin, Verna offered him a brown crayon to colour it in a rich brown shade to match his own skin. She described her surprise when he replied that it had to be the pink colour because “it’s for a book”, and she has worked since to ensure that a more diverse population of children are positively represented in books. She founded Tamarind Books and wrote many of the titles including the popular ‘Dave and the Tooth Fairy’ and ‘The Life of Stephen Lawrence’, written at the request of Stephen’s mother and with full support from Stephen’s family and friends.

Verna’s books and presentations are popular with students and children alike, although she told how some parents have been more puzzled when their children have brought home books featuring black or other ethnic minority children. After selling many copies of ‘Dave and the Tooth Fairy’ to children at a school book fair, several parents tried to return the books the following day saying their children had ‘bought the wrong book’. I wonder if these parents were able to see their prejudice.

An interesting juxtaposition came later the same day when I heard about a story of how Ben McNeely, the Christian Union leader at Birmingham University had attracted criticism for painting his face a darker tone as part of a costume at a Caribbean themed party. Birmingham Ethnic Minorities Association (BEMA) complained that this was offensive and advised him to resign. An article in the Birmingham Mail states that Mr McNeely has apologised widely but saw no reason to resign, leaving it up to CU members to decide if they wanted to pass a vote of no confidence. Responses to the article online seem to think this is political correctness gone mad and several contrast this with a black person painting their face white. Saying that this would not offend them in the slightest rather seems to miss the point.

I waded in to this debate with some friends of mine, trying to explain about the history of ‘blacking up’ and referring to this article which I think is helpful. Samira Shackle explains:

“impersonating a black person is offensive because it is so fraught with history. Blacking up is mockery, and it’s dehumanising, with its symbolism of a grinning, infantilised rascal dancing around for the amusement of others.”

McNeely claims to have been ignorant of this history, and I don’t blame him for his ignorance. In fact, even a colleague of mine expressed the same view that she didn’t see what was wrong with it. I don’t think he should have had to resign (although BEMA report here that he has done so) but I do think what he did was wrong, in poor taste and I’m glad he has made a proper apology (not just “I’m sorry if you were offended”). I’m not sure where a child’s naivety becomes an adult’s ignorance but some people are expected to set an example and know better. I think this does apply in McNeely’s case, and certainly should apply in the case of MP Philip Davies who provoked Shackle’s article above.

I love the exchange about skin colour in Robin Hood : Prince of Thieves where a child asks Morgan Freeman’s character Azeem, “Did God paint you?” Somewhat taken aback, the ‘moor’ Azeem replies:

“Did God paint me? For certain”
“Why?”
“Because Allah loves wondrous variety”.

The film doesn’t go into the issue of whether Allah and God are the same, and I know this is an issue which divides many people. Coming from the same roots, I have some sympathy with the view that worship of a creator God, Allah or Yahweh is addressing the same divine being but by different names. While I don’t agree with much of what is written about Allah specifically or that Mohammed was his prophet, the idea that a different God spoke to Ibrahim rather than Abraham seems unlikely to me. There’s a song in Hausa that was taught to me by a Nigerian Christian which translated God as Allah, ‘Na Gode Allah’. I guess some Christians might have issues singing this song, but once I’d got my head round it, I found I could praise God that way. If Hausa speaking Christians name God as Allah, it seemed important to include their songs in the group.

A new song on Martyn Joseph’s fabulous new album ‘Songs for the Coming Home’ may also cause a little controversy in some Christian circles, although that won’t be a first for the Welsh singer-songwriter. ‘Not a Good Time for God’ is based on a poem by Stewart Henderson, published here by the Iona Community. Joseph has added a rather catchy if slightly unexpected chorus:

“Singing Alle Alle Alle Alle Allah”

It doesn’t offend me but it seems a slightly odd thing to be singing along to, particularly since it’s unclear if the voice in the song is supporting or decrying God. It’s a fascinating song though, and has a great attitude and sound which had me puzzling deeply over just what song the opening was bringing to mind. There’s a driving rhythm and a Western twang and it really reminds me of something else. So far the closest I’ve got is a song by the Rolling Stones…

Paint it Black.

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4 Responses to Painting it black

  1. Nola says:

    The human race is making good progress, painfully slow but progress nonetheless. I for one would not be offended by McNeely’s actions, though I understand why some are. I was brought up in a culture where God is referred to as Allah, Olodumare, Kabieyesi, Chi, Hyel, etc. I was encouraged to appreciate the present and i guess i am more offended when we repeat past mistakes. A forum like this which educates and promotes such discourse might help us leave the past (including connotations) and help us all strive for equality and justice, hopefully a post race society where painting does not matter will emerge. For now it is important we continue to listen and share objectively.

    • Hearten Soul says:

      Thanks for your comment – really interesting to hear your views on some of these issues. I hope we are making progress too. I fear I stray close to being an interfering white liberal middle class schoolmarm at times like this 😉

      • Nola says:

        Not at all. We are learning from each other and need to embrace spaces like this. You are crafting a wonderful space and shattering ignorance and blind superioty. More importantly the motive is dialogic interpretation not imposition of values. Well done and thank you

  2. Pingback: Running on empty | Hearten Soul

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