Racism is still very much alive 70 years on from when Enid Blyton’s three gollywogs, named Golly, Woggie and Nigger, first made their appearance.
As I was in Penang for a couple of days this week, I popped by George Town’s famous Chowrasta market to look at the secondhand book stalls. I didn’t have the time to poke around for very long, but I still left with a bag of books, including two Malay translations of Enid Blyton books.
One was Tiga Anak Patung Hitam, a Malay version of The Three Golliwogs. I used to have this book in its
original English edition, and it was one in which the dolls were called Golly, Woggie and Nigger. In later editions of the book and others in the series, the golliwogs’ names are changed to Wiggie, Waggie and Wollie.
There's a review of one of the books in the series, The Three Bold Golliwogs, on the Enid Blyton Society website, enidblytonsociety.co.uk, that reacts in horror to this alteration. The reviewer, Terry Gustafson, writes: “How could anyone find nastiness in the names of the charming little toys that are a feature of this book?”
I don’t believe the “nastiness” is imagined. After all, “nigger” and “wog” are never used except derisively, and the names are even more offensive when the only black characters in a work are named thus.
“Fresh from telling kids that ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, etc’, the grown-ups rebelled against their own philosophy and took the contrary stance,” Gustafson says. But surely advising children not to be hurt by name-calling doesn’t mean you should also sanction the act.
“EB’s world is an innocent one and should be protected from adults who attach corrupt connotations to words that were used without any guilt whatsoever,” Gustafson continues.
Unfortunately, there is the danger that innocent children will turn into ignorant adults who might think nothing of calling black people “nigger” and “wog”. I’m not 100% for censoring and altering the text of these books, but I would only be comfortable with the names Nigger and Woggie if children are made aware of the racism implicit in these terms.
These are books for little kids, not teenagers, and I don’t think it’s reassuring to suggest that the portrayal of the gollies is supposed to be humorous, and their names regarded as terms of endearment. If the gollies were three of dozens of black characters written by Blyton or to appear in children’s fiction, it would be a different story.
I feel the crux of the problem is that they are presented as figures of fun and bear names derived from racial slur words while being the only black characters in these books. I think any form of bigotry in children’s books has to be considered more carefully than in books that are read primarily or exclusively by adults. Children are impressionable and may have their attitudes and ideas shaped by what they read.
Looking back, I don’t remember the book encouraging me to think about black people in racist terms. But I didn’t know a single black person back then, and I saw the golliwogs as dolls, not people. I also had parents who told me that “wog” and “nigger” were insulting terms that must never be used to address or describe anyone, but they were exceptional in their openness and willingness to discuss difficult issues with me.
I don’t think many Malaysian children will come across Blyton’s golliwogs, as the books are difficult to find in print. But they are presented with other forms of racism and racial stereotyping that, from my experience, they are unaware of, as these are not matters that are discussed openly.
It may be impressed upon a Malaysian child that blatantly insulting remarks about race must be avoided, but there tends to be no discourse about the subtler forms of racism, for example, the way races are physically depicted and the association of certain jobs, personality traits and mannerisms with certain races. These portrayals of race are commonplace and taken for granted, even accepted as the truth.
Many will argue that stereotypes are based on reality, but such thinking is shallow and ignorant, and arises from a lack of understanding and familiarity with different cultures, and a tendency to generalise, dismiss and judge. One of the most important functions of literature is to uncover and present the truth, not didactically, but by exploring the many facets of life fully and wholly, and through the portrayal of the human race in all its myriad varieties.
“Europeans often wonder how Chinese and the ‘darker’ races can tell each other apart and maybe, from their point of view, it’s vice versa, but there are of course subtle differences,” Gustafson writes.
To concede to “subtle differences” reflects the sort of ignorance that is perpetuated by holding those unlike one at arm’s length. It results in the identical appearance of Blyton’s golliwogs, and Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese’s Chinese brothers (as portrayed in Five Chinese Brothers), as well as the maddeningly racist portrayal of characters in a certain wildly popular children’s TV series.
The golliwog books may be out of print, but the racism within its pages is still alive and well 70 years on, just in other incarnations.