Stan Laurel’s ‘Golliwog’ Reference


There is a timeless and healing quality to the humour generated by the comedy duo who became famous as ‘Laurel & Hardy’ during the early and middle eras of the 20th century.  Stan Laurel (1890-1965) – a British citizen whose real name was Arthur Stanley Jefferson – eventually teamed-up with the American Oliver Hardy (1892-1957), and the rest is history.  Although Oliver was very much the ‘straight man’ whose life was blighted by the infantile and often naive attitudes of Stanley, whose character today might well be better described as suffering from ‘learning difficulties’.  In fact, despite this on-screen relationship, the reality off-screen was that Stan Laurel wrote and produced the shows and films, and Oliver Hardy would turn-up, learn his lines, play the part and leave after the job was done!  In reality, Laurel & Hardy’s on-screen persona were the exact opposite of their real-life relationship – and perhaps this inversion of reality served as the basis for their perennial humour. Whatever the case, it is interesting that their humour was not reliant upon the common racist attitudes of the time, despite the fact that non-White characters were often few and far between in their sketches. This did not mean that, for instance, African-American characters were wholly absent, but when they did appear, the characters mirrored how ‘White’ America still viewed ‘Black’ America at that time (i.e. Black people were domestic servants, or lived in barns and worked in fields, etc).  Of course, these broader issues of American sociology were often not the product of the non-American writer Stan Laurel, but were innovations inserted into the film scripts, by those paying for the productions (as a means, it was thought, to make the films more applicable to a ‘mainstream’ [i.e. ‘White’] audience).  However, in a 1957 interview, Stan Laurel explained that one of his first proper acting roles on the stage in 1907 England, was to play the part of a ‘golliwog’ in a dream sequence (for a production of Sleeping Beauty).  Stan describes this golliwog character as being primarily a ‘rag-doll’ that possesses bushy, curly-hair,  a ‘black’ face with a white mouth and eyes, and wears multicoloured clothing, white gloves, etc.  There is no trace of racial malice in Stan’s ‘matter of fact’ description (something to be expected of a friend of the well-known British Socialist Charlie Chaplin), but there is also no ‘awareness’ of the racist history that underlies such ‘toys’ as the notorious ‘golliwog’, the name of which suggests that a Black person (i.e. ‘wog’) is ‘happy’ (‘golly’) to be depicted in that degrading manner. The concept of a ‘golliwog’ grew out of the subjugation of African-Americans in the US, which spawned a toy or doll for White children to play with.  The term ‘wog’ represents a dehumanising caricature of a Black person that presents their existence (and function within society) as being ‘sub-human’ in nature, and not to be included within the remit of what it means to be ‘civilised’ and fully human. The fact that such an entity is believed to be ‘happy’ in such a state (like a mindless animal), is further indicative of the racist nature of the description.  What is particularly disturbing, is that these ‘golliwog’ dolls embodied the entirety of the ‘White’ race’s historical prejudice, discrimination and hatred toward Black people in general, and that this ‘racism’ was passed on unquestioningly from one generation to the next, by White people to their children, when those children were given these dolls to play with.  Golliwog dolls embodied the attitudes of Eurocentric racism, and serve as a vehicle to transmit that racism to further generations within society.  If Stan Laurel was aware of this, (and he might well have been, reading between the lines), he decided to be honest in his 1957 interview (and not ‘hide’ his acting past), and not introduce issues of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ into the narrative.  What I think is important is that many ordinary White people do not know about the history of racism and sometimes are co-opted into modes of behaviour that they may not even agree with, if the implications were explained. This is why I believe that a progressive Socialist education system is the best means for all ethnic groups to progress together and collectively throw-off the burdens of the past. My view is that Laurel & Hardy exhibit a generally ‘progressive’ attitude to life that remained extraordinarily ‘aloof’of the quite rampant racism of their day, whilst remaining, in many ways, very much a product of the times within which they lived.

Interesting Reference:


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