FRESh and ‘blackface’ Morris performances
Since the news broke in August 2016 that Shrewsbury Folk Festival had decided not to book black face acts from 2017 onwards, FRESh has been inundated with emails and social media comment about our involvement. We have received messages of support from within the Morris movement, but the majority of the feedback has been critical of us and asking questions about our role in this controversial issue.
We have read all of these messages. Most of them raise similar questions, which we have listed below together with our responses. We hope you find them helpful.
Because we are a small voluntary group, we lack the capacity to reply to most individual emails or phone calls on this topic. We regret that we will not be able to reply to further emails or phone calls responding to this posting.
The questions and issues raised most frequently are:
Have you threatened to take legal action against Shrewsbury Folk Festival?
We have not threatened to take legal action against the Folk Festival. We have passed on to them advice we received from the independent Equality Advisory Support Service, so that they would be able to consider this when thinking about what action they should take.
Suggestions that FRESh is ignorant or dismissive of Morris traditions
We have spent a considerable time researching Morris traditions and history, spoken with people who are Morris performers, and met with the Folk Festival, the Morris Federation and Open Morris to discuss Morris traditions.
FRESh see Morris as an important and valuable part of wider English and Welsh folk traditions, and we have consistently stressed that we are not seeking to attack or trivialise Morris traditions. Controversy about whether the Morris disguise tradition can be seen as racist has a long history. For an excellent exploration by a Border Morris musician, see the 2014 blog by James Bell. The Morris Federation Newsletter, Winter 2013 carried a personal view of the issues by Morris dancer Chloe Metcalfe: “To black up or not to black up?”
The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) has posted a statement on their website setting out their position on blackface performance.
Traditions have always adapted and been celebrated in ways that change over time in response to changes in society. Many Morris sides, including some who perform at Shrewsbury Folk Festival, have chosen for themselves to stop blacking up for reasons which include growing unease at the offence it can give to people of all ethnicities who are unaware of the history and traditions, and the negative impact that continuing is likely to have on the Morris movement as a whole.
As well as a lot of opposition, FRESh is receiving significant support from within the Morris and wider folk movements for our work on this issue.
How is this about equality or diversity? Doesn’t it discriminate against the Morris tradition and rural communities?
A frequent comment has been that FRESh cannot value diversity or equality if we attack a long-established cultural tradition which is part of the diversity of English and Welsh rural life.
FRESh is not attacking the Morris tradition. Instead, we are suggesting that one aspect of that tradition could adapt to 21st century communities and conditions. It is not necessary to carry on with exactly the same rituals and representations in order to celebrate a tradition. An increasing number of Morris teams are already choosing not to use blackface, and are using other ways to represent the historical disguise tradition. Along with them and many others in the Morris movement we believe that celebrating the tradition in creative alternative ways is likely to cause the least long-term harm for both the Morris movement and the wider community.
Blacked-up faces can contribute to the everyday hurt and exclusion experienced by people of colour. Irrespective of where black disguises came from and whether they have racist origins, a blacked-up face can be deeply upsetting, especially – but not only – for people from African and Afro-Caribbean communities. This alone should be sufficient reason to phase it out.
Was there an actual complaint to FRESh?
There were two, one of which started the discussion with the Folk Festival. There have also been several other comments made about this issue to FRESh over several years
What is the composition of FRESh?
FRESh is managed by a board of voluntary directors. FRESh’s Board, members and supporters include people from all the protected characteristics defined in the Equality Act 2010, as well as from other characteristics that may give rise to inequality and discrimination such as rurality, immigration status, and economic and social status (class).
The decision to exclude blackface Morris teams from future Folk Festivals
There has been a misunderstanding in some of the responses to FRESh that we were responsible for deciding to exclude blackface Morris teams from future Folk Festivals.
Our involvement has been in discussing and advocating such a decision with Shrewsbury Folk Festival organisers, who are on record saying that they took the decision for themselves. FRESh welcomes their decision, and would wish to support the Festival to put it into practice.