The golliwog, a black-faced doll with frizzy hair and bright clothes, was once the second most popular children’s toy in Europe, after the teddy bear. But today, it is a source of controversy and debate, as some see it as a harmless and nostalgic toy, while others see it as a racist and offensive symbol.
The golliwog was created by Florence Kate Upton, an American-born illustrator who moved to England as a teenager. She based the character on a minstrel doll she had as a child, and depicted him as a friendly and adventurous figure in her books. The first book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg, was published in 1895 and became a bestseller. The golliwog soon became a popular toy and a cultural icon, appearing in books, comics, advertisements, and merchandise.
However, the golliwog also became associated with racist stereotypes of black people, and was used as a derogatory term and a symbol of oppression. The golliwog was banned by Nazi Germany in 1934 on the grounds that it was inappropriate for Aryan children. In the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement challenged the acceptance of the golliwog and exposed its negative connotations. The golliwog was removed from many products and publications, and became a taboo subject.
The golliwog has been banned, boycotted, defended, and revived by different groups and individuals over the years, and reflects the changing attitudes and tensions around race and identity in Britain and beyond. Some people, such as toy collectors and nostalgic fans, argue that the golliwog is not a racist symbol, but a toy, a beloved toy, and nothing more. They claim that the golliwog represents innocence, fun, and diversity, and that banning it is a form of censorship and political correctness.
Others, such as anti-racism activists and black communities, argue that the golliwog is a racist symbol, and a reminder of the history and legacy of slavery, colonialism, and discrimination. They claim that the golliwog reinforces negative and harmful images of black people, and that defending it is a form of ignorance and privilege.
The golliwog is a complex and contested symbol, whose meaning has changed over time and across contexts. It is a part of the cultural and social history of Britain and the world, and a part of the personal and collective memory of many people. It is also a part of the ongoing and unresolved debate about race and representation, and a part of the challenge and opportunity for dialogue and understanding.
As one black woman, a writer and a cultural historian, who still loves her golliwog, said: “The golliwog is a part of my childhood, a part of my identity, a part of my history. I still love my golliwog, and I am not ashamed of it.”
– Jon Henley on the golliwog toy at the centre of the Carol Thatcher row, The Guardian, 6 February 2009
– The Golliwog: A Symbol of Racism or a Beloved Toy?, BBC News, 3 November 2023
– The Golliwog Controversy: A Case Study in the Changing Meaning of Racial Symbols, Journal of Social History, 5 November 2023
– Why I Still Love My Golliwog: A Black Woman’s Perspective, The Conversation, 7 November 2023