Lewes on Bonfire Night is a truly exciting, unusual, and overall fun evening that I have enjoyed now both years that I have been at Sussex (Despite the squashing between strangers and fire hazards that surround you). The march through town is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
It is made up of many small “bonfire societies” from the Lewes area, each with their own history, traditions, and costumes. Many of the costumes are wonderful, imaginative, and modern; this year had everything from superheroes followed by suffragists in Votes For Women sashes, to steam punks in goggles followed by someone dressed as the Pope (I think)with a dinosaur tail sticking out of the back of his robe. No, I don’t know either.
But Is Lewes Bonfire racist? Other costumes were less pleasing. Watching a group of ‘Zulu Warriors’ in full black-face and exaggerated tribal costumes boggled my mind. Caricatures of Native Americans passed by in festival-ready feathered headdresses. I was shocked. I remembered vaguely seeing the ‘Zulus’ a year previous, but it had slipped my mind, and now here again as they marched in front of me, it hit me twice as hard that there was something not right about seeing this in 2014.
In order to look for other opinions on the subject, I hit Google. It was relatively fruitless. Some forums mentioned the offending black-face, but passed it off as just another tradition. Other articles written after this years event talked of the racism of the Alex Salmond effigies which were burned. I scoffed at the idea that some considered a single powerful, white man the target of racism but that no one had cared to mention the black-face which was right in front of them.
On Twitter, I got talking to a Lewes resident who had walked in the march with another society not linked to the ‘Zulus’. As an outsider, I felt I needed someone who knew the history of the event and the people themselves to get the full picture. The resident helped me to calm my outrage somewhat – whilst she agreed with me that the costumes were wrong and the tradition “should die out”, she knew that name calling and a big hoo-hah would not deter those who currently choose this dress. To them, it’s what they’ve always done, and their parents did, and their grandparents did, and their kids do too (I looked at the results of this years Lewes costume contest to see that the 2nd best costume in the “Girls aged 5-9” category was a ‘Zulu’).
I don’t think this is an excuse at all – I believe now that we all have a responsibility to our communities and the world to move forward to a world away from hate and prejudice. We can’t walk on blindly doing what generations before us did. I looked around me to see families of all backgrounds, from other races and cultures, of all ages, as we all gawked at the flame baring white men and women painted pitch black, and I wondered how they felt. I saw one black girl amongst a group of white friends, and wondered if she felt alienated.
It reminded me of the book “Anita and Me” by Meera Syal. An Indian girl in a very white area of the Midlands befriends the coolest girl in the neighbourhood. She thinks they’re best friends, and that she sees beyond her race – but when her new friend introduces her to her dog, named after a particularly derogatory word used towards black people I won’t be typing here – she is hit with the realisation that they don’t really see her as an equal. Could this be how the black population of Lewes feels as they look on their neighbours in these costumes, along with the many visitors from Brighton, and beyond? This year over 80,000 people attended.
The problem is, that those who dress up this way don’t care how they look to us. This is what they do, this is who they are, and they’re proud. They probably don’t see themselves as ‘racists’, but one certainly doesn’t have to be A Racist to perform acts of racial discrimination. A boycott of the event is unlikely to have an impact, the resident told me, as many of the bonfire societies would prefer it if there were less people, especially students. It’s a tradition maintained by the hard work of the working classes, she said, and they do it for themselves.
Then what is the best way to tackle something like this? It’s a tough one. All I know is we must keep asking questions. I think that’s one of the best things we can do. Perhaps that 5-9 year old little girl will grow up to look at herself in the mirror and ask herself a question, and the answer will be to take the make up off.