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.

Isobel Harrop

About the author

The Badger

Leave a Reply

19 Comments

  • The festival is about Saturnalia style anarchy, it both celebrates heroes fighting against oppression and satirises and ritually sacrifices villains. The confusing part is with the parade and costumes, with burning crosses and smugglers next to Zulus, Native Americans alongside Guy Fawkes, you could be forgiven for wondering about the intentions of the societies in portraying these groups. In the case of the Native Americans, Lewes people who had visited America in the 19th century adopted the costumes in response to witnessing their plight. I suspect the same spirit is behind the Zulu costumes, referencing their resistance against the British in the Anglo-Zulu war, but having spent a while researching the history of the festival I can’t find anything about Lewes Borough Society’s reasons for adopting the costume.
    In any case, even if there are good intentions behind the societies’ portrayal of these groups, it is still white people attempting to be the voice for other ethnicities, which is pretty insulting in itself, and white people appropriating the symbols of other ethnic groups, despite concerns being raised about cultural insensitivity (of which they will surely be well aware, given a couple of stories have made the national press). Those costumes should be quietly retired, but I’m not sure it will happen any time soon – they “wunt be druv” as the motto goes.The only ethical way to keep the costumes in the parade would be if Zulu and Native American tribespeople themselves agreed to take part.
    On the subject of white people speaking for other ethnic groups, all the criticism I have read is from white, middle class journalists and I for one would be really interested to hear the views of people who identify as Black British or Native American on this issue.

  • Hiya! I originally had a comment in the article referencing myself as white and not wanting to speak for these people but I was trying to cut down the words so I took it out. I completely agree – had I had more time and words, I would have tried to interview POC from/living in Lewes for sure, or better yet I hope that they will speak up on their own terms soon 🙂 I also emailed the group themselves looking for their take, though it was a little short notice and again considering the word count i decided not to wait for a reply. If I do get a response from them, I will try to post it here! The woman from Lewes I spoke to was also white, I should say. However I do think, though we shouldn’t be sole voices, it’s pretty standard that black-face is Not Okay and I think it’s ok for me to write about that. It’s hardly a revolutionary opinion and I just felt that since there was barely any writing about it, I would propose it as an article myself. I did find one blog post discussing race in Lewes and featured POC talking about their own Lewes experience but it appears to be written by a white guy: http://www.davidjamessmith.net/blog/2010/10/1042/ I hope that by bringing it some attention some of them will consider the implications of what they’re doing but, as the woman I spoke to and you yourself have said, it’s unlikely to come soon. Sigh!

    • I am not black, but I know that in Padstow (Cornwall) where they have ‘The Dark Nights’, a traditional celebration of Winter Solstice, they paint their faces black.
      A black man came along and got into the spirit of it by painting his face white for a laugh.
      I hope that many black people would see it for what it is, simply people dressing up as Zulus, who happen to have black skin, so therefore it is appropriate to paint ones face black, as a black person dressing as a Viking, or as Marilyn Munro would paint their face white. Why on earth is that racist? I don’t understand.

  • Re. the link – thanks, I read his original Guardian article but not this one, which goes a bit further in addressing the issue of hearing BME voices on the parade. Well done for raising this issue in your article, it’s something that’s been on my mind the last few weeks, hence the research I’ve done on it 🙂

  • How is dressing up as a zulu or native American racist? Both the zulus and native Americans were chosen as pioneer groups as a reminder of their suffering.
    Do you think racist everytime a person in a film disguises themselves as a person of a different race? That would rather me up a few very funny films.
    Black faces in the smugglers costume is traditional, though not mandatory, to hide ones identity (which has been traditional history since early 1800s). It is not done in a black and white minstrel way, more camouflage. Solders on night duties are not racist, just hiding their faces.
    If you do a little research you can easily find out why things are done and for what reason. But no. You see a person dressed in zulu, with a black face and assume racism, not a good costume with a person looking as zulu like as possible. Ask the zulus if they object. Their leader in around 1980 didn’t when he came as a guest of honour and visited and heaped praise on the costumes.
    The racist card is overplayed and is diluting the fight against real racism.

  • Thanks for your response Paul. In answer to your question “Do you think racist everytime a person in a film disguises themselves as a person of a different race?” – yes. Also I have pretty much never in my life watched any film which I consider to be funny that involved blackface, so I have no idea what films you are referring to. It also doesn’t seem that you actually read my article as I do not once mention the smugglers costumes which do not bother me. It’s meant to be soot, I get it. I’ve done my research, and I stand by what I say above. I think YOU don’t understand much about racial history an colonialism and maybe you need to do some more reading to understand why it’s not okay.

  • Did a Zulu dignitary really visit Paul? I’ve been looking for info about that and couldn’t find anything – you have a link to an article or something? I must admit to loving the costumes and the parade and it’s only the last few weeks I’ve been questioning it all.
    I can think of one movie I really like that uses blackface – Tropic Thunder (yes I know…childish sense of humour). I think the bonfire societies are all well intentioned, and I do feel a pang about traditions dying out because folk are offended – especially as the whole festival is about anarchy and sticking it to the man. However the fact remains that these negative connotations exist. If the people being portrayed are offended but we continue to use their costumes/symbols or whatever despite that, then we’re kind of being dicks, no?

  • I don’t suggest the entire tradition of the event should die out and as I say in my opening paragraphs, there were loads of great costumes!! But “Zulus” were not one of them because they made me uncomfortable and unhappy. I agree that they probably mean well, which is why I framed this article not to call them racists but just to bring attention to the issue. It was edited to add the question “is Lewes Bonfire Racist?” – I originally named it “Lewes Bonfire, race, and tradition”. I also did attempt to contact the society themselves and it’s my fault for doing it so late that I couldn’t hear from them before I finished it, and maybe it would have been more balanced if I had waited for a reply. Again as I say in the article, I doubt they feel they are racists and neither am I suggesting that they are- but I DO think that wearing blackface is an act of racial discrimination. We all perform small acts of racial discrimination occasionally. We live in a racist world and we have to acknowledge when we do and work to change what has been ingrained in us. For the bonfire society this still applies, I think that they should reevaluate their decision to wear the costume.

  • Isobel, To dress as a Zulu really needs a person to look black – surely? OK films can afford the money to use latex and other stuff, but the bonfire people just use face paint. There are no big red lips to accompany the face, so not a 1940s style “gollywog” look. They are just trying to look like Zulus as best they can. As far as I know, the Indians do not “brown up” at all.

    You are not worried about smugglers blacking up but you object when a person wants to look like a Zulu and wears black face paint. Please confirm that I have understood this point and explain why?

    A few films/TV programmes where white men have blacked up: Tropic Thunder, Little Britain, Mission Impossible, Hustle, every film that Sasha Cohen Baron has been in, The Lone Ranger (2013 version), A Mighty Heart, League of Gentlemen (actually had a black man “black up”!), not to mention any white actor that has played Othello. I’ll take the loan ranger as an example where Johnny Depp acted as a native american – do you (or did/does) anyone think that that is racist? Or Mission Impossible where Tom Cruize disguised himself as a black man – racist? If this is not racist, please explain the difference between a white man pretending to be a black character in a film and in Lewes (from a racist point of view).

    And a few where black men have whited up: Watermelon Man, Saturday Night Live, Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, True Identity, White Chicks (where black men dress as white ladies, so sexist too I guess). Lenny Henry has “whited up” lots of time. Again, no thought of racism here, or is there?

    Is there any difference is the (alleged) racist angle if the change of skin colour is done professionally or in an amateur way? I think not, but then having a father of Afro-Caribbean decent and a mother of Latino decent, blacking up is one thing I’ll never have to do.

    Nobody has mentioned the Mongolians or any other races that are portrayed in costume such as Vikings, French, Scottish, Indian, Boers to name but a few. If dressing up like a race that you are not is racist, then lets get everyone moaned at whilst we are being blinkered to what is really going on and playing the race card because we think it is the right thing to do. Save moaning about racist activities until there are actually racist activities as moans like this just reduce the effectiveness of the true complaints where there are real problems.

    From your piece:
    “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” – There is no more racism in Lewes Bonfire than in the country in general and surely white racists wouldn’t dress up a black people (do they?).
    “I saw one black girl amongst a group of white friends, and wondered if she felt alienated.” – switch that to black boy and go back to 30 years when I was 9 and I can honestly say “NO, I did not”.
    “The problem is, that those who dress up this way don’t care how they look to us.” Yes they do, they try to look their best in their costume (and a Zulu with a white face – come on).
    “It’s a tradition maintained by the hard work of the working classes.” Utter rubbish. Solicitors, Accountants, Architects, Senior managers, Teachers, Doctors, Nurses, Landlords, Builders, Chauffeurs, Retired, in education, Town Counsellors, Pilots, Deacons, Insurance Brokers, Firemen, Armed Forces, Air Traffic Controllers, Barristers, Police and Business Owners are just a few of the professions that I know are part of Lewes Bonfire. Some of the above even dress up as ethnic minorities and some are ethnic minorities.

    I think I’m going to join the Zulus next year, just to shut up this knee jerk reaction of black face = racist. I’m guessing people like you will still see a blacked up face and automatically think racism. It is not a direct link. I think racist are thick because, one the reasons, they wont open their minds. Will you?

  • No Em, I’m not having a laugh and I’m not Paul Miller. If you would like to answer the questions I put to Isobel to tell me where I am wrong please feel free.

  • Good on you Paul. Well said that man. I was born and grew up in East Sussex and the bonfire tradition has been part of my life as long as I can remember. There is absolutely nothing racist about it. The pioneer costumes of many of the bonfire societies in Lewes (for example Zulus, red indians, sufragettes, french revolutionaries) are based on groups of people, who were being oppressed at the time and having a hard time when the costumes were chosen. The idea was to draw attention to their plight and to make their cause public and show the man on the street that intolerance was not the way to go. This fits in with the Sussex motto “We wunt be druv” or “We won’t be forced do anything”. The whole bonfire thing is about freedom to excercise your right to be who you are and believe in what you want to believe in. The origins of bonfire in Lewes go back to the 16th Century when 17 protestant martyrs were pulled out of their houses and after a trial that was a foregone conclusion were burned at the stake on the orders of the then pope in the centre of the town. The 17 protestants were doing nothing else, but exercising their freedom of religion. They weren’t important political figures or anyone of any note. They were simply local people and they were used to set an example to the Sussex population that freedom of religion was no longer an option. The only option was going to be catholicism. That is why these celebrations take place in Lewes. The local population were so shocked by this sudden and devastating violence against innocents that they turned against the oppressors and have been celebrating their rights to freedom of speech, to decide their own religion, to highlight the plight of others, who face a similar fate and incidentally their right to have a good time ever since. These days the bonfire societies are mixed in race, religion, profession, age and sex. Everyone has a great time together and it really is the antithesis of racism.

  • well said paul! gemma and em i suggest you get your facts straight before you start accusing us bonfire boys and girls of being “racists”. you’re pretty much taking your own rights away as i see it! surely if a black person painted them selves white that would be racist too? or is that just how equality works?

  • Its a shame you chose to use your ill informed and poorly researched blog to discuss two matters you clearly have no knowledge about, Lewes Bonfire and Racism, despite your opinion, the two do not have any connection, or basis in fact.
    You also chose rather unwisely when you decided to pass comments about my granddaughter, had you made any reasonable attempt to contact the society you refer to, I would have been happy to deal with your enquiries, I could have enlightened you to the fact That my granddaughters grandfather is South African, my youngest daughter, my granddaughters aunt’s mother is East European, My family have a wide and diverse circle of friends from all walks of life and all around the globe. We, like members of bonfire societies have not got time for prejudice of any sort . Oh and I can assure you that with Zulus proudly being portrayed for at least 110 years (sussex express 12 nov 1905) they are highly likely to still be featuring in another 110 years. as probably will be Native American Indians, Genghis Khan and his Mogul hoards, Romans & Vikings but of course no problem with the last two, if we are still in the EU

  • I don’t see how a celebration of culture is racist in any way. A few years ago the Society have a genuine Zulu ( a black man) fly over to this country to join in our celebrations. And he loved it.