Black faced Morris dancers have always sparked controversary wherever they perform. So why do they do it? Here are a couple of articles about this complex subject.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Border Morris is the face painting. And among the most common questions that Border dancers get asked by the general public is, “Why the black face paint?” Historically, Border dancers usually painted their faces black. That has been a source of some controversy in recent times, so I really need to deal with the origins and purpose of the blackened face.
When it comes to pinning down its origins in the Morris to a specific moment or event, frankly we can’t do that and will never be able to do that. Like so many things in folk tradition, it’s been lost in the mists of time. However, if we assume that Morris dancing exists in the context of wider society (which of course it does), and not in some kind of cultural bubble, then we can find some clues.
Blacking of the face was very much a part of radical popular practices in England, certainly as far back as the fifteenth century. For example, in 1450 about a hundred rebellious peasants and yeomen launched a mass organised poaching raid on the estates of wealthy landowners in Kent; they are recorded as having blackened their faces with soot and charcoal, and described themselves as “servants of the queen of the fairies”. That’s a description that comes up a lot in the history of rebellions and riots around that time, and in connection with the black-painted face, over a period of a couple of hundred years. We also have records of blackened faces later, in the eighteenth century, for example worn by highwaymen and also by the Waltham Blacks, a rebellious group whose seditious activities led to the passing of the so-called Black Act in parliament, which made blackening of the face into a hanging offence; and in the Rebecca Riots of the early 1840s, which took place in the same areas that Border Morris originates from, the border of England and Wales. Just as a side note, by the way, the Rebecca Rioters also sometimes included an element of cross-dressing in their use of disguise, and we could speculate that this might have some relation to the appearance of the cross-dressing “molly” within Border Morris tradition.
So we can maybe place the Border Morris face painting as part of a long tradition of disguise that in the popular mind had an association not only with rebels and lawbreakers, but with the Otherworld, the realm of faerie. I think we can make a connection, through that, with a much older practice that we might call (for want of a better word) shamanistic, and that is seen across many cultures, at many times, of painting the face (like, again, cross-dressing) as a way of marking oneself as Otherworldly, for ritual purposes.
There have been some more recent attempts to argue that the tradition of the blackened face among Border Morris sides should be abolished. That argument has mostly been driven, it has to be said, by a very small number of white people! The suggestion has been that it derives from the old minstrel shows (which were unquestionably racist) and is therefore a racist act and offensive. There are a number of levels on which that argument can be picked apart, not least that a very small number of white people seem to be assuming that they speak for all black people, which rather obviously isn’t the case. I could also give plenty of examples of supportive remarks we’ve had from black people, and among our own Border side’s founding members there were two people of black heritage who were very determined that we should keep to the tradition. But I don’t want to diverge too far from the thread of this particular short article.
One consequence has been a number of Border sides moving away from the black face paint – either changing the colour, or not painting their faces at all, or in a few cases wearing masks. In Wolf’s Head, we aren’t changing. Not least because when everything else we wear is black, it would be a bit daft to unravel the whole concept of the side by changing that for our faces. But the key reason, and the one that is most relevant to the purpose of the face painting, is that black has the greatest significance and power for transforming us into something Other than human. I am not sure why that is, exactly, but maybe it’s to do with the face being effectively “blanked”, the anonymity that it affords. Maybe there is a lingering, subconscious, memory of the blackened face as the mark of a rebel, an outlaw.
From a ritual perspective, what the face paint enables (in the context of the whole Border Morris kit, the tattered jacket, hat, and so on) is a shift in persona. Everyone does something similar every time they put on an outfit that is for a specific purpose – a business suit or a uniform, for example – taking on a personality which is different from our everyday personality, in effect. But when we change our face, there is an even more dramatic and powerful shift in persona, because it’s the face that others generally think of as the outwardly recognisable self.
The blackening of the face is a deliberately magical practice. If we seem rather scary, in that look, it’s because it is meant to be scary! In our Border Morris guise we may be outlaws (it’s no coincidence at all that “wolf’s head” is a very old term for an outlaw). And we may even be “servants of the queen of the fairies”, dark Otherworldly creatures come to dance among you…
Philip Kane – Wolf’shead and Vixen Border Morris
Blacking has nothing to do with race. It is a form of disguise that relates to performing for money (dancing or mumming) by the labouring classes to raise money. The disguise was necessary so the performers were not recognised and then prosecuted for begging, or victimised by their landlords. The disguise also taps into deeper traditions of anonymity, mystery, the supernatural, eeriness and the dark side.
HOWEVER there is a much more sinister side to blacking than this. In 1722 the Criminal Law Act introduced over fifty new capital offences onto the statute book. This Act, known as the “Black Act” was in response to poaching, in particular the “Blacks” who went poaching with blackened faces, so as to not alert the gamekeepers. After the Black Act you could be hanged not only for poaching, fishing in a private pond, damaging a hedge and many similarly minor crimes, but also simply for blacking up. In other words, if Beltane had tried to perform in 1723 we would have ended up on the gallows.
This is at the heart of why later performers blacked their faces, it is a way of remembering the oppression of the past, remembering those who had been executed (or if lucky, simply transported for life) for poaching, in order to provide food for their starving families.
There is a real political edge to our blacking, it is a way of bearing witness to dreadful treatment of the dispossessed labouring classes.
Beltane Border Morris