Chimney Sweep

‘Mary Poppins’ chimney sweep ‘blackface’ dance is racist, claims educational

The chimney sweep dance in Mary Poppins, led by Dick van Dyk's affable jack-of-all-trades Burt, is reminiscent of blackface themes, one academic has claimed.

In an article in the New York Times, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a professor of English and gender studies at Linfield College in Oregon, said that the sequence in PL Travers' book means “racial panic.”

Pollack-Pelzner simply calls the scene “blackout,” and while it may seem harmless, it has other, more disturbing connotations.

“This might seem like a harmless comic scene if Travers' novels did not associate the blackened faces of chimney sweeps with racist caricatures,” he writes.

“'Don't touch me, you black heathen,' screams a maid in Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943) as a sweep extends his dark hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to stop: “If that Hottentot goes down the chimney, I'm going out the door,” she says, using an archaic insult to black South Africans that appears repeatedly on page and screen occurs.

“The 1964 film recreates this racial panic in an absurd tone. As the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step onto a roof in rhythm, a naval idiot, Admiral Boom, shouts: “We are being attacked by Hottentots!” and orders his cannon to be fired at the “insolent devils”.

“We’re in on the joke such as it is: These aren’t really black Africans; They are grinning white dancers in blackface. It's a parody of The Black Menace; It is even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film's racial hierarchy. And it's not just fools like the Admiral who invoke this language. In the 1952 novel “Mary Poppins in the Park,” the nanny herself says to the upset young Michael, “I understand that you are behaving like a Hottentot.”

Pollack-Pelzner has also pointed out other examples of archaic, racially charged language in Travers' Poppins books, in one case her books were actually banned from the San Francisco Public Library in the early 1980s.

Travers later rewrote the chapters in a revised edition of the book, in which Poppins, Jane, and Michael Banks are transported to a South Seas island, where the nanny uses the offensive phrase “pickaninny” and speaks in a racially charged South American dialect.

However, she later said she “didn't do this as an apology for anything I've written, the reason is much simpler: I don't want to see Mary Poppins hidden in a closet.”

Disney has not yet commented on the matter.

However, after the Times article was published, Pollack-Pelzner posted online: “The main reason I wrote this article was in the hope that a Disney executive would read it, take another look at the upcoming Dumbo remake and ask “If it was there.” If it was all a bit racist, maybe they should think again before it hits the big screen.

“One thing I learned about the alt-right after writing this article and receiving countless hate messages in response: They really like Mary Poppins!”

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