Chimney Sweep

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

Mary Poppins (Image credit: Disney)

The chimney sweep dance in Mary Poppins, led by Dick van Dyk’s affable all-rounder Burt, goes back to “blackface” tropes, as one scientist has claimed.

In an article in the New York Times, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Professor of English and Gender Studies at Linfield College, Oregon, said that the sequence in PL Travers’ book means “Racial Panic”.

Pollack-Pelzner flatly calls the scene “black-up,” and while it appears harmless, it has other more unsettling connotations.

“This could seem like a harmless comic scene if Travers’ novels don’t associate the blackened faces of chimney sweeps with racist caricature,” he writes.

“’Don’t touch me, you black pagan,’ yells a housemaid in Mary Poppins Open the Door (1943) as a wave extends his dark hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to stop: “If this Hottentot goes down the chimney, I’ll go out the door,” she says, using an archaic sheet for black South Africans that is repeated on the page and screen.

“The 1964 film repeats this racist panic in a farce. When the dark shapes of the chimney sweep onto a roof in time, Admiral Boom, a marine idiot, yells: “We are being attacked by the Hottentots!” and orders his cannon to be fired at the “cheeky devils”.

“We’re involved in the joke the way it is: they’re not really black Africans; They are grinning white dancers in black. It’s a parody of the black menace; It’s 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, the nanny herself tells a disgruntled young Michael, “I understand you are acting like a Hottentot.”

Pollack-Pelzner has also pointed to other instances of archaic, racially charged language in Travers ‘Poppins’ books, in which her books were actually banned from the San Francisco Public Library in the early 1980s.

The story goes on

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

However, she later said that she “did not do this as an excuse for anything I wrote, the reason is much simpler: I do not want to see Mary Poppins hidden in a closet”.

Disney has yet to comment on the matter.

However, Pollack-Pelzner published online after the article was published in The Times, saying, “The main reason I wrote this article was in the hope that a Disney executive would read it, re-watch the upcoming Dumbo remake, and would ask if there is something just a little bit racist that they might want to reconsider before it gets to the big screen.

“Here’s one thing I learned about alt-law after writing this article and receiving tens of millions of hate speech messages: You really like Mary Poppins!”

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