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 likeable all-rounder Burt, is reminiscent of typical blackface motifs, claims a scientist.

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

Pollack-Pelzner simply refers to the scene as “blacking up,” and while this may seem harmless, it has other, more disturbing connotations.

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

“'Don't touch me, you black heathen,' cries a maid in Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), as a house broom extends its dark hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to stop: 'If that Hottentot goes into the fireplace, I'm going out the door,' she says, using an archaic insult for black South Africans that recurs in book and screen.

“The 1964 film re-enacts this racial panic in absurd fashion. As the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step onto a roof in time, a naval buffoon, 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 for what it is: these aren't real black Africans, but grinning white dancers with blackened faces. It's a parody of the black threat; it was 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 use this language. In the 1952 novel Mary Poppins in the Park, the nanny herself says to an exasperated young Michael, 'I understand you're acting like a Hottentot.'”

Pollack-Pelzner also pointed to other examples of archaic, racially charged language in Travers' Poppins books, which in one case even led to her books being 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 abducted to a South Sea island, where the nanny uses the offensive phrase “pickaninny” and speaks in a racially charged South American dialect.

However, she later said that this was “not an apology for anything I have 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.

But in an online post after the Times article was published, Pollack-Pelzner explained: “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 there was anything in it that was even the slightest bit racist that he should perhaps reconsider before it goes on the screen.”

“After writing this article and receiving tons of hate mail in response, I learned one thing about the alt-right: Mary Poppins definitely suits them very well!”

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