Terence Blacker: We can tackle racism only by facing up to it

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The Independent Online

It seems that we have become so unthinkingly sensitive to matters of race that it is impossible even to touch on the subject without running the risk of giving offence. This zero-tolerance approach is pretty much universal in the entertainment industry and is rarely questioned, however ill thought-out it may be. A show about Al Jolson is about to open in Edinburgh, but the actor playing the jazz signer will not be "blacking up", as Jolson famously did. "In this day and age, we are not out to offend anyone," Michael Harrison, producer of Jolson & Co, has explained.

As it happens, the business of how to discuss political incorrectness without causing offence has been much on my mind of late. Next Friday at the Fisher Theatre in Bungay, Suffolk, the guitar duo Something Happened, of which I am part, will make its theatrical debut. We will be playing and talking about songs from jazz, folk and bluegrass repertoires written over the past 150 years. I was planning to talk at one point about the song "Shine", which has undergone rather remarkable changes since it was written in 1910, becoming a hit for artists as various as Bing Crosby and Frankie Laine, not to mention Joe Brown and the Bruvvers.

The well-known versions of this jaunty song, whose theme is "Just because my hair is curly/ Just because my teeth are pearly... I'll make the whole world shine", are very different from the original, written by two black songwriters, Cecil Mack and Fred Dabney. "Shine" was term of extreme racial abuse and was also, it was said, the name of a black friend of Mack's who was beaten up by whites.

The verse which has been edited out starts: "When I was born, they christened me plain Samuel Johnson Brown/ But I hadn't grown so very big 'fore some folks in this town/ Had changed it round to 'Sambo', I was 'Rastus' to a few/ The 'Chocolate Drop' was added by others that I knew/ But when these clever people call me 'shine' or 'coon' or 'smoke'/ I simply smile, then smile some more/ And vote them all a joke..."

The song, in other words, is defiantly anti-racist. Yet, because it contains objectionable terms, even in inverted commas, it has become politically incorrect. It is easier not to think about racism at all, nor to learn from the lessons of the past, than to risk causing any kind of offence.

The production of Jolson & Co faced a similar problem. In reality, Jolson, a Jewish immigrant to the US who was born in Lithuania, did as much as any musician to fight prejudice bravely and openly, and paved the way for performers like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington to reach white audiences. But because performing in blackface, then an acceptable theatrical convention, has become offensive to modern sensibilities, the show will take the cowardly way out, removing precisely what would added edge and interest to it.

This type of self-censorship bestows on the bigotry of the past a compliment it does not deserve: the idea that it still has power over us. It leads to the kind of muddle which surrounded Carol Thatcher's remarks about gollywogs. It was behind a reference, in a BBC report this week on Lenny Henry's appearance as Othello, to the "bad old days" when Sir Laurence Olivier was allowed to play the part.

Responding to the behaviour of past generations by not discussing it feels evasive and pusillanimous. As brave men like Jolson, Mack and Dabney proved, the best way of dealing with racism is to look it squarely and defiantly in the face.

Knopfler pulls a few strings at the Garrick Club

When it comes to public image, the singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler and the Garrick Club have at least this much in common: neither is exactly a byword for all that is chic and contemporary. The Garrick is a shockingly male, middle-class and dark-suited members' club, while Knopfler has, quite unfairly, acquired a reputation for being something of a cardigan-and-slippers man, more rocking chair than rock 'n' roll.

All the same, it was a bit of a shock to hear that the Dire Straits frontman is now not only a member of the Garrick, but recently treated its distinguished members to an acoustic set among the leather armchairs.

It is somehow difficult to imagine the club's barristers, newspaper editors and veteran actors getting on down to the sound of "Money For Nothing" as Trollope, Elgar and Dickens looked bemusedly down from the walls. The Garrick session will not do much for the club's credibility and even less for Knopfler's, but the fact that neither seems to care is rather impressive.

Presumably, the normal club rules were enforced and the new boy was obliged to wear a tie as he strummed.

This fairytale kingdom has a sinister side

Politically aware students contemplating a gap-year trip to Thailand might care to consider the country's increasingly repressive attitude to free speech.

Last month, a small-time Australian novelist, Harry Nicolaides, was jailed for three years for allegedly insulting the king. Now an academic, Profesor Giles Ungpakorn, has fled the country, fearing a prison sentence of 15 years for a similar same offence.

The charge of insulting the monarch has a quaint, fairytale ring to it but Professor Ungpakorn, now back in Britain, has an urgent warning about the new Thai regime, and says the country is inching towards a police state.

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