'Mary Poppins' chimney sweep 'blackface' dance is racist, claims academic

Ben Arnold
Contributor
Mary Poppins (Credit: Disney)

The chimney sweep dance in Mary Poppins, led by Dick van Dyk’s affable jack-of-all-trades Burt, harks back to ‘blackface’ tropes, an academic has claimed.

In an article in the New York Times, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a professor of English and gender studies professor at Oregon’s Linfield College, has said that in the book by PL Travers, the sequence signifies ‘racial panic’.

Pollack-Pelzner flatly calls the scene ‘blacking up’, and while it may seem innocuous, it has other more troubling connotations.

“This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature,” he writes.

“’Don’t touch me, you black heathen,’ a housemaid screams in Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), as a sweep reaches out his darkened hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to quit: ‘If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door,’ she says, using an archaic slur for black South Africans that recurs on page and screen.

“The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key. When the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step in time on a roof, a naval buffoon, Admiral Boom, shouts, ‘We’re being attacked by Hottentots!’ and orders his cannon to be fired at the ‘cheeky devils.’

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

Pollack-Pelzner has also pointed to other instances of archaic, racially-loaded language in Travers’ Poppins books, which in once instance actually saw her books banned from the San Francisco Public Library in the early 80s.

Travers later re-wrote the chapters in a revised edition of the book, in which Poppins and Jane and Michael Banks are transported to a South Sea Island, where the nanny uses the offensive phrase ‘pickaninny’ and speaks in a racially charged southern American dialect.

However, she later said that she did so ‘not as an apology for anything I have written, the reason is much more simple: I do not wish to see Mary Poppins tucked away in a closet’.

Disney is yet to comment on the matter.

But posting online after the publishing of the piece in the Times, Pollack-Pelzner said: “The chief reason I wrote this article was the hope that a Disney exec would read it, take another look at the forthcoming Dumbo remake, and ask if there was anything just a little bit racist they might want to rethink before it hits the big screen.

“Here’s one thing I’ve learned about the alt-right, after I wrote this article and received a zillion hate messages in response: they sure like Mary Poppins!”

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