No idea is too stupid to be entertained on the op-ed page of the New York Times. I was reminded of this truism last night when, changing the paper in the parrot’s cage, I read that the latest enjoyable vehicle for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s talents is not just a good 20 minutes too long, but also perniciously racist, if not sunk to its Victorian corsets in white nationalist propaganda.
‘Mary Poppins and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting With Blackface’, wrote Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, professor of English and Contemporary Virtue at Linfield College, Oregon. Mary Poppins Returns, Pollack-Pelzner contends, is not intermittently supercalifragilistic and essentially harmless entertainment, but a racist device for the evoking of ‘nostalgia’ for the ‘blackface performance tradition’.
The prof refers, of course, to the filth on the faces of Dick van Dyke’s hideously white team of Cockney chimney sweeps, and to the notorious scene in which Julie Andrews revels in her white supremacy by dirtying her face so she can ‘step in time’ on the rooftops of London.
Now, I am no Poppins partisan. I would rather receive a strychnine enema from Julie Andrews than have spoonfuls of her sugary, shrill warbling forced into my ears. Dick van Dyke’s Cockney accent is, if you can imagine such a thing, worse than those of Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady) or that repeat offender Don Cheadle (Ocean’s Eleven to Thirteen). And the songs are feeble compared to those of Disney’s Jungle Book and Robin Hood.
Pollack-Pelzner is practicing the academic procedure of guilt by association. This is easily done in this case, because P.L. Travers’s novels, the original source of the Poppins franchise, were not only written by a demented follower of the Theosophist mind-power weirdo George Gurdjieff, but also by a child of their time. Pollack-Pelzner recites how in Travers’s first novel, Mary Poppins (1934), a magic compass carries the children around the world:
‘They meet a scantily clad “negro lady,” dandling “a tiny black piccaninny with nothing on at all.” (“Pickaninny” has long been seen as an offensive term for a black child.)’
Leaving aside the question of whether journeys by magic compass should be taken as documents of social history, it is clear that ‘negro’ and ‘piccaninny’ are offensive to modern American taste. The latter term is also offensive in modern Britain; in 2008, Boris Johnson apologized for having joked in 2002 about ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’. But ‘pickaninny’ wasn’t offensive in Travers’ childhood — she was born in 1899 — or in Britain in 1934. The Chambers Dictionary, 1908 edition, merely defines ‘pickaninny’ as ‘a little child, an African or negro child’, and supplies the etymology, the Spanish pequeño niño.
As for ‘negro’, which was value-neutral in Britain in 1934, Pollack-Pelzner might first consider his countrymen’s more recent penchant for torturing, raping and murdering ‘negroes’ for offenses such as sitting at the wrong lunch counter or looking at women while black. These crimes were permitted by law, and encouraged by police officers, the judiciary and public opinion. Nothing like them exists in the history of 20th-century Britain. Nor does Britain have a constituency comparable to the large number of Americans who still sport Confederate flags. Projecting white American guilt on to a batty children’s novelist in another country cannot change that. And really, what’s more obnoxious: the entertainment business smoothing out antique usages in old children’s novels, or the entertainment business rewarding black entertainers for shouting the n-word at each other for mostly white audiences?
It’s true that Travers’s novels contain jokes about ‘Hottentots’, another term now considered pejorative. It’s also true that her joke is often on the whites. Invariably, the joke mocks the pampered innocence of Poppins’ little charges, or the stoic ignorance of the working class. ‘Don’t touch me, you black heathen,’ the housemaid screams when the children come into the house with soot on their faces in Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943). ‘If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door,’ says her fellow-traveller in plebeian thickness, the cook.
The 1964 film retains the class snobbery. The commoners are still cretins, a role which Dick van Dyke pulls off so well that it’s as if he’s hardly acting at all. But the only ‘racist’ sentiment from their betters comes from the retired sea captain. And he, as Pollack-Pelzner admits, is played as a ‘buffoon’, a relic of the British Empire. In his latest iteration, the captain refrains from talking about Hottentots entirely. Nor does anyone else express ‘nostalgia’ for historic racism.
So there’s nothing racist at all in Mary Poppins Returns. Professor Pollack-Pelzner is a professional pearl-clutcher, deliberately conflating Travers’s novels with the watered-down Disney franchise so he can get his name in the papers. He’s also a shameless cultural appropriator. His webpage at Linfield College, that powerhouse of the modern Humanities, describes him as an ‘Oregon native’. He isn’t. He’s the heir to the white settlers who expunged the natives of Oregon and left the survivors to rot on reservations. He’s also a shameless appropriator of English literature, teaching Shakespeare, a foreign author, without the presence of a British-born classroom aide who could tell him when he’s talking rubbish, mate.
Professor Pollack-Pelzner, I’m calling you out for exploiting your unexamined white privilege and ethnosupremacy. I want my language back. You can keep the Mary Poppins DVD.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.