The owner of the Magpies Nest shop is considering shutting down because it is “not worth the hassle” after a visiting poet said she was guilty of “wilful racism” for selling golliwog toys.
Lancashire-born poet Lemn Sissay, who was in Shetland for this year’s Wordplay literature festival, visited the shop last Friday morning and bought one of the toys. He then posted a blog on his website heavily criticising 70-year-old Thelma Leask for choosing to sell golliwogs, which many view as a throwback to a racist era.
Mrs Leask has run the small shop at Lerwick’s Lodberries, which also sells items such as Shetland trows and an assortment of souvenirs and framed pictures, for the past eight years.
Mr Sissay’s blog, in line with the views of many anti-racism campaigners, stated: “The golliwog is a product and symbol of a time when white people believed (really believed) they were superior and black people inferior.”
The shopkeeper said she was distressed by the way Mr Sissay portrayed her in his blog. He referred to “the bitterness of an angry lost old Shetland lady” and claimed she got a “weird kick out of selling them”.
Mrs Leask said Mr Sissay had come in and told her he loved the dolls, which he then posed with, asking her to take photographs of him with the golliwogs and buying one before he left.
“I thought he was a genuine nice person,” she said. “Then someone told me that he’d written that I’d said ‘these are my children’ [Mr Sissay subsequently altered the word “children” to “childhood” after someone complained], calling me a grey lady… he’s written stuff that’s not right. He’s twisted what I said.”
She admitted that some people had suggested to her that she ought to consider removing the golliwogs from sale. But, because she had not receive very many complaints to her face, she had decided to keep them on display. However, she is “thinking that I’m going to close – it’s not worth the hassle”.
A visibly upset Mrs Leask, who describes the dolls using the term “gollies” rather than “golliwogs”, told this newspaper: “I’m in no way racist at all. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I don’t think anybody who buys them is racist – a lot of folk say they just loved them when they were a child.”
She “honestly believes” the American woman who first created the golliwog in 1895, Florence Kate Upton, was “trying to lessen” racial prejudice when she did so.
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” Mrs Leask insisted.
A spokeswoman for the Show Racism the Red Card organisation told The Shetland Times: “We wouldn’t ever brand anyone a racist [for selling them].
“What we’re saying to people is, find out the history of the golliwog. It is quite a sinister history. Most people, on doing that, would go ‘hmm, that’s probably not something we’d want to make money from’.
“That was the case for Oxfam [which faced criticism from campaigners after an oversight meant individuals had been able to sell the dolls second-hand through its website]. And hopefully it’ll be the case [in Lerwick] too.”
Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons said the organisation was honoured to have a poet of Mr Sissay’s calibre at Wordplay.
He added: “This isn’t the first time that we’ve heard comments from guests, both in terms of performers and audiences who have come into Shetland, relating to the golliwogs being in the window there.”
Around 18 months ago an Aith-based man, Steve Jack, began a petition stating that the toys were “out-dated and deeply offensive”.
At the time, he said the petition was not aimed at the Magpies Nest but had actually been prompted by a museum display.
Mr Jack said the term “golliwog” was, and continues to be, used as “racist slang… long after these unpleasant toys should have been consigned to history”.