Lewes Bonfire’s ‘blacking up’ sparks outrage and points to racism

Members of Borough Bonfire society have been told not to dress in traditional First Pioneer costumes this year at Lewes Bonfire after their ‘blackening up’ has sparked allegations of racism. Lewes bonfire, held on the 5th November (Guy Fawkes Night), is a commemoration which was first annually started in the 1820s and attracts thousands of visitors each year. In addition to the bonfire and impressive fireworks display, another main pull factor is witnessing the bonfire societies with their quirky outfits. Included in this is the Zulu tribesmen costumes which are traditionally worn every year. However, there has recently been speculation over the ‘blacking up’ of faces in order for those who are not already the correct colour to match their skin tone to that of an African tribe member. Certain members of the public are declaring this as a racist practice and there is now a petition in pursuance of getting costume wearers to put the face paint down.

Despite the fact that bonfire society members have traditionally had this addition to their costume for hundreds of years, with our modern awareness and intolerance of racism, people have started to make complaints over the ‘racist’ face paint. They claim that coloured people in Lewes and East Sussex, typically not a very racially diverse area of the country, are made to feel unsafe and see the act of ‘blacking up’ as a caricature. It is said to cause division within communities and make ethnic minority groups feel segregated and inferior.

However, I spoke to Sue, a member of Cliffe Bonfire Society for 40 over years, who told me she feels ‘people are jumping on the bandwagon and making an issue where there isn’t one’. She said how ‘it is a tradition and no one has ever seen it as racism before’.

This year, Borough will be joined by Zulu dancers from KwaZulu, Natal. Given that the group themselves are joining the Borough, they clearly are not offended by non-black people’s use of face paint to look more like them. This raises questions as to whether the issue is being overstressed and like Sue told me ‘people are jumping on the bandwagon’ in order to gain attention from protesting against a harmless practice.

The petition has reached over one thousand signatures and it is unsure whether the Zulu dress-up will continue. While society is pitted against each other with different views, beliefs and morals, it is hard to determine if action should or shouldn’t be taken. Soon as native Zulu dancers are scheduled to take part in the celebration, it is likely this year the dance, and the costumes will go ahead; the question is whether Lewes will see the bonfire societies painted in black. Guy Fawkes Night is a time for our country to come together to celebrate a traditional commemoration and not to clash against each other. Lewes will still be a popular, vibrant and lively night full of colour, entertainment and action.

Georgina Sharma

Heathfield Community College