British bonfire celebration once again mired in blackface controversy

Posted at 10:59 AM, Nov 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-02 12:59:12-04

A fresh racism row has erupted around one of the biggest bonfire festivals in Britain after a child appeared in blackface.

The East Sussex town of Lewes is famous for its traditional November 5 celebrations, which include firework displays, parades and the burning of effigies.

Bonfire Night is a tradition celebrated across Britain to commemorate the arrest of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to kill King James I in 1605.

The young boy appeared in blackface alongside his mother at a costume contest that took place in the run up to Bonfire Night. A photo was later published on Facebook and appeared in a shop window in Lewes.

There are six bonfire societies in town and members dress up in costumes depicting Vikings, Native Americans, monks, Roman legionaries and Genghis Khan’s Mongol warriors.

For more than 100 years, members of the Lewes Borough Bonfire Society dressed up in Zulu-style costumes, complete with blackface, and paraded through the town.

But after widespread criticism, the society last year sought guidance from a Zulu group and pledged to end the practice.

The latest incident has reignited controversy.

Mick Symes, a member of the Lewes Borough Bonfire Society committee, told CNN via telephone that the group is “serious about the issue of racism” and regretted the recent incident.

“It’s caused us a lot of embarrassment,” said Symes. “It’s against the rules of our society.”

Symes said that while there have been some racist incidents in Lewes, it is no more of a problem than in other towns.

“It’s a diverse community and people get on well,” he said.

Nonetheless, an anonymous activist group known as Bonfire Against Racism continues to campaign against the use of blackface in the Lewes festivities.

“The decision of a small fraction of participants to embody caricatured, negative stereotypes of black Africans is racist and runs counter to the overall spirit of the event,” reads a statement on the group’s website. “Their action serves only to increase tension and division within our diverse community.”

The group has so far not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

A spokesman for the local authority, Lewes and Eastbourne Councils, told CNN that it would not be commenting on the matter as the bonfire is not an official event.