‘Mary Poppins,’ and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting With Blackface

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, New York Times, January 28, 2019

“Mary Poppins Returns,” which picked up four Oscar nominations last week, is an enjoyably derivative film that seeks to inspire our nostalgia for the innocent fantasies of childhood, as well as the jolly holidays that the first “Mary Poppins” film conjured for many adult viewers.

Part of the new film’s nostalgia, however, is bound up in a blackface performance tradition that persists throughout the Mary Poppins canon, from P. L. Travers’s books to Disney’s 1964 adaptation, with disturbing echoes in the studio’s newest take on the material, “Mary Poppins Returns.”

One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is of Mary Poppins blacking up. When the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews) accompanies her young charges, Michael and Jane Banks, up their chimney, her face gets covered in soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks even blacker. Then she leads the children on a dancing exploration of London rooftops with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep, Bert.

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

{snip} 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.”

“Mary Poppins Returns,” set in the 1930s, seems to offer a more racially inclusive vision of the Banks’s London (at least among the working classes). {snip}

In Travers’s first “Mary Poppins” novel, published in 1934, a magic compass transports the children around the world, including a stop where they meet a scantily clad “negro lady,” dandling “a tiny black pickaninny with nothing on at all.” (“Pickaninny” has long been seen as an offensive term for a black child.) She addresses Mary Poppins in minstrel dialect and invokes the convention of blacking up: “My, but dem’s very white babies. You wan’ use a li’l bit black boot polish on dem.”

This episode proved so controversial that the book was banned by the San Francisco Public Library, prompting Travers to drop the racialized dialogue and change the offending caricature to an animal. {snip}

{snip} Travers, who was born in Australia to Anglo-Irish parents, claimed that black children loved reading the “pickaninny dialect” in her book, but that she made the change because she didn’t wish to see “Mary Poppins tucked away in a closet” by meddlesome adults.

{snip}

Blackface minstrelsy, in fact, could be said to be part of Disney’s origin story. In an early Mickey Mouse short, a 1933 parody of the antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” called “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” Mickey blacks his face with dynamite to play Topsy, a crazy-haired, raggedy-dressed, comically unruly black child from the book whose name had become synonymous with the pickaninny stereotype.

{snip}

Even if these characters’ shared name is accidental, it speaks to a larger point: Disney has long evoked minstrelsy for its topsy-turvy entertainments — a nanny blacking up, chimney sweeps mocking the upper classes, grinning lamplighters turning work into song.

{snip}

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