From the New York Times news section (i.e., not Opinion):
Julie Andrews’s soot-covered face in the 1964 film “Mary Poppins” stems from racial caricatures in books.
By Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Jan. 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.
… “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). But a key sequence of the film plays into a much more fraught history from a suppressed part of Mary Poppins’s past.
In the past, however, chimney sweeps were a famous part in the struggle for child labor laws against dogmatic laissez-faire economics. But nobody remembers, much less cares about that anymore. As I wrote in VDARE in 2007 in “The Axis Of Amnesty’s Ideology Of Cheap Labor,”
Senator Kennedy is echoing, oddly enough, the fatalistic conventional wisdom of Dickensian England—the doctrinaire assumption that cheap labor is essential, and that the inexorable grinding of the dismal laws of economic science determine wages as immutably as the orbit of Mercury is fixed by Newton’s Law of Gravity.
The main difference: while Sen. Kennedy assumes the need for unskilled immigrant workers, the early Victorians were convinced of the necessity of uneducated child laborers. …
Back then, the ruling class didn’t fulminate over plucking chickens but over sweeping chimneys.
Consider the fates of the little boys, from age four on up, who were widely employed by master chimney sweeps to clamber up inside long flues and knock down the soot, at horrific cost to their health. Paul Johnson writes in A History of the English People (p.285), “often they were forced up by the use of long pricks, and by applying wisps of flaming straw to their feet. They suffered from a variety of occupational diseases and many died from suffocation.”
The ruling ideology of the age assumed that, as regrettable as this might be, the laws of economics required it.
After all, how else would chimneys ever get swept?
The first bill banning the employment of children under eight from chimney sweeping passed Parliament in 1788. But, like many immigration laws in America today, it was ignored. So was the 1834 act.
Then, the greatest reformer of the Victorian Era, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, began his almost endless crusade to abolish child labor inside chimneys. Like William Wilberforce, the victor over the slave trade, Shaftesbury was a Tory, an evangelical Anglican, and a relentless parliamentarian.
In 1840, Shaftesbury carried a bill to regulate child chimney sweeps over “resistance that can only be called fanatical”, in Johnson’s words.
It also was not enforced.
Three more of Shaftesbury’s bills failed in Parliament in the 1850s. He succeeded in 1864, but the legislation proved ineffective “due to a general conspiracy of local authorities, magistrates, police, judges, juries, and the public to frustrate the law. Boys continued to die…” including a seven-year-old who suffocated in a flue in 1873.
Shaftesbury finally succeeded in passing effective legislation in 1875.
And, of course, that winter everyone in Britain froze to death due to clogged chimneys.
Oh, wait … sorry, that was in Bizarro Britain, where the reigning interpretations of economics actually applied. Rather like in Senator Kennedy’s Abnormal America, where nobody will be able to afford to eat chicken without the Liberal Lion’s amnesty and guest worker programs.
In the real Britain, however, the master chimney sweeps quickly found other ways to clean chimneys.
And, equally, Americans will not starve if they are deprived a continuous influx of uneducated foreigners.