Whiteeyed kaffir

Whiteeyed kaffir

In Brief

The Citizen's brutal epithet for Bloom, "that whiteeyed kaffir," is clearly a racist slur, but it invites ambiguous speculation about the origin of the phrase, the venomousness of the k-word, the acceptability of trading in ethnic stereotypes, and the exclusionary impulse in Irish nationalism. Perhaps the most likely source was a minstrel show performed in music halls by English singer G. H. Chirgwin, a white man who performed in blackface and billed himself "the White-eyed Singing Kaffir." Alternatively, or additionally, the phrase may bring Rudyard Kipling into Ulysses for a second unflattering time via a poem about South Africa.

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§ The racism of the minstrel shows, which entertained white American audiences with the singing and dancing of black folk while reassuring them that their potentially threatening servants were in fact lazy, stupid, superstitious, and eternally cheerful, was almost certainly moderated somewhat when those shows spread to European stages in the later 19th century. For audiences in the UK, parodic stylings of American blacks must have been as much an exotic curiosity as a window onto a culture's charged racial fault lines. (At least at the beginning: minstrel material maintained its popularity in Britain until very late in the 20th century, by which time London had its own sizeable black minority and everybody had plenty of reason to know better.)

Exoticism certainly seems to have figured in the stage act which Gifford and Slote cite as a source for the Citizen's remark. "The White-eyed Singing Kaffir" was a highly popular music hall show performed by Londoner George ("G. H.") Chirgwin who, like the American Eugene Ruhlmann ("Eugene Stratton"), performed in blackface. Chirgwin's acts evidently involved a good deal of solidarity between performer and audience, and no particular racial animus. A talented musician, he got his start in a family troupe that imitated the minstrel shows. His stage makeup sported a large white diamond surrounding one eye in a black face, which suggests a somewhat detached, aestheticized approach to presenting a stage Negro.

Chirgwin attributed his inspiration to an outdoor performance at which a storm blew dust into one eye: as he dabbed furiously at the eye the audience started to laugh, because he had rubbed off his black makeup. But his father had started out as a circus clown, and the diamond shape that he later incorporated into his look strongly evokes a clown's makeup. His stage delivery too was apparently far removed from the minstrel shows' air of archly mocking inferior people: he filled the space between songs with the friendly, improvisatory chatter of a working-class bloke talking to his mates. Richard Anthony Baker's British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (2014) notes that Chirgwin spoke to the people in his audiences "as though he were addressing a select circle of old chums" (199-200). After retiring, he kept up the patter by opening a pub.

§ In a personal communicatin, Vincent Van Wyk notes that "white-eyed kaffir" also appears in Columns, a 1903 Kipling poem about "mobile columns" of "six 'undred men" that were deployed across the South African landscape in wearying search-and-destroy missions, hunting down Boer guerilla units after the capture of Bloemfontein and Pretoria failed to produce real victory. The poem follows the British troops as they march at all hours, look for shade in the African heat, try to decide which cart-tracks to follow, and so forth, in an unending round of tedium and terror. One of its many vivid details is a "white-eyed Kaffir 'oo gives the alarm."

The British army employed many thousands of black natives in the mobile columns and in auxiliary roles, and they used the word "kaffir" to refer to these men, whether Xhosa, Zulu, or from other tribes. It is thought to have come from an Arabic word, kafir, meaning an infidel, though Van Wyk suggests a possible alternative in amakhafula, meaning the rubbish of the North, which Zulus applied to tribes like the Venda, Tsonga, and Ndebele that they pursued to the borders of South Africa.

At the time of the Boer War, the word "kaffir" appeared widely in print and meant simply "black native"—a long way off from linguistic practice in South Africa today, when the word has become charged with such violent hatred that uttering it in public can earn one a well-deserved jail sentence. Still, it had never been a neutral term, and Kipling's use suggests how readily it could acquire overtones of contempt. His image of white eyes opening wide in a very black face smacks more than a little of the way black people were presented in the minstrel shows—a point that Mary Hamer makes in her online notes to the poem.

§ Racial stereotypes were bandied about much more casually then than now, and Chirgwin's case suggests that a "whiteeyed kaffir" could serve as little more than a decorative vehicle for musical entertainment. But given the rancor and racial animus with which the Citizen talks about (and to) Bloom, Kipling's poem seems a highly relevant context. Several details in Ulysses suggest that Bloom's complexion is a bit swarthy by Irish standards, and Bloom himself repeats the stereotype of the "dirty jew" in Lestrygonians. By tarring him with the brush of blackness, the Citizen insinuates that Jews are an inferior and threatening race.

Such racial stigmatization from a defender of Irish purity is massively ironic, given the ugly 19th century history of British publications (and sometimes American ones as well, as in the image displayed here) depicting the native Irish as an apelike and vaguely Negroid people. The English depicted the Irish as subhuman in order to justify their brutal treatment of them, and the Citizen, rather than distinguishing himself from these hated oppressors by holding himself to a higher standard, operates in much the same way. He dehumanizes people he sees as not authentically Irish—"coming over here to Ireland filling the country with bugs"—in order to justify his violent xenophobia.

The Citizen is blind to this irony, but Bloom certainly is not. When accused of not being Irish ("— What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen"), he retorts that the people with whom he is racially identified have been victimized just as much as the native Irish have: "And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.... Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs to us by right." By his logic, Irish Catholics and Irish Jews should make common cause as oppressed peoples, not oppose one another from positions of narrowly defined ethnic purity. Racial essentialism is a chimera perpetuated by powerful elites who can make kaffirs of whites and Semites as easily as blacks.

When Kipling was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1907, he became the first English author to win that honor, and the honor became linked with tales of English men imposing their will on India and South Africa. If Joyce did intend an allusion to "Columns," he must have done so with a wicked awareness that he was linking his novel's arch-nationalist with the writer most indelibly associated with British imperial conquest. It is by no means hard to imagine him doing this. When the Citizen starts off on a tirade vituperating the "glorious British navy" that "bosses the earth" and "the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs," Bloom interrupts to ask, "isn't discipline the same everywhere. I mean wouldn't it be the same here if you put force against force?" Armed force is the same everywhere, and from violent nationalism to rapacious imperialism is only a small step.

John Hunt 2020
Promotional photograph by Adolph Langfier, signed by G. H. Chirgwin on 3 March 1904. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Poster promoting Chirgwin's act, date unknown. Source: www.discogs.com.

Cover of 9 December 1876 Harper's Weekly drawn by Thomas Nast, with title "The Ignorant Vote—Honors Are Easy," presenting the Negros of the South and the Irish of the North as equivalently bestial. Source: elections.harpweek.com.