Bonfire Night ‘blacking up’ row ends in smiles all round

The real thing: Members of Zulu Tradition marched alongside Borough Bonfire Society. Photography by Peter Cripps

Lewes Borough Bonfire Society agreed to tone down its Zulu costumes amid the controversy caused by ‘blacking up’.

Members have been painting their faces for decades but this year the society was accused of racism because of the practice.

It bowed to guidance from the leader of the South African dance group scheduled to march alongside members during Saturday’s Bonfire Night celebrations in Lewes.

Thanda Gumede, of Zulu Tradition, asked that Borough consider using a colour that was “drastically different from black”. He also asked members to rethink the skulls and horns worn as part of the costume, “which make us look barbaric”.

Borough committee member Mick Symes said in advance of the celebrations it had “accepted in full” Mr Gumede’s guidance.

Mr Symes said: “We are more than happy to take this advice from Thanda. We are very, very happy to say we are making minor but significant alterations based on very meaningful cultural advice from Thanda.”

He added: “I am not going to guarantee there will be no ‘blackface’ around. But the guarantee I can give is we are bending over backwards to comply with this advice.”

The decision followed a petition entitled ‘Bonfire Against Racism’, which asked for an end to the ‘blackface’ tradition and attracted more than 1,600 signatures.

Mr Gumede said on Monday that marching with Borough on Bonfire Night had been an “incredible” experience.

“Give these guys credit,” he said. “I didn’t force them into anything. I simply pointed out there were some things I wasn’t happy with and they said ‘what can we do to fix it?’”

Jason Winter, Chairman of Borough, said the evening had been a great success – and an emotional one. “I’ve never heard cheers like it from the crowds when Zulu Tradition came down the street with us,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

Mr Symes said the real Zulus had wowed the town. “They were invited to lead our main procession,” he said. “They won the hearts of every one of us.”

The ‘Zulux’ black paint tin, which had formed part of the society’s tableau, was ceremonially consigned to the flames of history by Mr Winter outside the Law Courts during Bonfire Prayers.

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