Zwarte Piet

If I have one problem with many of the Dutch it’s that their racism is so deeply ingrained, so sheltered, and so secluded within a tradition of purported tolerance, and this makes it unapproachable by a discourse.  As a cultural scholar I know that our minds and our perceptions are informed by the cultures we’re raised in.  That didn’t equip me for my own reaction yesterday to an encounter I was in no way prepared to have.  

For the first time in three years I came across a Sinterklaas parade, and it happened by accident.  As luck would have it, our choir finds itself scrambling for time and rehearsal prior to our concert this week and so we set up an impromptu rehearsal to be held in the center of Amsterdam yesterday afternoon.  I jumped on my bike at the hour appointed, and took the Amsteldijk bike path up to the northern end of the city.  I made the turn to enter the city and ran smack into the parade.

Though in some respects I tend to live my life as a ostritch with its head in the sand (e.g. I don’t watch TV, I use FB only to keep in touch with my family and friends in the US, what news I read is usually because someone has asked me “Have you heard…”) I was not ignorant in any way over the debates surrounding the continued use of blackface to portray Zwarte Piet, the moorish companion of Sinterklaas.  I knew that Amsterdam’s mayor had been petitioned not to allow this portrayal to take place this year.  I also knew that the Dutch– in a clear and ringing sign of the power of a working hegemony– were overwhelmingly against banning Zwarte Piet from making the scheduled appearance.  They wanted their little moorish slave and that was that.

And yet I wasn’t prepared for my own tears.

I grew up in the US where racial lines tend to be drawn in blood and vicious words.  I have never heard a racial debate take place that doesn’t involve a level of tension familiar only to discourses pertaining to sexuality.  Yet I have taken it for granted that such debates are present in my country, and that their words– tense, angry, vicious, inflammatory– are part of a dialogue whether we feel such dialogue is constructive or not.  I grew up in a country that still has institutionalized forms of racial, gendered, and economically driven discrimination to deal with.  I grew up in a land that had slavery on its shores for more than 200 years, and more than a century of practice prior to its inception as a formal nation in its own right.  I wrote a thesis on how the minstrel show co-opted slave songs for its own hegemonic purposes, recycling blackface and tropes through dance, song, play and even film long past the end of slavery and even into the years during the Civil Rights movement.

Since the 80’s, at no point in my culture would it be acceptable to parade around in blackface except as an act of protest or education.

So I was not prepared to encounter line after line of people walking down the street in jongleur costumes wearing blackface, chanting slogans pertaining to Sinterklaas, dressing their babies in such garb, and all in an atmosphere of carnival and celebration.  I walked my bike down the street, trying to find the end of the route so that I could cross the street, fighting my tears of rage and horror.

Yes.  The scholar was horrified.  And I was also overcome by the spectacle.

My nation has a history of lynchings, neonazism, the KKK, minstrel shows, burning crosses and institutional brutality against those of other colors.  We have only just in the last 70 years begun addressing these issues in real ways across a populace that is touched day in and day out by the effects of these practices.  I want to address something I have heard too often in these last few weeks leading to the spectacle I saw yesterday.  When people bring the charge of racism against the inclusion of portrayals of Zwarte Piet in these festivities, I have too oft heard the reply of, “We can’t help it that our tradition has St. Nick’s helper as a black boy.”  Further, when I bring up the point of the history of minstrelsy in my nation I often hear it said, “Well you’re from a different culture.”  Both of these expressions bear the implicit meaning of “Our little depictions are harmless compared with what you have had in your country because our slaves were freed earlier than yours.”

Well just as the US “has never had tanks in their streets” the Dutch have also not had to live with slaves on their shores and it’s made them sloppy about addressing embedded attitudes in their culture.

For one thing, I would like to point out that it was a white person who began (just a few decades before the fall of slavery) smearing his face with boot-blacking in order to achieve the representative effect he wanted.  I would like to remind all those Dutch people I love and care about that this practice of representing Zwarte Piet was not only practiced in their country, but came to mine as well through their immigrants.  The tradition of Sinterklaas came with Dutch settlers to the United States who then converted it into our folklore containing Santa Claus.  Few American’s remember the histories of New York when it was referred to as New Netherlands.  And while the Dutch would like to wash their hands of the stains of racism and slavery they had a part to play there as well.  The slaves living in those northern territories in the 1600’s were all imported from their plantations in Suriname to the new Dutch colony via the Dutch West India Trade Company which was not wrested from their control until 1674 when the Dutch signed the cease-fire trade agreement with England The Treaty of Westminster.  Your innocent traditions gave rise to a practice in the United States which deprived a singing tradition of its voice, its identity and thereby its power.  Your cabalistic adherence to such a practice in CURRENT times is abhorrent in the eyes of someone who has taught the children you wrong in this representation to sing.  Saying that you can’t help that the person who came with St. Nick in your legends was black does not undo the fact that year after year you paint your faces to look again like

A child slave.

It also does not undo your willful ignorance about your own legends.  It was not until 1920 that the slave that came along with Sinterklaas had a consistent name.  Furthermore, the earliest legends in your fairy tales and folklore involve Sinterklaas bearing along in his wake a subdued demon as a symbol of his triumph over evil.  Can you, in your blind joy of spectacle and parody, fail to see the iconic relationship between converting this helper originally from a demon into a slave?  Are you all ignorant of the histories written in Dutch, in French, and in English regarding our supposed God-given rights to own slaves because they were of an inferior race?  The writings in your histories which change the “helper” of Sinterklaas from demon to slave occur at the exact junction in history when these other writings also emerge.  Writings bearing the damning program of manifest destiny which circled round the globe to promote programs and agendas of racist colonialism.

Here is some history for you all, my dear readers.  If you find the following coincidental I can do nothing further to convince you.  The word toevallig in Dutch means that something happens by coincidence. I, as a researcher, a teacher, and a theoretician concerning culture no longer believe in coincidence, only machination.

1829– George Washington Dixon starts performing farces in blackface throughout New York state with a circus troupe.  By 1834 he has developed his most famous and enduring trope: Zip Coon.  The character and songs of Zip Coon later go on to become one of the stock characters of minstrel shows throughout the United States.

1850– Jan Schenkman publishes the book Sinterklaas en zijn knecht (St. Nicholas and his servant) in the Netherlands.  It comes complete with illustrations of the little Moor.  It should be duly noted that while knecht now means “servant”, the verb knechten has always meant “enslave”.  The book is available for reading at this link.  Prior to this point in Dutch literature, the helper has been a devil subdued by Sinterklaas.

1854– In the United States a New York doctor, John H. van Evrie, (note the Dutch descendancy) pens a 30 page pamphlet entitled Negroes and Negro “Slavery”: the first an inferior race– the latter, its normal condition.  The text is available here.

1861– The Civil War erupts in the United States.  In 1862 Lincoln pens and publishes the Emancipation Proclamation.

1863– Slavery in Suriname is abolished by Dutch colonial powers, but the slaves are not officially “freed” until 1873.

1864-1865– The 13th amendment freeing all slaves is approved and passed first by the Congress and then the Senate of the United States.

1910-1930– The Master-race dialogue has taken off in the US ensnaring notable figures in thought while the underpinnings of WWII are laid in Europe.

1920– The name Piet is finally adopted for the little Moorish knecht who comes with Sinterklaas.  Various sources document varied names all the way through this point in history from the time of his materialization out of demonic form 70 years prior.

I end this blog with the question I ask myself very often about violence.  Where does it end?  The answer I usually give myself to this question is that it might not end right away but we move towards resolutions when we start accepting responsibilities.  The debates concerning Zwarte Piet and the prevailing stubbornness of friends and even family in the Netherlands regarding the racist representations thereof are troubling on many levels.  We are undoubtedly products of our cultures and as I passed revelers and performers alike and noticed many toddlers and babies swathed in bright-colored jongleur costumes of their own, some sporting painted faces I heard again the voice of my father reading me the words Dickens once wrote.  For my heritage is a shared colonial heritage in slavery, but also a modern heritage of climbing hand over bloody hand out of its depths.  Ignorance.  We can only combat our tendencies if we are willing to face our ignorance.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.  They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment. “Oh, Man! Look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.  They were a boy and a girl… Scrooge started back, appalled.  Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.  “Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.  “They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.  This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.  “Slander those who tell it ye!  Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And abide the end!”  “Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.  “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words.  “Are there no workhouses?”  The bell struck twelve.  Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not.  As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on November 18, 2013.

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