Messing about on Squidoo one day, I came across a “lens,” as Squidoo likes to call its pages, featuring “memorable books about Holland.” I glanced at it briefly. The topic gave me a feeling that fell right down to the very marrow of my bones and took me back to my childhood. The feeling was precisely the task of identifying an unknown factor by developing a certainly of what “Dutch” probably was in some part of the world. I was reminded of how I used to think of the concept of “Dutch” while playing with my Dutch looking doll or reading Hans Brinker. I didn’t like reading Hans Brinker much to be truthful. I thought it was piffle, where was the strong female character I could identify with? But all those pictures of Dutch people skating around the ice rinks were quaint. Quaint, it’s that word which is mostly in my feeling bones when I think of how I conceptually viewed Holland as a child.
It’s different now. I live in the Netherlands surrounded by a lot of people who are Caucasian and Dutch. Of course, not all of the Dutch are Caucasian. Every winter the Dutch celebrate their Christmas holidays a little differently than, say, France or Germany. I never view the coming of the festive season in Holland as quaint. It must be the Berkeley in me. In the Netherlands, Father Christmas known as Sinterklaas, arrives from Spain in the middle of November to usher in the coming of the Gift Giving Evening (St. Nicolas’ Day on the 5th of December). He’s white, dressed as a bishop and he’s got a helper called Black Peter. Now, apparently last year after a tough campaign of “Black Peter is racism” during which the Dutch pioneer of this movement, Quinsy Gario, was arrested for his attempt at freedom of speech, at least one person involved in the Dutch media has finally admitted that the tradition of Black Peter, the moor/slave helper of Sinterklaas, is indeed racism. But most Dutch people defend the tradition of dressing up in satiny clownish costumes, painting their faces black and reddening their lips to play the part of Black Peter. Black Peters get to dance about the streets and throw pepernoten (small cookies) at people. Some Dutch even pontificate that it’s a great way for children to learn that black people aren’t scary. Luckily, they point out, the old habit of making Black Peter the boogeyman who will take children who hadn’t behaved back in his bag to Spain is no longer used to threaten kids as a punishment.
OK, enough of that and Moving On, for our new blog on Angloinfo Vinita and I chose the topics in advance and the arrival of Sinterklaas was one of them. I needed her to send me the photo for the blog so I could write the poem. She sent me a photo of Sinterklaas arriving on his boat surrounded by at least a half a dozen of Black Peters (the more the merrier it seems). “You do realize,” I inquired of her, “That we cannot possibly post this photo online on an American link?”
We decided on another photo. We decided it would be better in black and white. “You softened the blow,“ she said when she had seen the mock up I had made for the blog site, “at the bottom.” Well, having seen the plethora of sputtering Dutch comments on FB after a friend put up a “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” last year, I added on a general “let’s be morally conscious about the world” clause as food for thought. Oh, by the by, Dutch people dressing up as Black Peter wear gloves so they don’t have to blacken their hands. Just so you know….
A 1 hour Vimeo film with English subtitles about the tradition of Zwarte Piet "Read the Masks. Tradition is not given."
Quinsy Gario’s blog and site (In Dutch): http://zwartepietisracisme.tumblr.com/post/35566690735/mijn-kunstproject-is-geslaagd-omdat-het-zichzelf
Facebook site (in Dutch): https://www.facebook.com/zwartepietisblackface?fref=ts