Category Archives: Race(y) Matters

Zwarte Piet, the Documentary

Okay folks, here’s something to get behind: A documentary from Shantrelle P. Lewis on the Dutch tradition of blackface.

Wordpress won't let me embed - click for the page.

WordPress won’t let me do a real embed – click for the page.

New Orleans-born, New York-residing, Netherlands-frequenting, Black-focused curating, and an all-around master woman, Shantrelle is bringing the Zwarte Piet debate to a bigger screen.  And I think that’s just fantastic.

Zwarte Piet’s supporters and opponents alike have a tendency to make this yearly tradition of blacking up into a national issue.  And to a great extent, it is.  The celebrations are perpetuated by Dutch people.  And local opponents have the most personal experiences and confrontations with the attitudes of racism and disregard that are represented in these celebrations.  And let’s not forget about the examples of racism in the Netherlands that slap us in our non-white faces year-round, not just during the holidays.  If a fundamental and systemic change is really going to come (and I like to believe Sam Cooke when he told us it will), it needs to happen in the Netherlands.  And Dutch people need to be motivated or coerced to make the changes themselves.  Like a nation of Aquarians, they won’t be told what to do.

But real coercion comes in worldwide numbers.  And we certainly cannot dismiss the fact that this is also a global issue.  As much as people like to deny it, Zwarte Piet stems from the ignorance-drenched globalization of a racist practice.  The Netherlands did not exist in a bubble during the 19th-century, when Piet was born.  And it certainly doesn’t exist in a bubble now.  We are part of a global community.  Whether born in the Netherlands, moved to the Netherlands, never been to the Netherlands, or never heard of the Netherlands (well, check yourself on that one), this affects all of us.  So why should folks in the Netherlands be expected to continue fighting the good fight in isolation?

Let’s fight the fight in a united, global front.  Let’s get as much worldwide attention on this issue as possible.  Let’s show Dutch people that if you mess with some of us, you mess with all of us.  Let’s support Shantrelle’s film.

She’s well on her way to reaching the $20,000 goal for her Kickstarter campaign, with supporters aplenty (my Mama included!).  And there’s no doubt she’ll reach it.  Maybe some blackgirlgone readers can help her get there.  Won’t you consider being a part of the global movement?

Here’s the Kickstarter link again: Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary 

And should I mention I’m in the trailer? Does that help?

And do you need to be reminded about Zwarte Piet’s history? Or how I feel about Zwarte Piet?

In anti-Piet solidarity.  See you at the premiere!

Zwarte Piet: Go back to where you came from

I planned to steer clear of Zwarte Piet this year.  Not to entirely ignore the subjects of racism and white entitlement in the Netherlands – but at least I wanted to avoid encounters with the (wo)men decked out in their best blackface attire.  Between changed plans and a death in the family – not in the mood.  Not even sure what that mood would be.

So when I took my friend’s daughter to school on Wednesday morning, I was less than thrilled to walk into my nightmare.  It was the 5th of December, the big day for Sinterklaas.  And after handing out gifts to children the night before, this would be Sint’s last day in town.

“Good riddance to you and your creepy team of absurdly archaic sidekick(s),” I’d like to say.  “Go back to where you came from.”  (upward nod to Piet’s supporters for that specific phrasing)

A sint and a piet (from 2011)

A sint and a piet (from 2011)

Turning the corner into the school yard, we could see that everyone was gathered outside.  My first thought was fire drill – do they do fire drills like that here?  When everyone has to line up outside with their class? And the teacher usually stands – … “I think Sinterklaas is here, Dana!”

Oh hell no.

“Oh really? That’s exciting.  Do you think Piet is also going to be here?”

“Of course, Dana! He has to be here with Sinterklaas!”

The young one was excited.  But she knows how I feel about Zwarte Piet.  So she kept her enthusiasm for the impending events of the morning reserved.  I was uncomfortable.  Surrounded by small people, I wasn’t in a safe space to  express contempt for a Dutch tradition, initiate a political debate, or even use certain preferred curse words.  Powerless in a playground.

Several days earlier the young one and I had our first disagreement over Zwarte Piet. Although she’s Black, she’s six years-old.  So she’s probably too young to understand the complexities of racism or the impact of increased ethnic diversity during the post-colonial era of a country that prides itself on its untainted national identity.  And who am I to start these conversations with her?  That’s the godparent’s job, isn’t it?  So when she wanted to watch a “Zwarte Piet gangnam style” video on youtube, I kept it basic:

“No.”

“Oh, come on, Dana!”

“No. Sorry to disappoint you. But Zwarte Piet isn’t allowed on my computer.  Let’s find another video to watch – something that’s actually funny.”

“NO, Dana! That’s not nice what you said about Zwarte Piet. He’s very nice. You shouldn’t say that about him. He’s very funny, Dana!”

The discussion took on a familiar tone.  In fact, it was almost exactly the same argument I have heard and read from countless (grown-up) Piet supporters: he’s nice, he’s funny, and I should like him.

“I’m not a fan of Zwarte Piet. The way he behaves and the make-up he wears – it’s meant to make fun of people. I don’t find it funny at all.”

“No, Dana! You’re wrong. He’s nice. Everybody likes him!” Clearly the schools get to them early.  (Her Mom has already faced the issue of her school painting her face black during a Sinterklaas celebration.)

“We’ll just have to disagree on this one for now.  And find a different video to watch.”  It was the only way I could find out of the circular debate.  She agreed.

But as we entered the school yard, our debate re-emerged.  I flinched at the sight of every little Zwarte Piet hat that bobbed around me, as the young one contemplated my irrational dislike of the lovable character who is painted black.  A few parents were around, lingering to see the arrival of Sinterklaas, I assume.  The only Black man stood in the back, away from the crowd, holding his young daughter’s hand.  We walked toward the front to find the young one’s teacher.  I was anxious for my duties to be relinquished before things got uglier.

A little boy walked with his classmates.  Most of them paid homage to Piet with colorful costumes and those same hats.  But this little boy’s face was painted entirely black.  He walked proudly.

(from 2011)

(from 2011)

“Oh look, there’s my teacher!”  Words that brought relief.

“Goedemorgen!” I greeted the teacher.  “Dag!” I said goodbye.  Then I walked so fast out of there the children may have thought I stole Piet’s wallet.  But I didn’t do anything to Piet.  In fact, with the exception of his little disciple, I didn’t even have to see him.

Then, right on cue, all images of Piet and his bossman, Sinterklaas, were nowhere to be seen the following day, replaced by his commercial counterpart, cousin Santa Claus.

I may have escaped a direct run-in with Piet this year.  But this isn’t sustainable.  In order to have a higher quality of life in the November/December months of future years, particularly if I raise children in this country, these uncomfortable moments will need to stop.  Everyday I need to leave my house confident that I won’t see someone dressed in blackface – every single day.

Judging from what I’ve seen, heard, and read in the past couple of weeks, progress continues.  And while this argument usually feels like beating a fist against a brick wall, I think we’re starting to see some signs of cracks.

In an effort to make up for my silence on the subject throughout the season, here is just a sample of the actions and recent articles I recommend:

  • Sign this:

Petition to remove Zwarte Piet from schools

  • File a complaint here (for locals: according to the mayor of Amsterdam, it’s not an issue worth considering until they receive 300+ complaints):

https://www.discriminatie.nl/meld-discriminatie/klachtenformulier 

  • Watch this:

Ned2: Zwarte Piet en Ik

  • Read these:

The Independent: Like the Golliwog Zwarte Piet Is a Racist Relic

Wishful Thinking : Zwarte Piet and the Colonial Inheritance

Racialicious: Zwarte Piet – a Racist Caricature 

Sinterklaas Survival

Note: Title and post are meant to be read to the tune of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “System of Survival.” Thank you.

First, let’s all breathe a sigh of relief because Zwarte Piet and his main man, Sinterklaas, are long gone.  Seemingly overnight, the city shifted from blackface mania to a pleasant winter wonderland.  The focus is now on snowflakes and white lights rather than stereotypes and black men.  So. much. better.

My rage and frustration with the unapologetic racism I see in the Netherlands (and no, we’re not rehashing this here. I’ve left comments open on my previous post if you’d still like to get something off your chest about how much you love Piet there) has led to a busy (and talkative) few weeks.  I don’t think a day went by that I wasn’t in some type of interaction with or conversation about Zwarte Piet.  If you imagine that as annoying, make it more annoying – at least 75% more.

But coming out of the madness, I feel quite positive.  I had the pleasure of meeting and building with an incredibly smart and inspiring group of young people in Amsterdam.  And it feels like a lot was done.  So much was written, said, and understood.

My personal contribution was to plan a debate at the University along with a classmate.  We filled a room with bright and passionate people – diverse and all of that.   It resulted in a great discussion.  First a historian provided an anti-Piet leaning overview of Piet’s life story.  I say anti-Piet, not because he changed the facts of the story, but because he told the true story.  Two main players represented Zwarte Piet is Racisme and two others spoke about how they can’t live without Piet.  By the end, one of the panelists conceded a bit, surprising everyone when she said she didn’t feel that strongly that Piet had to be black.  Wait, what?

The other guy held tightly onto his role, defending the tradition to the end – even through the emotional part when people began to speak of children being bullied and compared to the awful character.  I’m glad he did though.  We needed someone to represent that dismissive and arrogant Dutch voice that each one of us has confronted when we criticize Zwarte Piet.  It felt like people needed to get it all out in the open.  And he took the beating, even declaring proudly after it was over that he refused to move from the position that I wanted him to take.  I wasn’t sure if that meant he actually wanted to back away from his opinions or if he just wanted me to be proud of him.  I was proud of him.  I was proud of all of us.  It was a good night.  I hope it helped others.  Because it sure did inspire me.

Also, I’ve had the opportunity to do some writing.  BET.com asked me to comment on Zwarte Piet not once, but twice.  And if I can’t promote my brilliance here (and speak of it in such a way), then where can I, my friends?  So please, feel free.

And pictures always add a little something, I think. So perhaps my story will feel more complete with the photos below.  (and perhaps they’ll help you forget that I just pretended to sum up the last two months in a few paragraphs … HEY! I’m dancin’…)

Hardware Piet

Piet-hunting

Candy Piet

Book (and scary) Piet

Sinterklaas and Piet

Little Piet

CREA Debate

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

CREA Debate, Nov 2011

Zwart van Roet exhibit, Dec 2011

…and stay tuned.  From the looks of things, there’s more to come.

Zwarte Piet: To be or not to be…black

After much anticipation, Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten have arrived in the country this weekend from Spain.  As images of Piet’s black face and comically exaggerated features have turned up just about everywhere, and both excitement and rage emerge in discussions of the topic, the Zwarte Piet debate has come to reflect more than just  impressions of a children’s character.  We’re talking about extreme nationalism and the silencing and oppression of communities of color.  Feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are certainly present year-round.  Zwarte Piet simply brings much of it to the surface.

I’ve been somewhat obsessively reading and talking about Zwarte Piet for the better part of this year. And I would describe the most common reactions to be defensive and dismissive.  “It’s a Dutch tradition. Why should it change?” Or, “you’re looking at this from an American perspective. We don’t have that type of racism here.” And, “you have no right to challenge a Dutch tradition. You’re not even from here.” And of course, “you have offended me for implying that this tradition has anything to do with race. This is your problem, not mine.”  What these conversations lack in charm, they certainly make up for in enlightenment.

What I find most revealing is that people simply do not know the troubling history of Zwarte Piet.  Attributing the tradition to something that happened hundreds of years ago, entirely separate from the practices of blackface and minstrelsy that rose to popularity in other parts of the world in the nineteenth century, the practice of painting one’s face black and playing the role of a servant is seen in the Netherlands as a harmless coincidence of similarity to those racist traditions, at best.

But as it turns out, Piet has ancestry in other parts of the world, from a cruel and angry period of the nineteenth century – not as long ago as many believe.  Giving people the benefit of the (increasing) doubt, I’d like to think that, with knowledge of Piet’s history, most Dutch people would no longer joyfully embrace an annual tradition that has them celebrate and embody the character who so vividly reminds the rest of us of his hateful roots.

Sinterklaas with a young Piet, 19th century. Source: http://radionetherlands.nl

I think the most important, though challenging way to approach the discussion is to focus on why the tradition brings up reminders of hatred, discrimination, and dehumanization, rather than the feelings alone.  For those feelings to matter, I guess I’m just asking Dutch people to care.

Piet’s Roots

The story of Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, dates back to the 16th century.  In the earliest renditions of the story, Sinterklaas represented two sides: good and evil, or the saint and the devil, with the contrasted aspect of his persona described as his “dark side.”  Some argue that the devil side of Sinterklaas was transformed into a black person in Dutch society following the 16th century, coinciding with the extensive Dutch involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, eventually becoming the character of Sinterklaas’ servant or companion, Zwarte Piet.   And many attribute the development of Sinterklaas’ black counterpart to a school teacher and children’s book author, Jan Schenkman, who first portrayed a nameless black man alongside Sinterklaas in his 1845/1850 book, Sinterklaas and his Servant.  At that time in the Netherlands, although slavery was not legal, some of the wealthiest people had black “servants,” whom served as status symbols, especially when they were kept well-dressed.  Sinterklaas was certainly important enough to warrant having his own dapper servant.

Sinterklaas with servant. Source: http://www.historyextra.com

From Servant to Minstrel

So when first imagined, the black servant had no name.  And from what I can tell, it seems he was portrayed without any exaggerated features.   But by the time he was named Pieter, around 1890, his physical appearance and personality began to mirror the comic portrayal of black people in other parts of the world.

"De Goede Sint" Source: http://www.rnw.nl

Although the display of blackness for the enjoyment of white audiences was not new, minstrelsy rose to new heights of popularity in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, with performances involving crude and hateful stereotyping of black people.  Typically their faces were covered with burnt cork to appear very black, their lips were exaggerated with red or white make-up, and they wore wooly, black wigs, tailcoats or tattered clothing, and gloves.  Actors in blackface typically behaved comically, with a jolly attitude, frequently dancing, singing, and speaking in broken English. Perhaps because people were curious about blackness and black people, the popularity of American blackface spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world.

Black and White Minstrel Show, 1958 (Britain). Source: http://www.sterlingtimes.org

Also at that time, the Dutch empire was a lasting colonial power that had played a prominent role in the slave trade and slavery for centuries.  Due to their presence in a global community of dominating white Europeans and Americans, the Dutch inevitably were affected by the globalization of this racist imagery.  So although black people may have been uncommon and largely unknown in the Netherlands, for the sake of entertainment, they were imagined just as Americans portrayed them.

The early appeal of blackface imagery in the Netherlands wasn’t limited to Piet.  It can be seen in the portrayal of black characters in children’s books in the late 19th and well into the 20th century: 

Tien kleine nikkertjes (translation: Ten little niggers), author unknown, ca. 1910. Source: http://www.kb.nl

Oki en Doki bij de nikkers (translation: Oki and Doki with the niggers), by Henri Arnoldus, 1957. Source: http://www.kb.nl

Het ABC voor Holland's kleintjes met 156 plaatjes (translation: The ABCs for Holland’s children with 156 pictures), by Daan Hoeksema, 1923. Translation: N is a Nigger, who is as black as soot. Source: http://www.kb.nl

Not much effort is required to see the resemblance between these characters and the beloved Piet.  Perhaps the only difference is these characters would no longer be acceptable in Dutch (or any) society.

Not Black. Just…Dirty?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Piet hasn’t evolved much.  In spite of movements throughout the world to do away with offensive portrayals of blackness, the Netherlands is one of the few places (though certainly not the only) to resist progressive change.  Piet’s subservient role, clownish personality, exaggerated features, and blackness remain the same. In fact, today Piet’s blackness is arguably his most important and unchangeable characteristic.

But here’s the tricky part: at some point, Dutch people did become more aware of the offensive nature of Piet’s depiction as a black man (perhaps 30 or 40 years ago).  Somewhere around then the explanation of his blackness changed from his race to mere circumstance – chimney soot.  You see, nowadays Piet isn’t really a black guy.  He’s actually very likely a white guy who has the dirty job of going down chimneys, which covers his face in soot (perhaps this will remind you of the picture above – “N is a Nigger, who is as black as soot”).

But now I just think you’re telling me that a black man’s appearance is equivalent to that of a dirty white man, whose lips have turned red, and whose hair has grown curly, and whose clothes remain clean. And you’re telling me you think I’m stupid.  While the chimney soot story allows Dutch people to feel comfortable with the depiction of the character as black, his actual black ancestry remains undeniable.

And Now…

Well, I think globalization should work both ways.  If you adopt the practices of another culture, you must also inherent the meaning and history of those practices.  Although challenging the tradition of Zwarte Piet appears to many as a threat to a Dutch identity and culture, perhaps the real fear is of an awareness that Dutch society is indeed deeply immersed in the same history of racism and discrimination that has plagued the rest of the world.  And that admission would mean bursting a post-racial bubble.

The claims of ignorance can’t last forever.  At some point marginalized voices must be heard.  But whether the education will be worthwhile over emphatic cries of a national identity remains to be seen.  My personal hope is that those of us who object to Zwarte Piet will not lower our expectations of Dutch people, and persist in efforts to question, educate, and eventually eradicate the troubling tradition.

Are we Dutch yet?

Okay, I’m definitely not Dutch.  But last week I picked up my renewed residency permit.  This means I’m welcome to legally live among the Dutch for at least one more year.  And if I’m lucky, they’ll find me fit to stay even longer.  If I do decide to stay in the Netherlands forever and ever, I’ll have a choice of constantly renewing my residency in periods of up to five years, becoming a permanent resident, or applying for citizenship.  But let’s not get ahead of me on this.

My renewed residency, along with my current academic focus on immigration and integration, has me thinking about what all of this changing of residency means.  Now that I’m a “resident”of the Netherlands, has anything changed about me, other than my legal status, that makes me any more of a local?  I’m pretty sure it hasn’t.  I’ll be considered American for the duration – even if it is forever and ever from now.

I can have a local address, pay taxes, speak fluent Dutch, ride my bike everyday, and eat bread and cheese with every meal.  I can even become a naturalized citizen.  No matter how long I live here, or how hard I might try to assimilate, I’ll never be Dutch.  And I’ll never be mistaken for Dutch (though the thought is kinda funny).  I’ll only ever be a resident in someone else’s country.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe in assimilation.  And I don’t want to be Dutch.  But I do find Dutch exclusivity to be quite fascinating – more as it relates to folks who have been living here for much longer than I.  In the States we have this “melting pot” concept, of which I have never liked the thought or sound.  But now that I’m out of that context, it’s starting to make sense to me – the concept of one pot of Americans who look, speak, behave, and believe differently – all identified as “American,” regardless of the number of generations their families may or may not have been in the country.

That’s not so much the case here.  If you’re Dutch, your parents are Dutch, and of course their parents are Dutch.  For all of these years, in spite of a long history of colonizing countries of the black and brown, Dutch people have managed to maintain this “pure” ethnic group (at least for now) in their country.  Although immigration is on the rise, and the country appears to be relatively diverse, with plenty of black and brown people living at least in the major cities (many coming from former Dutch colonies and speaking Dutch as a native language), the newcomers aren’t and will never be Dutch – even after a full generation. Rather, the term used in the Netherlands to describe any person who is not native Dutch (with two Dutch parents) is allochtoon.

"I am Antoon." - "I am Allochtoon."

Allochtoon is a fascinating concept, one which I do not fully understand.  It’s been explained to me as strictly a technical term that applies to all first-generation immigrants, as well as the children of immigrants, even if they were born here.  But then it also seems to come with assumptions.  If you look or sound like you’re not from here – like, hm, let’s say maybe you have some color – you’re allochtoon.  And since a distinction is made between western and non-western allochtoons, race seems to be a central issue to the way the term is used colloquially.  How must that feel to live in your home country and have a category applied to you that maintains a distinction between you and your white Dutch peers?  Doesn’t this make it easier for Dutch people to maintain whiteness as a defining characteristic of Dutch-ness?  Is it possible – really possible to be black Dutch?  How many generations will that take?

So I’m definitely allochtoon.  If I have a child with even the dutchiest of dutchmen, my child will be allochtoon.  And if my child has brown babies (gosh, I hope s/he does), those children may still be viewed as outsiders – not because they fit the formal definition of allochtoon, but because their appearance will mark them as different – foreign – yeah, allochtoon.  Of course I’ll teach my children and grandchildren that they are indeed different due to their ancestry.  And they better love and embrace those differences.  But damn, I wouldn’t want them to be forced into a falsely prescribed social category that will pass judgment on their (lack of) Dutch purity.  That seems…not nice.

I am not one to shout from the hilltops that “I’m American!!!” But it’s nice to know I have the option.

I need to think about this some more…

Race Still Matters

Apologies to those who received a bunch of jibberish notes I accidentally published from my phone.  It’s actually a post I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been here.  Something about race and how strange it is to process the concept here.  But once I realized I had accidentally published about 4 incomplete thoughts, I quickly deleted it.  So now I’m not even sure where I had gotten with the process.  But perhaps this is what I’ve needed to force me to finish at least one thought.

As you know, I’m black.  I’m also a woman, an American, a vegetarian, and an animal lover with natural hair.  All of these things are a part of my identity.  But my blackness has always been at the forefront.  It’s partially (read: majorly) due to the position of race in the history of the U.S.  Through both the good and bad, the lives of my ancestors were determined by their race – opportunities, disadvantages, migrations, health, everything.  And the passing of many generations has done little to decrease the significance of race for me. I’m conscious of it everyday.  Not just because of any potential presence or awareness of racism or oppression.  Pride in the shared history and experience with other black people has meant much more.

I’m aware when I’m the only black person in a room – and perhaps even more aware when another black person finally enters.  Even if we never have an opportunity to speak, I imagine that other black person and I have a shared experience.  At conferences I have gotten into lengthy conversations with the serving staff – typically starting with something about whatever city I’m in, leading to something politically charged about lack of quality education available to young black people, or the deeply ingrained  racism of the American criminal justice system.  A conversation I wouldn’t have with just any stranger.  But a black stranger, yes.  It’s hard to explain, which makes me question if it’s been only in my mind all of this time.

So coming from this place of prioritizing my racial identity, when I moved to Amsterdam, I wanted to know where and how the black people live.  This isn’t to say I need to be around black people 100 percent of the time.  But if I want to be in a more comfortable and knowing environment, I would expect to find that wherever the black people might be.  The potential added benefit of finding an attractive black man in the mix may also have been a factor in my investigation – but that’s a post for another day.

Ah, but many in the Netherlands are under the impression that we live in a post-racial society.  Although race may or may not have held some significance many years ago, people like to think it no longer has meaning here.  No one has explicitly said to me that they “do not see color.”  But folks do seem to enjoy a good criticism of crazy Americans and our obsession with something as contrived as the concept of race.  An air of condescension usually comes with it – if you still care about the color of your or anyone’s skin, you have yet to evolve.

I’ll admit that this has made me question myself.  Why do I care so much about race?  And why do I think so many people, symbols, and actions are racist?  Has the U.S. messed me up even more than I realized?

But then I take a look around.  I’m the only black person in any of my classes.  I occasionally see black people who I suspect are undergrads.  But black people and higher education don’t seem to frequently mix.  I haven’t been to many office buildings.  In spite of that, I’ve made a general observation that black people are usually cleaning the buildings more often than they are meeting in them.  And when I ask, “where do all of the black people live?”  Everyone responds with de Bijlmer, which also happens to have a reputation of being filled to the brim with drugs and crime.  Moroccans and Turks are by far the most criminalized groups.  Then there’s that not so endearing yearly tradition of dressing up in blackface, modeled after a character who was (arguably) formerly enslaved by his holy, white counterpart.  And slavery?  Although the Dutch made unimaginable amounts of money from the trade and enslavement of black people, it happened elsewhere and a really long time ago, so it barely counts.

And then there’s the perspective of black people who have lived here for many years.  Every single older black person I’ve spoken to, many who have been here for 20+ years (coming from countries such as Suriname, Ghana and Nigeria), solemnly shakes his/her head while saying, “racist people.”  Younger black people typically agree that racism is prevalent in the country, though it’s not always one of the first assessments made.

So how can white Dutch people think race no longer matters in the Netherlands when it appears to still impact the lives of everyone else?  It seems that they’ve simply tucked race away in a neat box where it can be completely ignored.  And since most black folks seem to take the position of not wanting to stir the pot or endanger whatever status they may have gained, the goal of believing in a post-racial society is even easier to achieve.

As someone who is constantly thinking, talking, and defining in terms of race, I’m not sure if I prefer the outward and vocal racism of the U.S., like the tea party, or the Dutch approach where they make you study social sciences and open dark closets before you see evidence of racism.  Very different.  But both very bad.

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this.  As I’m still trying to understand and process it myself.

Asking for Trouble

I’m already picking fights with people.  It’s awful.  I just got here.  But that hasn’t stopped me from being annoyed with about 90% of the Dutch population.  I need to lighten up.  Stop taking things so seriously.  But really, if you were here, this would piss you off too.  Difference is – it probably wouldn’t piss you off so early in the year; and you probably wouldn’t constantly find yourself in conversations about it.

First, to avoid any confusion, let me say that I’m still ridiculously happy here.  I’m feeling quite grateful and enjoying everyday, everything, everyone.  Nothing has changed.

I just have this thing with Zwarte Piet that I can’t shake!  Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a beloved character in the Netherlands (and apparently Belgium) who comes around during the holidays, beginning in November.  I won’t get into all of the details of Piet’s story.  That’s what wikipedia is for.  The important thing to know for the purpose of this ramble is that this beloved Piet guy is black – well, of course.  But he’s portrayed in black face.  White (and some black) Dutch people paint there faces black, cake on tons of red lipstick to make their lips appear larger, put on an afro wig, accent it with large gold earrings, and wear what I guess is their interpretation of a Moor’s attire.

I had heard and read quite a bit about Piet before I got here.  So I considered myself prepared for some shocking sights in November and December.  Seeing a few people continuing to partake in such a blatantly offensive tradition would be a lot to handle.  But I expected it to be just a few.  I didn’t imagine it could possibly be more than a few.  Although, I will admit that this page from the University’s magazine for new international students raised some broader concerns:

Shortly after arriving I learned it’s more than a few exceptions.  The blackface thing is much larger than I realized.  Portraits of the minstrel character are plastered around the country for the days/weeks leading up to the holiday – in stores and in homes, on cakes and on napkins.

This leads up to a big parade – a minstrel parade.  Adults and children clown around in straight-up, unapologetic black face.  So happy and so abundant.  It’s like an alternate reality.

As I learned more about Piet’s popularity, I started asking more questions.  I had trouble believing that the rational people around me would defend this tradition.  Rather, I expected people to have stories about how frustrated they are with seeing these horrifically offensive representations of black people taking over the country each year.  I didn’t think it would be hard to find Dutch people in opposition to Zwarte Piet.

But there’s nothing but love for him.  I hear a lot of the following:

  • “We love him. He’s a friendly character. That’s not racist.”
  • “He used to be black. But now he’s that color because he went through the chimney. It’s not about race”
  • “The children love him. It’s not racist.”
  • “We can’t change it. It’s a Dutch tradition.”

My favorite quote came from my Dutch teacher: “I don’t think it’s meant to be offensive, is it? I mean, he’s not really a negro.”  He meant it with no harm.  It was actually kind of sweet the way he said it (as hard to believe as that may seem).  After I informed him that it is horribly offensive and turns my stomach, he explained he had just never thought about it before since he grew up with it.  Makes sense.  And I find it fascinating.

So several weeks ago, in my ethnic diversity and popular culture class, I listened as people brainstormed ideas for final projects.  I volunteered my idea that was born out of that fascination (and frustration) – what’s the deal with Zwarte Piet?

Along with a partner, who bravely asked to work with me on this, I’ve committed to drowning myself in images, literature, and conversations about Piet.  Historical research, interviews, maybe a survey…all requiring objectivity.  My lack of objectivity has already proven to be a challenge.  And once I begin having one-on-one interviews with people who adamantly defend minstrel shows in 2011,  I may need the assistance of spiritual intervention to keep my attitude and volume in check.

So yeah, I walked straight into this controversial fire voluntarily.  And this is not going to be easy.

Fascinating, I’m sure.  But not easy…

The Last of the Black Belt

My mom and I left the “black belt” on Sunday, driving from Jacksonville to Atlanta, then flying back to NYC, where my mom has stayed for another week before returning home to Chicago. I was so excited for this trip, anticipating an exciting hunt for new information and uncovered stories. I was also worried that my anticipation doomed me to disappointment. Thankfully, I was wrong about the dooming part. I think it’s safe to say the trip exceeded both my mom’s and my expectations. We now have new details and even some photos that add tremendously to our quest. I’ve shared a few stories in the last couple of posts. So I figured I would just sum up a few things before returning my attention for a bit back to Amsterdam.

The primary focus of the trip was on my mother’s family. Although my father’s mother had some roots in Jacksonville, we didn’t really uncover any new information about them while there. We did, however, drive by the site of my grandmother’s childhood home, which, along with many other parts of Jacksonville, looks eerily similar to the way it must have looked in the early 1900s. My maternal grandfather, Pop, has all of his roots in Florida, much of them in Jacksonville. The roots of my maternal grandmother, Nana, go from Georgia to Jacksonville. So our visits to Georgia and Florida benefited both of my mom’s parents.

Nana’s paternal grandparents: Lora Hardwick and George C. Harper. I feel like I’ve written endlessly about George C. Harper, the white guy from the wealthy family who had the long-lasting relationship with my 2nd great grandmother, Lora. George and Lora are just fascinating to me. Having read an article in Dawson, Georgia’s weekly newspaper, dated somewhere around 1880, about the evils of miscegenation and the hateful descriptions of the people who engaged in mixed relationships, I can’t begin to imagine their daily struggles as an illegal family. Now don’t get me wrong, black men who only date white women really annoy me. But evil and illegal? That’s taking it a bit far. I wonder what Lora and George looked like, what they talked about, and whether he willingly gave the black children his prominent last name, or if she forced him. Different parts of me want both scenarios to be true. I imagine Lora as quite strong and proud. Although she was “mulatto,” and her children were therefore a quarter black (although I haven’t yet seen his image, my great grandfather describes himself as having blue eyes), Lora raised all of her children to identify as black. Even more, each of the children went on to marry people with dark complexions, including my great grandmother. It may seem like a trivial coincidence. But at a time when black people were given incentive to shun their blackness whenever possible, I have the utmost respect for the pride and the unquestionable identification with black folks of the light-skinned family.

Mysterious Grave: Infant of Mr. & Mrs. G.C. Harper

But I digress with my black Harpers obsession. My point when bringing them up was to describe the mysterious grave of an infant. When visiting the graves of the white Harper family with cousin Kathy, she pointed out each headstone as if reciting a familiar roll call. But one headstone tripped her up: “The Infant of Mr. and Mrs. G.C. Harper, Died Feb.  2, 1904.” G.C. Harper is white George. And the youngest black child we know of was born in the late 1890s. Could there have been a later-born black Harper who died at birth? And would they have actually listed Lora as “Mrs. Harper” in cryptic fashion? George did later marry a white woman. But they didn’t have any children (this woman lists herself as giving birth to 0 children on the 1910 census). Kathy wasn’t sure who the grave belonged to. I don’t think she had ever noticed or paid much attention to it. But honestly, after spending the morning with her new black cousins, I’m not sure she was sure about anything anymore. After much thought and debate that lasted us until Jacksonville, mom and I agreed that the infant must have been a child born to George’s white wife. The timing just didn’t add up because we’re pretty sure Lora had died by 1904. Sad for George, his white wife, and the infant with no name. And really disappointing for us that we can’t claim a black baby snuck its way into the fancy white cemetery.

And one more thing about the Harpers. Along with photos of white George’s parents (my 3rd greats), published in a book we found a photo of the original Harper home. It’s super blurry, and difficult to see much detail. But as soon as we saw it, my mother said, “it looks like there’s someone standing on the porch.” You could make out vague figures. But beyond that, it wasn’t worth the eye strain. I scanned the photo after returning home. And after zooming in and perhaps incorporating some wishful thinking, I feel pretty certain I see an image of a black woman holding a white child, alongside other, less distinguishable figures. Lora’s mother, Julia (also my 3rd great) was the cook for the Harpers in the 1880s. And I know they commonly used the black servants to hold the white children in formal family photographs, as sort of invisible props. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Julia would be holding one of George’s younger siblings in this blurry image of the Harper family. Or I could be stretching. Either way.

The Harper House - do you see her?

Nana’s maternal grandparents: Rose and Jim Jackson. Rose (often referred to as Rosa, and also after whom my grandmother was named) and Jim Jackson have been big question marks throughout my research. I just haven’t been able to find either of them on census records as children. And other than a story my great grandmother told my mom as a child about her grandmother, Mary, attempting to escape slavery as a teenager and being caught by a dog, we haven’t had any information about either Rose’s or Jim’s parents. If the Mary story were even true, we didn’t know if she was Rose’s or Jim’s mother.

So when arriving in Georgia, I was hopeful that we could get even the slightest bit of information on the Jacksons. After an unsatisfying visit to the Dougherty County library, we came out with only one real piece of information that very well could have been about other people: a marriage index listing for a James Jackson and Rosa Phillips. The marriage date was several years after my great grandmother’s birthday, so I at first dismissed it. But my mother verified that she knew they were indeed married years after their children were born (the scandal!). Worth looking into, but beyond going to the courthouse, there was no way to be sure this record was for my ancestors.

A great great (grandparent) marriage

Fast forward to the Dougherty County Probate Court. They were able to pull the marriage certificate, which didn’t provide much more information than the index. But the trick was requesting each of their death certificates. Although death certificates are unpredictable with regards to the amount of information they include (it depends on how much the informant knew at the time of death), we were prepared to pay $25 for each certificate, if only for a hint of any new information. Not only did the nicest woman in Albany, GA return with two completely filled out death certificates, with all four of their parents listed, but she didn’t charge us a cent because we were requesting the information for genealogy research…”I’m not gonna charge ya for these copies.” Once I got over the emotion caused by her kindness, I teared up over the names of an entirely new generation of my great grandmother’s family – her grandparents! Jim Jackson was a junior, as his father was Jim Jackson, Sr. His mother was Mary Gilbert, which verifies the story about a Mary, and explains why my great grandmother’s brother’s name was Gilbert. Rose’s parents were Dinah and Martin Phillips, verifying that her maiden name was indeed Phillips and we had located the correct marriage certificate. And if these discoveries weren’t enough, we went back to the hotel to look at earlier census records, finding Jim Jackson as a child, living with his parents…and his grandfather, Miles Jackson! That makes Miles my 4th great grandfather. It’s almost too much, yet never enough.

Pop’s maternal grandparents: Laura and Alexander Brooks. Okay, these two still remain somewhat of a mystery. Although Pop’s father’s family has taken me to a Zulu ancestor, his mother’s family has been harder to trace. It was only earlier this year that I learned Laura and Alexander’s names after finding them on the census, living with my great grandmother who was a young girl at the time. Beyond that, I’m stuck. While in Jacksonville we were able to narrow down the years of each of their deaths by going through public directories and seeing when they were no longer listed. But then I couldn’t find either of them listed in the local death index. They died years apart, yet they are equally impossible to find.

I just have to keep trying.  What I have learned throughout this process is the information is there…somewhere…waiting to be found.  And the ancestors certainly want to be found.  Some details may just be a bit more difficult to uncover, perhaps a bit dusty, or maybe even lacking sufficient pixels to make anything out.  But trust that none of these challenges will stop me from digging.  Every day it becomes more and more important to give names to my ancestors, making sure they know their lives and their legacies have not been erased or forgotten.  I owe them at least that much.

Mysteries of the Black Belt Part 2

Yesterday’s high temperature in Albany, GA was 101 degrees. Today will be the same. Going between an air conditioned car, an air conditioned hotel, and air conditioned libraries makes it bearable. The luxuries of today didn’t exist for black folks one hundred years ago. On top of the countless adversities they faced that we frequently discuss, like deadly threats of racism, insurmountable economic challenges, and unequal access to health care, I can’t begin to imagine how they dealt with this heat.

In addition to the race, age, occupation, literacy, and a few other interesting facts, the 1910 federal census provided the street and house number for each family. Based on street maps of their addresses, we’re able to place every family member who participated in the census that year, which is actually most of them. So we assume that, living several blocks apart in 1910, my teenage great grandparents would have met somewhere between Madison and Flint Avenues in Albany, Georgia.

Since we’ve come to Georgia to learn more about who they were and what they experienced back in the day, it only made sense to plug the 1910 addresses into the 2010 GPS. And since Albany isn’t a very large city, we didn’t have to drive more than 5 minutes from the main library to arrive 100 years back in time.

House on Madison - where my great grandfather, George, lived in 1910

The homes that my ancestors lived in are no longer standing. However, what must be exact replicas remain across the street. George Harper, my great grandfather, lived with his older sister and her family on Madison Avenue. They were in a tiny, one-story home that may have only looked slightly less dilapidated and depressing then than they do now. One of the homes that still stands has a “Danger” sign on the front door, undoubtedly warning against the inhabitable nature of the structure. Sadly, we saw people living in similar homes just a few doors down.

House on Flint - where my great grandmother, Essie, lived in 1910

We drove down several blocks to Flint, where my great grandmother, Essie, lived at 14, and where her parents lived for the duration of their lives, and where my grandmother and her brother even lived for much of their childhoods. Tiny wood structures, which at one point had no running water or electricity, were homes to 5, 6, even 7 people. To be honest, I can’t begin to imagine how they did it, as I sometimes feel selfishly cramped in a one-bedroom apartment by myself. Living on top of one another in those homes…really, how did they deal with this heat?

***

Driving to the Dawson library to meet Kathy, the white cousin we discovered by phone the day before, I was quite nervous. We already know the black children of my white 2nd great grandfather, George, were not accepted by his family or neighbors in Dawson, GA, which is why they all moved to Albany and lived in poverty after their mother’s death. Although Kathy’s sentiments may be a far cry from those of her grandmother’s (George’s sister), my biased perceptions of the South made me fear she would feel exactly the same about the secret black family as they did in 1890.

Walking into the library, we had our eyes open for an older white woman with a furrowed brow. Instead, we were met with a smiley woman, waving at us, standing toward the back of the room. My mother and I shook her hand and we all walked toward the genealogy room, where we had done our research the day before. Kathy said what summed up all of our sentiments, “I just can’t wait to learn more!”

We shared facts, traded dates, and exchanged photocopies. She was riveted by the stories of the black side of the family, and the ways in which paths crossed with the ancestors she knew. Although her grandmother, aunts, and uncles never spoke of her mysterious Uncle George, his black lady-friend, or his black children, she had some interesting details that added to the puzzle of their mysterious lives. She described “small tenant homes” by the railroad tracks, about 100 yards from the main (mansion-type) house, which at one point were the only other homes on the property. That must have been where my 2nd great grandmother (Lora) lived when she began the affair with George. And perhaps even more interesting, Kathy’s aunt told her a story of a smaller house behind the main house that their mother “built for Uncle George.” George would have been in his twenties, and he had about five children. His mother may have been pissed at him for falling in love with a black woman, whose mother was her cook. But she cared enough for him to make sure they were taken care of, at least for the short term. We presume the children only left the decent arrangement after Lora died, and George moved on to marry a white woman.

Home built for the secret black family - circa 1885

After about an hour of story-sharing, Kathy took us on a driving tour of Dawson. We visited the graves of my 4th great grandparents and many other members of the family, as they all share an impressive lot in the cemetery. We saw the main family home, and where Kathy now lives across the street (her grandmother’s former home). We saw the railroad tracks, and where Lora’s small tenant house formerly stood. And we saw the larger house that was built for George and his secret family, which, by our Albany standards, was quite substantial for a black family at the time. Overall, in spite of a few awkward moments stemming from Kathy’s discussion of her former cook, Cookie, and her preference to be color-blind (she only has the best of intentions), we had a delightful afternoon in Dawson, GA with our new, white cousin.

Our family story just gets more and more colorful by the minute.

Mysteries of the Black Belt

Wednesday evening. Finding cover from the hot sun. Sipping on a beer with my feet in a pool. Making small talk with friendly strangers. This isn’t Brooklyn. I’m on vacation. In Albany, Georgia.

But as you probably know, this isn’t just any vacation. My mother and I have traveled here on a mission: uncovering the past and revealing my family’s quietly kept stories. Having started the research earlier this year online, so many mysteries came to light that just couldn’t be answered remotely. So we decided to come to the source…the south. Or some may say “the black belt.” Did you know the southeastern region of the U.S. was known by some as the black belt of the country, referring to the millions of black people sustaining the economy with free labor? The concentration of black people through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the rest essentially looked like a black belt on the country’s waist when viewed graphically. Gross, but true. And no surprise that my ancestors were right in the heart of that belt…which now brings me here as well. Difference is I’m here visiting, drinking beer, my feet in a pool, and writing a blog from my blackberry…but that’s neither here nor there.

Starting in Atlanta, we settled into a rental car and immediately headed for the library in Macon.  Although we don’t have any family from Macon, the abundance of genealogy records held there helped us to resolve a couple of outstanding mysteries.  After a few hours there, we were on our way to Albany.  With family from Dawson and Albany, which are no more than 20 minutes apart, we expected to spend at least two days digging through the archives and touring the streets.  But since we don’t know any family in the area, we didn’t expect to make any significant personal connections.  Fortunately, we were wrong about that.

After contacting the local historical society for some guidance on how to pursue research on the Harpers, a particularly mysterious side of the family, I was referred to a man who was familiar with them.  After giving him a call, he in turn referred me to a woman, Kathy, who has some Harpers in her family.    He said, “when you’re at the library, ask them to give her a call.  She may be able to help you.”  Sure, whatever.

***

Librarian (on the phone): “Hi Kathy, I have some people here who say they were referred to you by Ed. Would you be willing to speak with them about some family questions?  Okay, here they are…”

Me: “Hi Kathy, I don’t want to take too much of your time.  My mother and I are here in Dawson doing research on the Harper family.  We’d love to know if you know any bits of information to share or have any insight on some sources we might refer to.”

Kathy: “Well isn’t that great?! It’s always exciting for me to talk to people who are researching the same families.  I have done quite a bit of research on the Harper family that I’d be happy to share.  In fact, Francis Harper and his wife Fannie lived in a house across the street from me.  And I live in my grandmother’s house.  Nellie Harper was my grandmother.”

Me (to myself): Oh shit!

***

Note: Nellie Harper is the sister to George C. Harper, my (white) 2nd great grandfather.  Kathy is our cousin!

Second note: George C. Harper had a long-term relationship with a black woman, which led to my branch of the family.  It’s unclear how much the white Harpers know about the black Harpers.

***

Me (a bit later in the conversation): “Kathy, are you familiar with any stories about George Harper having a black family?”

Kathy (in utter shock): “Well, NO!!”

Me: “Well, we’re actually from that side of the family.  We have a lot to talk about.”

Kathy: “We certainly do. How about we meet tomorrow morning.”

Me: “I can’t wait.”

So here we are in the deep south, about to meet a white woman for the first time and tell her all about the relationship her great uncle had with a black woman, and the many children they had as a result.  This is about to get very interesting…and all of our minds are about to be blown.