Perhaps the most extended silence on the blog has just passed. I wish I had an excuse – maybe I haven’t had a minute to write; or perhaps I forgot my WordPress password. But nothing like that. I’ve had plenty of time. And Chrome remembers all of my passwords. I’ve even had things I wanted to write. But I’ve just been unable to commit to the finality of blogged words. Many of my thoughts have felt fleeting. Most of my grievances have passed. And a bunch of my recent “lessons learned” have been challenged. So even if I had written in the last couple of months, I probably would have wanted to take them back. Turns out I just needed some time to be quiet.
I haven’t been doing much traveling recently. I’m pretty much staying still in my modest, rented apartment in Paramaribo, Suriname. Having placed myself on a tight weekly budget, and with lots of work to do, I figure as little movement as possible is my best option. Now you’re probably picturing me locked in a room, trying to turn straw into gold. If so, you’re not far off. It’s just…where’s Rumpelstiltskin when you need him?
So I’m here working on the nonprofit startup, Ancestors unKnown. Maybe you’ve heard about it? Introducing young people to family history research and the commonly overlooked history of the African Diaspora. That’s the vision. And it’s definitely becoming a reality, beginning here in Suriname and Charleston, S.C.
Have you ever driven an incredibly long distance? You sat in the same position for far too long. You contemplated turning back at one point after you had already gone too far. Your vision started to blur as you fought the road doze. You wondered if the destination was was even worth it – why were you even going, again? You even considered just giving up and moving into that Motel 6 right there, making a new life in a town that may or may not be named after a klan member. But you kept going.
You know that feeling when you finally arrive and take that first step out of the driver seat?
Your muscles ache. Your ass is numb. And your brain is fuzzy. But you’ve arrived. No matter that it’s 2am and no one is awake to greet you. That first real (and audible) stretch of freedom is all you really needed anyway.
Well, congratulations. You know what it’s like to complete a Master’s degree. (I imagine a PhD would be more like arriving at the destination only to hop on a sailboat to cross the Atlantic?)
So, yes. Finally I am finished with school (for good this time – really, no more!). A bit later than expected – technically I finished at the end of February 2013, when it was supposed to be more like August or September 2012. But this allowed one (and now two) trips to Suriname. And then things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped – I felt miserable quite a lot. And I procrastinated just as much in my 30s as I did in my 20s…what can I say? Some things just don’t change.
But it was worth it. Even if just to get on the cover, inside, and back of the University’s grad school brochure. Supahstar.
After all of the writing, and reading, and ugh – all the thinking, it was worth it. I finished what I started. When the University sent me that email to let me know everything was processed and my diploma was printed, it marked an official end to the chapter that started this little, gigantic journey.
And when my friend sent me photos of my diploma (she picked it up since I’m not in Amsterdam), although I had already moved on to focus on Ancestors unKnown, I finally felt that relief of arrival.
So I took a damn good and well-deserved stretch. But, ya know, my ass might still be numb.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dames en Heren, I’m proud to introduce you to my brand new organization, Ancestors unKnown.
Ancestors unKnown introduces young people in the African Diaspora to new perspectives on their histories. We combine a Black history-based curriculum with genealogy/family history research, working in partnership with local organizations, historians, and genealogists. Beginning in the U.S. (South Carolina) and Suriname, Ancestors unKnown is an international organization. So in the years to come, I hope to introduce our work and serve communities on multiple continents and islands.
This is still the pilot stage. I want to make lots of changes and additions to the website. And there is so very much work to be done just to stay on track. But I figure it’s about time to let folks in on the adventure in less cryptic ways.
Now I have a few things to ask of you:
1) Check out my first entry on Ancestors Blogging (which eventually will include posts from student participants and partners). Comments are also great! Here is a piece (I feel like I cheated on this blog by writing over there – so this copy/paste action is how I rectify that):
…could a family that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade and generations of slavery in the Americas really have left behind no memories? No stories to tell? No lessons to instill? I believe this to be an assumption worth challenging. And sure enough, digging into some archives revealed tremendous stories waiting to be told, and remarkable ancestors who deserve to be remembered. I believe everyone has a right to this empowered feeling of knowing her own history, or at least part of it.
2) Please head over to facebook to like the page: https://www.facebook.com/AncestorsUnknown
3) Please share the work we’re doing with your networks. The more people we can invite to the party, the better. (but wait, just so you know, there’s no real party.)
3.5) Eventually I’ll figure out the Twitter thing. So I’ll be asking you to follow me there at some point too.
4) After all of that, tell me what you think. Critical feedback is always appreciated.
Sheesh. Feels like I just walked outside wearing my brand new big-girl-pants. But the big ‘ole automatically-locking door just shut behind me. And I may or may not have forgotten my key.
Big-girl-pants, don’t fail me now. There’s no turning back!
I have this “I can’t wait until…” thing. Like, “I can’t wait to go home for Christmas break;” “I can’t wait till graduation;” “Oooh, I can’t wait to take a break from working;” and the most recent biggie: “I can’t wait to finish this damn thesis.” I’m constantly looking forward to something. Relatively happy, but for this one nagging circumstance that stands between me and ultimate happiness. When the objectives are achieved, I think there’s usually a moment (whether that’s actually a moment or several months) of celebrated achievement. Graduations from both undergrad and law school were acknowledged by spending a couple of months in Ghana, for example. But for the most part, I spend my time anticipating something better.
The school I couldn’t wait to get into became the school from which I couldn’t wait to graduate. And the city to which I couldn’t wait to move became the city I couldn’t wait to leave (I’m not talking about Amsterdam here, promise). Kind of like a traveling version of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
But I think most of my anticipated next steps were actual upgrades, whether strategic or indulgent. And after getting through the recent full-time student dysfunction, I think I reached a real clearing. Maybe there really was some sense to my madness. Nowadays I’m spending about 90% of my productive time on turning my nonprofit fantasy into a real thing, splitting my time between research in the archives, meeting with remarkably brilliant and inspiring people, and doing laptop-type work from home – oftentimes outside on the porch (maybe another 5% of productive time is spent on naps – I have no reason to be dishonest). This was definitely the outcome I couldn’t wait for as I drudged through every forced word of my thesis (about a topic I love, mind you). But could this also be one of the main points I’ve been anxious to reach all along?
Living in a place I genuinely enjoy and feeling entirely on purpose, I’m finally feeling pretty damn satisfied.
Not to say I’m not still looking forward to the day I don’t have to worry about money. And absolutely by no means has everything fallen into place seamlessly. I just have to remember to enjoy those challenges. These are the types of problems for which I’ve been waiting!
And now, since I’ve been silent for an extended period, I’ll share a mostly unrelated story:
A few nights ago I went to an event in the center of town. I walked the half mile (or so) to the bus stop. And I took the bus (1.60 SRD). The buses are essentially vans – if you appreciate a Ghana reference, they’re like decent tro-tros without the mates. Vague stop locations, uncomfortable middle seats that require constantly lifting your seat to get out of the way, and a relatively cheap fare paid when exiting. Everyone seems to know what’s going on, even when it’s completely unclear. And I always feel like the only one anxiously looking over my shoulder when an unexpected turn is made, strategically plotting my exit strategy.
But anyway, there are a couple of bus routes that now make me feel like a local. So I was relatively confident on this night, flagging the poorly lit and barely distinguishable bus after dark. Although sometimes I get on and sit down in one of the awkward middle seats before I realize that I’ve walked irrevocably far from a preferred seat, this time I got a window seat in one of the ideal rows – right by the door and only an arm’s reach from the driver. But as I settled into the best seat I had ever gotten, I became aware of a strange silence. Everyone was super still, looking forward. It felt kind of eerie – too calm.
But I wasn’t finished reflecting on the weird quiet people before Pebbles started singing “Mercedes Boy.” It turns out this bus had driven straight out of my 80s-music-loving subconscious. And it took every ounce of power I had not to dance through the whole ride. Eventually I reached my stop and had to leave the most favorite-weirdo-80s-bus-of-my-dreams during “Don’t Disturb This Groove.” Bizarrely, it was the first stop the bus made since I had gotten on. And when I got off, the bus waited at least 45 seconds before pulling off. I could still faintly hear the music as I turned the corner.
After the event, I hoped to retrieve my 80s-dream-bus bliss on another reasonably priced ride home. But someone offered to drive me. And for a second I actually thought, “damn, I couldn’t wait to take the bus.”
Okay folks, here’s something to get behind: A documentary from Shantrelle P. Lewis on the Dutch tradition of blackface.
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?
In anti-Piet solidarity. See you at the premiere!
For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t unhappy to be somewhere at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. Believe it or not, I was even early. At the National Archives of Suriname, I was meeting the participants in the local genealogy project for the first time.
When I was in Suriname last year, I developed the project in partnership with two organizations: Naks, well-known for its education and celebration of Afro-Surinamese cultural heritage, and Evangelische Broeder Gemeente in Suriname (EBGS), responsible for the archives of Suriname’s Moravian Church. Both groups are invested in history, ancestors, education, and young people. And each group has its own youth audience. So it made sense to approach them with the idea of introducing genealogy research to a new audience of Afro-Surinamese young people, combining the extensive archives of EBGS and the historical knowledge of Naks.
Although logical, the plan wasn’t without concerns. Mainly, the two groups don’t typically work together. The church group is typically opposed to the African history side of things, choosing the teachings of the missionaries in their approach to education, perpetuating beliefs that African ancestors = non-Christian = bad (I’m going to do my best to stay neutral here, since these are my friends). Since Naks openly celebrates traditions that are rooted in African heritage, they have a tendency to rub the Christians the wrong way. You know, with the voodoo and all.
But both groups assured me this would be a perfect opportunity for a bridge to mend an arbitrary divide. If young people from Naks and EBGS could come together to learn about a common Surinamese history, while identifying their ancestors and where they come from, a step could be made in a new direction. Everyone (well, at least the decision makers) was on-board to cooperate and experiment with the new partnership.
My other concern had nothing to do with Suriname, but young people everywhere. I wasn’t so sure the passion for genealogy research would translate for a non-retiree audience. I pictured teenagers losing their eyesight from deeply-committed eye-rolls, incapable of seeing documents that were not produced by and/or for their phones. And I feared history and ancestors would be rejected by a forward-thinking generation. My insecurities had me convinced I was too idealistic in thinking young lives could be impacted and changed through knowledge of the past. But again, Naks and EBGS assured me their young people would get it. They assured me it would work.
So in spite of my unplanned return to Amsterdam, planning for the project continued. Thirteen participants were identified for a pilot run of the project, 5 from Naks and 8 from EBGS. They kicked-off with a special event back in November. And the bi-monthly sessions began in January, alternating between genealogy research with EBGS and Surinamese cultural heritage workshops with Naks. I had been receiving updates and general assurances that things were “going well.” But I still wondered if they were just keeping secret the fact that the young people were bored to tears – that is, when they weren’t sparring with crucifixes and voodoo dolls.
Now that I’m back in Suriname, Saturday was my first opportunity to see it firsthand – see my idea come to life, see it actually working. So I woke up early.
Not all of the participants were there, 3 or 4 were missing, I think. And not all of them are young, with ages ranging from late teens to early 30s. But that didn’t matter even a little bit (at least they were under 70, right?). I couldn’t have been happier to see them.
To begin the research process, they had already spoken with their families, arriving at this session with hand-written notes on their family trees. They introduced themselves and explained their interest in their ancestry, and why they wanted to know where they came from (most of this was in Dutch – I did my best to follow). They listened intently to the brief lecture/explanation from the Archives staff. They welcomed me and my brief introduction with smiles (and embarrassing applause). They broke into groups and helped each other comb through the census archives. They chatted with me and answered my random questions enthusiastically. They took vigorous notes. They even went over time and continued to research. And although I was looking at them carefully, I didn’t see one yawn or eye-roll. They actually seemed interested. And when the session ended, they planned to return on their own time to continue researching.
It was like a dream come true. Beyond the empowerment of these young people to do their own research and learn the value of their own histories, I was excited for their ancestors. Finally recognized. Finally going to be known.
Gosh, I cried a little when I got home.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked this question. It’s a good one. And folks seem worried. School is basically finished (actually, it’s not until this month ends. but that’s a story I’d rather not get into). And school was my reason/pretext for moving to Amsterdam. Without school as my gravity, I find myself suspended in an area of uncertainty. Where to go? What to do? Who to be? How to find that wealthy benefactor to support the fulfillment of my remaining dreams? Yeah, folks are definitely worried.
But from my point of view, this is freedom at its best. The next steps are up to me – and only me. Of course I need to feed myself, sleep under a roof (most days), and maintain basic levels of hygiene. But outside of these responsibilities of adulthood, which sometimes can be achieved creatively, I can go almost anywhere. This is when I finally get to dance outside of that commonly-mentioned box, which my thinking already escaped long ago. And it’s going to be like one of those James Brown-fancy footwork-shimmy shake-wipe the sweat off my face-type of dances.
I’ve made some decisions about what I want in the coming months, years, and lifetimes. Some I’ve known for quite some time, such as wanting to create opportunities and broaden the horizons of young Black people. Others have evolved over time, like my belief in the impact of genealogy research. And now, here I am, being pushed, guided, and supported right into the opportunities that will allow me to live an adult life I love. Having suspended the fear of uncertainty, I’m happy to realize that the universe has been working in my favor (even on the days I’m not).
In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho has countless quotes that resonate. In this instance, I think of this: “When someone makes a decision, [s]he is really diving into a strong current that will carry [her] to places [s]he had never dreamed of when [s]he first made the decision.” Yes. Yes, indeed.
So back in November, shortly after I returned to the Netherlands from Suriname, I regretted not being able to stay for the implementation of a youth ancestry research project I had designed. I wondered how I was going to find and afford a place to stay in Amsterdam after January. And I received an incredible offer: return to Suriname…on us (well, the plane ticket)…for as long as you’re willing to stay and work on this project.
Awwww yeah. Offer accepted.
From there, life got tougher in Amsterdam, as if the city was pushing me away. Zora died. The drains in my apartment started spewing other people’s poo (literally). My bike was stolen. Money was low (well, that was nothing new – but you get the point). I needed a break. I was ready to go. Not forever. Just for a few months – say, maybe seven.
So now what? Well, I have returned to Suriname, of course. On Friday, the day after my birthday (not necessarily relevant – just important that you know), I began my seven-month stay. I’ll be working on this local ancestry project. I’ll be looking for some sustainable income. And I’ll be laying the groundwork for my very own organization that will introduce young Black people to their ancestors and new perspectives of history. And I’ll be absorbing as much warmth as Suriname is willing to share.
Once I’m finished here in September, I plan to return to Amsterdam. But while I continue to dance on the path outside of the box, as Coelho pointed out, next I might be carried to places I never dreamed of. So who knows? I’m just continuing to take this sometimes intimidating, usually nerve-wracking, always satisfying journey one step at a time.
So no more questions, please.
(just kidding. you can ask me questions. just don’t be surprised if you’re not satisfied with my answer.)
Well, it was bound to happen at some point. Since my arrival in Amsterdam, the most consistent warnings have related to bike security. So even with the rusty bike, I relatively consistently followed the locking best practices – locking the back wheel with a key and using a chain to lock the bike’s frame and front wheel to something, like a bike rack, a light pole, even another bike (if I knew the other owner, obviously). I lived in constant fear of losing a bike that was only slightly more than 2x the cost of the lock that secured it.
I upgraded over the summer, thinking it would improve my quality of life. Nothing fancy. But it had one of those new kickstands, a shiny silver color, and all of the words on its side were in tact. It was like a bike version of my Jetta (from the recent U.S. years) – whereas Rusty was more like the ’85 Maxima we had when I was growing up, except about 25 years after its heyday.
I think the shine is where I went wrong. Even though it wasn’t glamorous, it was obviously new. And a new bike catches attention. And comments. Even from people I didn’t really know. Like, “oh, is this a new bike?” But I would hear it on the defensive, as if they were saying, “ooohhh, someone’s fancy ass is trying to get robbed, huh?”
By the time I left for Suriname in September, I still hadn’t gotten rid of Rusty. I thought a back-up bike couldn’t hurt. Or maybe I would even sell it. In the meantime, while I was away, Rusty was parked outside, across the street from my apartment, for more than 2 months. Back wheel locked. Front wheel and frame chained to a rack. Shiny was parked in my friend’s garage, then back to my hallway when I returned home (Rusty stayed outside for a bit longer with barely a visit).
Then, after a miserable couple of weeks filled with snow, rain, and healthy doses of cat mourning (and on the same day I picked up Zora’s ashes), I decided to spend time with fun people doing fun things. So not too far from my place I met some friends for dinner, and later a party. I parked Shiny across the street from the restaurant. Back wheel locked. Front wheel and frame…well, uh, tucked next to the rack. I was rushing and my chain lock had been sticking (maybe because it was sitting outside with Rusty for all of that time). So yes, I admit it. I didn’t lock the front wheel or frame.
Continuing on my rampage of carefree carelessness, I left Shiny behind to receive a ride to the party. Turning down the ride didn’t cross my mind – especially since my friend offered to return me to the bike at the end of the night. And she did.
I held the Shiny’s key in my hand, waved goodbye, and watched my friend drive away. I thought I was standing at the right rack, where Shiny was tucked into the middle. But it must not have been. So I walked down the street. Checking each one. Maaaaaybe….no. Coooouuuld it be…no. Is thaaaat…no.
Then, returning to the original rack – the actual rack, I happened to look down at the other side of the sidewalk. There was my chain lock. Ripped from Shiny and tossed aside. Shiny was gone. Maybe I asked for it. But Shiny didn’t deserve it.
Robbed and feeling violated, I walked home to a faithful Rusty with a chain in my hand, my frown to the ground, and a brewing enthusiasm to leave Amsterdam for a bit.
This black girl is about to be gone again…
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)
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:
“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.
“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:
- File a complaint here (for locals: according to the mayor of Amsterdam, it’s not an issue worth considering until they receive 300+ complaints):
- Watch this:
- Read these: