Zwarte Piet, the Documentary

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

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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!

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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.

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…