Santa Claus or Sinterklaas had an assistant, servant, sidekick or all of the such — “Black Pete.” Known to the Dutch as Zwarte Piet, the character and its origin have surfaced more and more in news segments around the world within the past decade, with claims of racism and insensitivity. It was 1850 when the character first appeared in a book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman.
The problem with Black Pete, and the reason for the claims of racism, is that he is portrayed in blackface. Even in this day and age, the character, although frowned upon by many, is still celebrated in the Netherlands. And because it’s traditional, many Dutch citizens are part of a movement calling for the ban on Black Pete celebrations.
This is just one example of the hidden or closeted racism that, according to a delegate of archivists from the Netherlands, makes up part of the region’s black facts. These archivists have dedicated their time to form an organization that reveals and preserves the hidden history of Dutch slavery, black history, black literature and black culture in the Netherlands. The Amsterdam Black Archives is in the works, and along with the team members spreading the word about their culture and experiences, the website aims to shed light on the black radical movements in Amsterdam, Suriname and the Netherlands and uncover their history.
In August, Amsterdam Black Archives co-founders Jessica de Abreu and Mitchell Esajas and their colleagues Imara Limon and Samora Bergtop traveled from the Netherlands to Washington, D.C., where they presented their project and historical data in front of a room of more than 30 individuals at Sankofa bookstore in Northwest D.C.
The archive contains a unique collection of books and artifacts, which are the legacy of black writers and scientists from the Surinamese, Caribbean and African diaspora in the Netherlands. These cultures were connected to black liberation movements in the United States. While black radicals in Amsterdam were fighting for civil rights, they were in touch with U.S. thought-provokers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.
“The reason why I’m extremely passionate about this project is because so my mom is from Suriname, which is a colony of the Netherlands, and in the Netherlands we don’t speak about colonialism and the history of slavery and what the law was,” de Abreu said. “So for me to start the black archives is also educate our own communities and the larger society about the Dutch past and colonial past and why our realities look like this. For example, progression and discrimination. … It’s also about addressing the issues and community building and understand life in the Black Netherlands and what it looks like.”
According to the company’s website, “we aim to investigate, reveal and tell new stories so that we can contribute to a better understanding of the historical contributions of people of African origin to human civilization and to Dutch society in particular. These stories also provide insight and tools to combat contemporary social issues such as structural inequality, discrimination and racism of people of African origin and other populations.”
In the 1970s and ’80s there were already Surinamese emancipation movements in the Netherlands that committed themselves to the fight against racism and inequality. The Amsterdam Black Archives will detail the stories and histories.
The four archivists shared their goals with the crowd. They are in the process of digitizing the more than 4,000 special history books, documents, photographs, films and artifacts around black history in the Netherlands that have been collected and donated over the past few years. The nearly 100-year-old collection is housed in the premises of the Association of Suriname in eastside Amsterdam. In conjunction with the Amsterdam Museum, the Black Archives plans to create an exhibition to open on Nov. 25.
They also took time to explain that while the Netherlands is tolerant on issues such as prostitution, marijuana use in coffee shops and gay marriage, the country still has racial practices — some of which are the same as in the United States, including police brutality, wage gaps and educational inequality.
The team also offers workshops, lectures, consultancy and advice for these themes and more. The workshops also provide information on black and multicultural issues such as slavery, colonialism, black feminism, the civil rights movement, colonial imagery, social issues about equal opportunities in education, the labor market and diversity at the workplace.
The organization was founded after de Abreu and Esajas met in an anthropology class. Now a couple, the two co-founded the archives.
“The two of us coordinate it, and we work with a team of six to eight volunteers. We did digitize a few of the important projects. Not that many. About 100. So after we stop the crowdfunding campaign, we aim to structurally digitize all of the archives.”
Limon works at the Amsterdam Museum and met de Abreu and Esajas through her independent work and research.
They all said they enjoy addressing new crowds regarding their experiences of being black and Dutch.
When asked how blacks identify in the Netherlands, they all answered with opposing views; de Abreu said she identifies as a black Dutch woman.
“Not necessarily because I want to be Dutch, but to remember a history that you should not forget anymore,” de Abreu explained. “That’s particular localizing the races. Dealing with the question the same as to you, we were just speaking about it, and do we want to do a DNA heritage test? Because basically colonialism happened, so they took away our cultures, our religions, our whole identity. Our whole language. So I don’t even know where I’m from, so these are good questions. It’s a global conversation. How am I going to refer to myself? How are we going to refer to ourselves?”
“For me Caribbean Dutch, I’m Dutch and people better get used to what it looks like,” Limon replied. “What it can look like. How Dutchness is so connected to whiteness. There’s always this negotiation about what you are, but it’s a nationality in that sense. We should not be talking about why I am also Dutch, but why Dutchness is so connected to whiteness. It helps a lot for me to learn about it.”
For Bergtop, her identifying standards have changed over the years because she said she is “getting more consciousness.”
“If I’m doing an interview or something, I never call myself Dutch,” Bergtop said. “Even that I have a white Dutch mother and a Surinamese black father, he’s half maroon. Because people perceive me as how I look, and that’s not being seen as Dutch. The first question from Dutch white people would be, ‘Where are you coming from?’ or ‘Where are your parents coming from?’ They don’t consider me as Dutch, so I stopped calling myself in that way, Dutch, because it’s always a difficult conversation or an awkward conversation about it. That’s also part of denying that we have a migrant or colonial and slavery history. Even still, I’m a second generation. They don’t see me as Dutch, so I stopped that.”
On July 1, the team of archivists started a crowdfunding campaign to aid in archiving and expanding the collection, which is planned as a three-phase process.
“The hardest part is to get funded for something sustainable and contemporary social activities, but the most beautiful thing out of it is that we see that our own community can also raise money,” de Abreu said. “The worst thing about it is we don’t have financial support, but the beautiful thing is that the community can do it by itself.”