Quotidian 3-1 (February 2012)John Helsloot: Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands

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‘Colonial histories’, American historian Ann Laura Stoler writes, ‘raise unsettling questions about what it means to know and not know something simultaneously, about what is implicit because it goes without saying, or because it cannot be thought, or because it can be thought and is known but cannot be said’. This is not a matter of either/or, a neat distinction between ‘stubborn ignorance or sudden knowledge’. Rather, it has to do with ‘the confused and clogged spaces in between’ (Stoler 2011, 121-122). Denouncing concepts such as ‘collective amnesia’ as inadequate, she proposes ‘aphasia’ as a metaphor to denote the mental operations active in these spaces. ‘In aphasia, an occlusion of knowledge is the issue. (…) a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things’ (Stoler 2011, 125). Stoler refers to Foucault, who equally noted - in Stoler’s words - ‘how aphasiacs disassociate resemblances and reject categories that are viable’. Instead, they produce ‘endless replacements of categories with incomprehensible associations that collapse into incommensurability’ (Stoler 2011, 154).

In another recent article, Stoler introduced the metaphor of ‘imperial debris’ or ‘ruins of empire’, to replace the in her view static idea of ‘colonial legacy’. ‘To speak of colonial ruination is to trace the fragile and durable substances and signs, the visible and visceral senses in which the effects of empire are reactivated and remain’, is ‘to attend to their reappropriations and strategic and active positioning within the politics of the present’ (Stoler 2008, 195,196). Referring to various shocking incidents in contemporary France, she portrays French culture as ‘a culture of concealment that severs racism from ruination as it disconnects the comfortable ranks of French society from the history of racialised privilege and wealth. There is nothing “forgotten” here about French colonialism. This is aphasia, a “disconnect” between words and things, an inability to recognize things in the world and assign proper names to them’ (Stoler 2008, 209-210).

In advocating the concepts of aphasia and ruination, Stoler aims to gain ‘more insight about the political, scholarly, and cognitive domains in which knowledge is disabled, attention is redirected, things are renamed, and disregard is revived and sustained’ (Stoler 2011, 153). At stake is to re-establish ‘connections that are not otherwise readily visible. Such renaming relocates processes dislodged from their specific histories’ (Stoler 2008, 200). This pursuit is pre-eminently part of the mission of any historian or ethnologist. It cannot be ruled out, however, that such a critical stance may be considered by some as partizan or prejudiced. Stoler – like me – opposes to this and states that ‘Making connections where they are hard to trace is not designed to settle scores but rather to recognize that these are unfinished histories, not of victimized pasts but consequential histories that open up to differential futures’ (Stoler 2008, 195). That is not to say that a researcher’s personal values do not come into play in directing his attention. Since Stoler merely wants to see to it that ‘the conditions of restraint and injury be reckoned with and acknowledged’ (Stoler 2008, 210), I assume that few will dismiss this stance.

Stoler is not explicit in the articles quoted above about the mechanisms responsible for cultural aphasia and colonial ruination. Herself a Foucauldian, she undoubtedly here too operates within the framework of Foucault’s idea of a ‘regime of truth’, the interplay of power relations defining what knowledge is socially accepted as ‘true’. Foucault’s position, as paraphrased by Jenny Edkins, is that criticism of this ‘truth’ often comes ‘from knowledge located on the margins, knowledge that has not depended on the approval of the current hegemonic régime of truth in its production’, ‘from those whose voice was disqualified and whose views did not count.’ These voices will be silenced ‘in order to submerge conflicts and give the appearance of consensus’ (Stoler 2003, 53).

It is within this elementary theoretical framework – in summary; focusing on a cultural disability, grounded in power relations, to talk about phenomena and to see things as ‘they really are’ – that I want to tackle the case of the blackface sidekick of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) in the Netherlands: Black Peter (Zwarte Piet).

St Nicholas and Black Peter are the main characters in the Dutch annual present-giving Sinterklaas festival, which culminates on the evening of 5 December (for an overview in English see e.g. Wheeler & Rosenthal 2005, 213-229). The basic premise of the ritual is that the imaginary figure of St Nicholas hands out presents to all children who have behaved well, and punishes those who have been naughty. This idea is expanded to the world of adults as well, who in the name of St Nicholas exchange gifts on this annual day of reckoning, in an atmosphere of benevolent charivari. The belief in the reality of St Nicholas’s existence is greatly enhanced by his live appearance on various occasions. Of these his arrival in mid-november by steamboat from ‘Spain’ (so the story goes) and subsequent festive parade through town is the most spectacular – especially because every town and village will have its own Sinterklaas to do the arriving. One such arrival and parade, preferably from a picturesque ‘old-Dutch’ town, is broadcast by national television. St Nicholas, dressed in the full, if somewhat fanciful, attire of a Roman Catholic bishop, comes not alone, but in the company of another imaginary character: Black Peter – or rather: of a multitude of Black Peters. The Peters all wear a similar brightly-coloured 16th century-style costume, with tights, a frilly collar, and a plumed hat on top of a curly black wig. But their most prominent feature is their blackface – from which the Peters derive their title – with additional red lipstick and golden earrings. The Zwarte Pieten dance, joke and frolic whilst scattering pepernoten (traditional gingerbread cubes) around among the children in the crowd watching the parade. Everybody clearly has a good time and is looking forward to the cosyness of the later family celebration of the Sinterklaas ritual. Amidst this spirit of unison and jollity, however, some take a dissenting view.