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

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Curing cultural aphasia?

‘We began this project because we signalled a want of historical knowledge about the figure of Zwarte Piet’, Quinsy Gario explained. It aimed at starting a ‘sane dialogue, based on facts’. ‘We don’t say: “stop celebrating Sinterklaas”. We say: “study the origin of the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet and ask yourself the question if that is still acceptable in today’s world”.’ At the same time, they left no mistakes about their own position in this debate. A continued indulgence in the Sinterklaas ritual, for them, came down to ‘condoning the fact that slavery is thought lightly of. Zwarte Piet is a caricature of black people’. As his only job is to serve his master Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet represents ‘a caricature image of a black slave’.[15] This then condensed into the racism charge.

On a basic level, the question of the ‘origin’ of Zwarte Piet might be interpreted as referring to Jan Schenkman’s ground for including this character in his 1850 booklet. Was he, as the activists’ charge of racism was construed by some, at that time portraying a real slave? Rejecting the aforementioned thesis that Zwarte Piet was Sinterklaas’s servant ‘of his own free will’, it was stated that ‘arguing that there is no relationship at all between Zwarte Piet and a slave is simply not true’.[16] Recent scholarship on the legal status of blacks living in the Netherlands proper, however, provides no unambiguous answers. Officially prohibited, slavery occasionally seems to have been tolerated (Haarnack, Hondius & Kolfin 2008, 106). But also there seem to have been, especially in the late 18th and early 19th century, freed slaves or free blacks, usually hiring themselves out as domestic servants. Probably such a black man was employed, for instance, by the novelist Jacob van Lennep (1802-1868) in the early 1830s in his country house near Haarlem (Van Lennep 2001, 28). Because Van Lennep was the editor of some of Schenkman’s posthumous works, Zwarte Piet might have been modelled on this, most likely, free man – although I was unable to find documentation for this connection.

There has been a general consensus among researchers of Zwarte Piet that he is of Jan Schenkman’s own creation. A chance discovery by myself in November 2011 questions this. In 1884, at the age of 64, catholic man of letters Jozef Alberdingk Thijm (1820-1889) remembered attending in 1828, i.e. as an eight year old boy, a St Nicholas party for children in the house of a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. There he saw St Nicholas entering the room, in the company of ‘a curly-haired negro’ (een kroesharige neger). If his memory is correct, and he gives clues to assume it is, then already well before Schenkman’s 1850 book St Nicholas was entrusted with a black servant, in all likelihood an employee of the merchant in question.[17] Again, (rumours about) such enactments later may have inspired Jan Schenkman. No details are given by Alberdingk Thijm about this man’s legal status. Still, it is fair to assume, of course conditional upon further archival research, that he was a free black man. That would mean that on the basis of this and similar sources, and within the scope of this kind of reasoning, i.e. focused on finding ‘facts’ to a product of fancy, a children’s book, the issue of Zwarte Piet being ‘originally’ a slave cannot yet be decided, the odds being, however, that he was a free man indeed. What the 1828 source did, however, was to provide Quinsy Gario the fact he needed to prove to his opponents that a real black was at the origin of the imagery of Zwarte Piet.[18]

An important perspective on the ‘origin’ of Zwarte Piet was opened in 1993 by art historian Eugenie Boer (Boer-Dirks 1993). She convincingly documented the striking parallels between the pictures of Sinterklaas and his black servant in Schenkman’s 1850 book and 17th and 18th century paintings of Dutchmen of wealth and importance, who are similarly portrayed with a black servant in attendance.[19] Much of the present-day costume of Zwarte Piet derives from this broad pictorial tradition. As Boer perceptively writes, this imagery of black servants ‘could only have been realised because there was a trade in black human beings’ (Boer 2009, 30). It is the fact of this representation of black persons, infusing both the appearance and ritual role pattern of Zwarte Piet in the Sinterklaas festival, and its historical embeddedness, i.e. the context of slavery or colonialism, that Gario and Know’ledge referred to primarily in their indictment of Zwarte Piet. As Ruby Savage (2009, 7) summarised, ‘Whatever his origin may be the present-day image of Zwarte Piet has a strong resemblance to the European stereotypes of African slaves created during colonial times.’

In the media debate ensuing from the arrests some, if relatively few, voices, popular singer Anouk among them, came in support of this claim, in an effort to cure the prevailing aphasia in Dutch society with respect to Zwarte Piet, the plain fact that ‘most Dutch people will argue that there is no relation between Zwarte Piet and a stereotype of a black person’ (Savage 2009, 7)[20], and ‘a negro in caricature’.[21] Although in posts in the debate on internet sometimes (links to) visual sources are offered in support of this argument, the debate in its oral and newspaper forms clearly suffers from the absence of these. To anyone with a trained eye, and in his right mind, Zwarte Piet equalling a wilful caricature of a black person will be apparent. As a reference he/she will have consulted printed publications on this theme (e.g. Nederveen Pieterse 1990; Kapelle & Tang 2008). And even without the help of such sources it seems almost impossible not to notice this connection. However, and to the absolute stupefaction (cf. Stoler 2008, 211) of those opposing Zwarte Piet, many, if not the majority of Dutch people fail to establish this obvious link.

‘With a little effort surely even the most ardent of Sinterklaas supporters should be able to empathise with the activist’s point of view. An affable white master with only cheerful black servants simply isn’t a matter of coincidence, but a consequence of events in history that were gruesome for people of African descent, frequently leading to their deaths’.[22] Here the argument shifts to the role relationship of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, what this represents, and how this is experienced. ‘Zwarte Piet didn’t just drop out of the chimney. He derives from our colonial past’. ‘It’s about this white man, this good children’s friend. And his stupid, submissive black servants. It quickly links up with slavery and its past’. ‘A black servant with golden earrings and thick red lips cannot be dissociated from slavery, from colonialism’.[23] These are not detached observations; black people argue this way because they identify with Zwarte Piet, as he is experienced to reflect their own status in Dutch society. ‘He is someone with my colour of skin’. ‘We are implicated in this festival on the basis of a submissive, second-rate position in the Sinterklaas story. It’s purely about slavery. The festival upholds the myth that the white man is lord and master’. ‘Zwarte Piet is racist because he comes from an age in which the principle that “races” are equal did not exist’.[24] At issue here is less the ‘reconstruction of history’ as well as ‘the truth experience of someone grasping this past as meaningful’ (Frijhoff 1991, 132). Writer and anthropologist Jef de Jager summed up these arguments, referring to the past in the present, eloquenty: ‘Even if you are against getting rid of Zwarte Piet, when nowadays a servant were to be devised for the Sint, no one would come up with a negro. It’s as simple as that’.[25] As far as I know, the answer to this is not only aphasia, but aporia, and, as is claimed; indifference and a lack of empathy. ‘A white person in blackface, with a curly wig and red lipstick is something I, and many others, feel uncomfortable with’. ‘The pain that Zwarte Piet conjurs up in people, to many others seems incredible. My hopes are on a little more consciousness of that sensitivity’. ‘The whole point is that you cannot denigrate coloured people that way’.[26] In general, such pleas are given the cold shoulder, although some are not entirely deaf to them – without, however, endorsing the legitimacy of these feelings. It is here that symbolic power relations become manifest.