Friday, August 29, 2014

The S-word

Some time ago, I was having a conversation with two friends about Zwarte Piet, because they had broached the subject. It's not something I would ever bring up, but the Dutch do not avoid difficult topics. Carefully couching a statement in words that will not be offensive is called "being political," and, as far as I can tell, is considered insulting.

Zwarte Pieten are the companions to Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas is the key figure in the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration, observed on the 5th of December. The 5th of December is the eve of the death day of the actual Saint in question, Saint Nicholas. Many will tell you it's his birthday, which is really 15 March, but the Catholic Church honors saints' death days, and this stems from the pre-Protestant period. The Good Holy Man, as he's also called, was a sort of Greek Mother Theresa figure who worked in Turkey at the beginning of the fourth century. Nick's work with the poor inspired the gift-giving tradition of Sinterklaas. The holiday's historical roots can be see in the Sint's red robes and bishop's hat. Many of the traditions of Christmas as well as Sinterklaas owe their roots to Nick's life.

That may or may not include Zwarte Piet. This is a name for the jester-like characters who accompany Nick and actually deliver the presents to the children in the Netherlands. They are typical jesters, jokesters, who throw cookies on the floor and like to play tricks, as well as leaving presents and oranges in children's shoes. They come down the chimney, and thus are black, I'm told. All well and good, but... Well, let it suffice to say that I will include neither an image of nor a link to Piet in this blog, because the images make me cringe to the very core of my being. That is my individual, personal reaction as a person who was raised in the US and not as a person who was raised in the Netherlands. I have no expectation that a person raised in the Netherlands would have the same reaction, because they do not share the same history.

The conversation in question was about why I avoid images of and encounters with Zwarte Piet.

Now mind you, I do not stand on street corners banging drums and yelling that Piet must go. I do not even think that Piet must go. I do believe Piet could do with some modifications, but I see no more harm in the character himself than I see in Santa's elves in the context of Dutch society, where dwarf tossing was only outlawed in 2002.

Anyway, I was asked by my friends why I have such a visceral reaction to the images of Zwarte Piet.

Now here's a thing about the Dutch: They were major players in the slave trade, but did not import slaves to the Netherlands, and they have no concrete concept of slavery and post-slavery in the US. Mind you, many Americans, when speaking of slavery, are wont to say, "But that was 400 years ago." Erm, no. That was not 400 years ago.

Four hundred years ago was 1614. The very first actual slaves arrived in what would later become the US in 1619. As it turns out, 1614 was not the end of slavery in the US. Go figure.

Slavery officially ended in the US somewhere between 1863 and 1865. And that's the end of the story, not. After slavery ended, two things happened. In some places, former slaves were subjected to "involuntary servitude," a practice which was largely ignored until FDR took on the issue in 1941 by taking the ground-breaking action of instructing federal prosecution of people still effectively holding slaves... in 1941. The last case that apparently needed to be tried under Circular 3591 (FDR's order) was in 1947. (Pop quiz: Is 2014 - 1941 greater than or less than 400? It's 73, for those playing along at home.)

The other thing that happened was that in places where African Americans were doing well, particularly in areas where slavery had been most common, the formerly dominant but outnumbered white population got scared. As a reaction to Reconstruction, the brief federal attempt to rebuild society with equality for all throughout the US, many states passed Jim Crow laws, which is a collection of laws that essentially made the US an apartheid state. The US almost entirely remained an apartheid state by law until 1964. The US remained an apartheid state in fact until... well, as someone so eloquently said in the great Wiki, "De facto segregation — segregation "in fact", without sanction of law — persists in varying degrees to the present day."

And now we get back to Piet.

In order to maintain public support of segregation, it was necessary for white Americans to think of black Americans as being less than themselves. To this end, the art of the caricature was employed, leading to the widespread distribution of standardized images of Africans and people of African descent that, to their credit, the vast majority of Americans of all shapes and sizes and colors find revolting today. We have difficulty looking at images of Al Jolson in black face with white-painted lips, even though the man had an undeniable talent and made a major contribution to his art. The image simply makes us cringe, us being Americans.

So when I see images of people, black or white, in black face with bright, jester-like clothing, I have a visceral reaction.

And that's the answer I was giving to my friends (who incidentally thought, I think, that I was just being over-sensitive until Dutch TV took photos of Zwarte Piet and showed them to Americans on the streets of New York and they saw the horror with which Americans today almost instinctively respond to that image) about why I avoid images of and encounters with Piet.

And in the middle of this conversation (and now we come to the actual thing I was thinking about that triggered this blog), a young girl who was present piped up with a rather condescending, "We know about slavery. The Dutch sold the slaves."

To which I said almost nothing because talking through anger is far from my strong suit.

But I do want to post my response for those Dutch people who agree that the Dutch know all about slavery because after all, they were major players in the slave trade:

No, you don't.

Merchants from the Netherlands did engage in the kidnapping, transport and sale of human beings from Africa. That is true. Many of those people enslaved by the Dutch ended up in the Dutch colonies of Curacao and Suriname. That is true. But the Dutch did not bring those slaves home with them. The Netherlands itself has a population of zero people who are the descendants of people who were once slaves in the Netherlands. So?

So it's the difference between selling heroin and using heroin. If you sell heroin but do not use it, then you are not the one who ends up on a bare mattress in a dark room not having eaten for a week.

No, my friends, you don't.

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