The Curator series re-examines historical depictions of Africa and the Diaspora
If I was asked four years ago, when I came to the Netherlands as an exchange student, what does ‘Homeland’ mean to me or where do I call ‘home’ I would have clearly said the U.S., but that was before I had any idea of the different directions and turns my life would take. Initially, my purpose and intentions were clear: to study abroad for 6 months, to learn more about both my Dutch-Afro-Surinamese’s family heritage and to study Dutch history. These parallel journeys continue to intersect and guide my work. I didn’t expect the total disconnect and one-sided view of Dutch colonial history in academia and in the public space, or how the dominant discourse being presented would lead me to develop Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam in 2013.
“I was told, ‘There was no Black history in the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age’”
The inspiration for the tours was a result of two very different experiences. First, from the transformative experience I had as a student of the Black Europe Summer School (BESS) in Amsterdam, which was an intensive two-week course focused on the history, forced and voluntary migrations and contributions of people of color throughout Europe. The second was a void I encountered during my studies at a Dutch university; and, the lack of positive historical narratives about the presence and contributions of the African Diaspora in the Netherlands. The focus and literature were mainly on the glory of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age and the Dutch East Indies. I was told, ‘There was no Black history in the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age’. When I inquired about this missing history, not just about slavery but also about the Black presence, I was told, ‘there wasn’t any to speak of and very little literature to read about it.’
I could not understand this obvious erasure of history. I was also confused by my family, which has been living in the Netherlands for at least three generations. So, how is it that my cousins, nieces, and nephews who were born here did not identify as Dutch, but Surinamese or Caribbean? It also seemed generally accepted that people of color who were born in the Netherlands, were treated as though they were ‘guests in their own country’, or ‘permanent visitors’! This disconnect was exactly what I had learned about during my summer school course about ‘Black Europe’ and more recently as Prof Emeritus Gloria Wekker describes in her new book, White Innocence (2016), as the legacy of over four hundred years of colonialism has left an unacknowledged imprint on the ‘cultural archives’, which Wekker refers to as the storehouse of the ‘collective memory’ in society. It had not occurred to me when I first arrived that the ‘homeland’ of my family and many other people of color, was not where they were born, raised and lived, but the roots with which they identified with.
Uncovering this ‘hidden history’ became my obsession. For example, attached to the facade of several buildings in Amsterdam and throughout the Netherlands, are statues known as ‘Gapers’ (directly translated into English it means ’yawners’ referring to the open mouths of the statues). Gaspers were initially used to signpost a pharmacy.
Almost all Gapers have dark or black skin, wear a turbans, and often earrings. While some of them look a lot like Zwarte Piet (or Black Peter, the infamous Dutch helper to Saint Nicholas), their origins have nothing to do with him or slavery, but point to the early history of the apothecary when he would be accompanied by a ‘black assistant’. Studying these images from another perspective, they also point to the history of the moors, who brought medicine and knowledge of the healing arts to civilization. I was compelled to search for traces of colonialism and Black history, which did not begin with slavery, but are an integral part of the story that are both clearly still visible on national monuments, canal houses, and in museums.
“Or is it that these images and structures… that show how race was constructed, have become so normalized that they are rendered invisible?”
I was surprised to find these symbols ‘hidden in plain sight, but often overlooked or disregarded. Perhaps because when we walk down the street we are not looking up where these symbols are positioned or even in the museum, where there are many paintings with a ‘black presence’ from the middle ages and onwards that are equally unnoticed until we are guided to look beyond the ‘tourist gaze’. Or, is it that these images and structures that were built into the fabric of the city landscapes during the years of Dutch colonial expansion and that show how race was constructed have become so normalized that they are rendered invisible? However, once we ‘step back in time’ together and genuinely explore the cityscape and museums through this different lens, a decisive shift within often occurs and magical things happen! Guests from all over the world that have taken the tour journey, especially those from the Netherlands, are often shocked and surprised there is so much that is still visible from the colonial past, and even more surprised at the visible ‘black presence’ pointing to a much longer history and deeper intertwined relations than what was first believed or taught in schools. The tour then becomes a doorway we walk through opening up more difficult and uncomfortable discussions about race and institutional racism, both of which are often rejected as having any basis in the Netherlands.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned since launching the tour in Amsterdam and the second tour in New York State with my Mapping Slavery Project colleagues and New York partners this past year, has been well articulated by the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, what she calls, “the danger of a single story…which is so often incomplete, and ultimately dispossesses a whole group of people. Over time, if uncontested that one story becomes the only story.” My vision is that through these tours and the tireless work being done by dedicated scholars and activists throughout the Netherlands, the U.S.A. and around the world, we will move from silence, shame or blame to speak about ‘Black history’ with pride, and to reclaim the heritage that is rightfully shared.
“I represent the plurality of heritage and citizenship”
What does it mean to belong and who can claim ‘Dutchness’? I have had to answer these questions recently when I acquired my Dutch citizenship. The immigration law said that if my parents were ‘Dutch’ when I was born, technically I can claim Dutch heritage (known as the ‘family option’), because even though I was born in the U.S., my parents, who came from Suriname, were part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, therefore ‘Dutch’. On paper that sounds pretty straightforward, but in reality, I had to go through a lot of channels to prove my Dutch birthright. It took almost a year to convince the government of my dual nationality. The point is, I represent the plurality of heritage and citizenship and should not have to choose one identity over the other, but instead embrace the rich complexity of all my family’s history.
The other lesson I learned during this arduous process is that the sense of belonging could not come from someone ‘granting me that privilege’, but had to come from within me! I declared, ‘I belong’ and my work, my life, and my family all add to the tapestry of Surinamese, American and Dutch culture. It’s not only speaking the ‘diversity rhetoric’, but more importantly, ‘valuing those differences’ that really embodies the ideals of a ‘multicultural society.’ It is at this point of departure that we can examine society’s inequalities more honestly and move away from thinking in terms of ‘them’ and move toward building a better, more just society for us all.
Today, the Netherlands is my homeland, and so is the U.S.A, and so is Suriname and Africa. My DNA and identity are made up of all of these geographies and connected histories. I know I’m not alone on this journey. I am proud to be a part of the social, political and economic movement that is ongoing and continuing to reframe society. What will it take to really witness this change? Become aware how these dynamics work, embrace all of who you are and, ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’ for a while as we learn better ways of communicating with each other about these challenges and opportunities.
Photos provided by author. For more information about how to experience a Black Heritage Tour visit: www.blackheritagetours.com