By CARRIE STETLER
As a child in New Orleans, Shantrelle P. Lewis celebrated Christmas with images of Black Santas and Afrocentric holiday cards. The angels on the tree, the Jesus in the manger were Black, too. So when Lewis, a Philadelphia-based curator, first traveled to the Netherlands in 2011, she was shocked to discover Zwarte Piet —the slave-like helper of Sinterklass, a Dutch version of Saint Nick. At holiday parades and other events, Zwarte Piet—which translates as “Black Pete”—is portrayed by Dutch revelers in blackface, afro wigs and medieval Moorish costumes, complete with hoop ear rings.
Lewis was profoundly disturbed. For her, and many Black Dutch, Zwarte Piet is an ugly reminder of minstrelsy and other racist stereotypes. But for many white Dutch, he is a beloved tradition.
Her sense of outrage, and her questions about the popularity of the figure, inspired Lewis to embark on her first film, “Black Pete/Zwarte Piet: The Documentary.’’ Initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Lewis has been applying for grants to complete production next year for a 2016 release. “I want the film to be an entry point to discuss race, the representation of Black people in Dutch popular culture and white supremacist ideologies at play in the Netherlands,’’ says Lewis.
Over the past few years, the Zwarte Piet controversy has stirred up national and international conversations about racism and the Dutch legacy of slave trading in a country that prides itself on its liberalism—both pot and prostitution are legal in the Netherlands—and its history of openness to other cultures.
“They think racism is a problem in the U.S. but not in the Netherlands,’’ Lewis explains. The growing number of anti-Piet activists has spawned an angry backlash among whites in the Netherlands, fueled by the support of white lawmakers and politicians. After 90 anti-Piet protestors were arrested at a Gouda holiday parade last month, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte criticized the activists. “Everyone can talk about Black Pete’s color but you can’t disturb a children’s party like that,” he scolded.
In March, he mentioned his own experiences with blackface, describing how it takes him days to remove his makeup, unlike his Black Caribbean friends.
In the Netherlands, where blacks are less than ten percent of the population, many arrived in the country in the 1970s and 1980s after leaving Dutch Caribbean countries, such as Suriname. The influx has resulted in some of the same issues confronted by blacks in the U.S. and other countries, including violence against Black people, racial profiling and economic disparity.
Initially, Lewis was bent on creating an objective documentary, exploring whether Zwarte Piet is overtly racist or an unwittingly offensive symbol of good cheer. But eventually she abandoned any pretense of neutrality. She joined the ranks of anti-Piet activists, demonstrating at holiday parades with Dutch organizers as she documented their growing movement.
“There’s no question of whether Zwarte Piet is racist. He is. And there’s no such thing as objectivity when racism is involved,’’ says Lewis, a 2014 U.N. Programme for People of African Descent Fellow and current chief “dream director” for The Future Project, a social entrepreneurship organization that works with young people in U.S. public high schools.
After word got out about the film’s production last year, Lewis, who has been traveling back and forth to the Netherlands, became a target of Dutch threats and hate mail, like other anti-Piet sympathizers and U.N. investigators who urged the Dutch to abolish the tradition.
During her extended stay in the Netherlands as an Andy Warhol Curatorial fellow, Lewis experienced racist comments first-hand. When she apologized to a repairman for not having any coffee, he joked, “Why do you need coffee? Isn’t your skin black enough already?’’
Zwarte Piet seems to have evolved from ancient Nordic legends in which a dark, monstrous character accompanies Saint Nicholas to punish bad children. In the Netherlands, he entered the popular imagination as Zwarte Piet, a character in a 19th-century children’s book by Jan Schenkman. It describes the saint’s arrival from Spain, accompanied by a Moorish slave. In some depictions, Piet carries a stick and a sack to beat naughty kids and whisk them away.
According to Lewis, it’s no coincidence that Zwarte Piet appeared as slavery was being abolished in the Dutch colonies. His creation was a way to preserve that legacy, at least on a symbolic level, Lewis contends.
Although the Dutch grew wealthy off the Transatlantic slave trade, like other European countries, they mostly relied on enslaved Africans to supply labor in countries they colonized. “Until recently, the Dutch haven’t had to interact with Blacks in their own physical place,’’ Lewis observes. “Racists in the U.S. are more inclined to publicly claim their disdain for Black people. The Dutch, who have institutionalized discriminatory policies and have seen their own share of racially biased police brutality, will say, ‘I don’t hate anyone.’ But it’s naive to think that racism only exists in overt ways, like the recent murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner by police in the U.S.’’
Lewis is exasperated by Piet supporters who claim he’s not a Black person at all. “They’ll say he’s Black because he came down a chimney. But that doesn’t explain the wig and the exaggerated lips, or his Creole earrings,’’ argues Lewis.
But she recognizes that his association with a holiday that otherwise brings joy is one reason the Dutch are so resistant to banning him. Even those who object to him, including some Black Dutch, have memories of Piet bringing candy and other treats.
Some, such as American academic Allison Blakely, believe getting rid of him entirely might be unrealistic. “My feeling is that simply eliminating Piet from the Netherland’s main annual festival would only create deep resentment,” says Blakely, a professor at Boston University and author of “Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society.’’
Dutch anti-Piet activists say there’s no way to salvage the figure. “Zwarte Piet has got to go. You can’t rehabilitate, or rescue, a racist caricature,’’ says black Dutch cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina. “The majority is under the impression that a cosmetic change will suffice… painting Piet in different colors, or smearing soot on their faces. But the only viable solution is introducing a completely new character.”
Lewis has interviewed many Black Dutch who dread the approach of December. “If you can’t participate in something that’s supposed to bring good feelings because you feel demeaned, it’s problematic. Black Dutch people want to enjoy the holiday without wondering whether they should send their kids to school to be called “Zwarte Piet” and face degrading stereotypes,’’ says, Lewis, who was raised Catholic and now follows the African religion of Yoruba.
For years, she rejected Christmas but now celebrates it again. “I’ve always loved the lights and the Christmas songs, especially the R&B and soul holiday songs. I just decided to enjoy it despite my feelings towards Christianity and the hyper-commercialization of the holiday,’’ she says.
The history of Zwarte Piet is still uncertain. What is certain, however, is that change will come. Members of groups such as Zwarte Piet is Racisme and Kick Out Zwarte Piet have staged demonstrations, protesting what they call an anti-black infringement on their humanity. Many have been arrested. Most recently, a group of activists presented their case before the European Parliament.
Lewis believes critique must ultimately come from the Black Dutch community. “As a Black American it’s not my right to say what should happen much in the same way that it wouldn’t be the right of a black Dutch person to dictate the solutions to our problems with racism here in the States,’‘ she says. “However, I can speak to how I feel as a Black woman encountering blackface and minstrelsy in 2014, as well as relate to the experiences of my friends who have been affected by this violent imagery throughout their entire lives.”
Carrie Stetler is freelance writer and managing editor of HYCIDE, a photojournalism magazine and arts journal. She lives in Parsippany, NJ.