Tomorrow, December 6, is the birthday of St Nicholas, of “Santa” fame. Tonight, on the eve of that birthday, almost two-thirds of Dutch people (certainly those with kids), will be unwrapping gifts. The unwrapping isn’t simple, the “Sinterklaas” tradition involves the creation of bad occasional poetry and “surprise” gifts. “Surprises” are gag gifts made infinitely more complex: humorous or hard to get, disguised or wrapped; gifts that deal with your weaknesses or embarrassments; gifts that are otherwise complex to deal with. You cannot buy your way out of properly celebrating this holiday; the gifts are frequently less personal than the gags. Even the uncreative must create and on December 5 people are desperately writing horrendous verse all over the house.
My mother was a master at all this. She wrote the funniest poetry, had us running up and down the stairs and across the yard trying to work out our gags, and we were all envious of her creative genius once we were grown up enough to participate on equal footing. So, one December 5 in the 1970’s, she received a perfectly wrapped tree stump without any hints as to what to do with it — except for a poem that intimated she was intrepid and creative enough to be able to deal.
The implacable piece wood was examined from all sides. There was no hole, no point of entry, nothing. It was knocked with knuckles and rapped with a wooden spoon — it sounded pretty solid. After much head-scratching by most present, one person in the room asked, innocuously: “Well, how do you tackle a piece of wood? Get the axe!” (hint-hint) It was an assignment based on an assumption. This being an urban household without a fireplace, procuring an axe was not that simple on a very dark, misty, frosty December evening. The neighbors were celebrating elsewhere. My mother was starting to get mad (I am sure she was supposed to) when, suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door. “It’s Piet,” a chorus went up, “come on Attie, open the door to Piet.” You’ll not be surprised, in this context, that there was no one at the door, but there was an axe with a bow wrapped around it. “Piet” had been here. One of my friends took it all to the back yard, where under much cheering he split the piece, which actually fell open at the merest touch of the axe, revealing a package within containing a gift stipulated to be worth less than 15 guilders. That my mother had been stumped had been the point, of course.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about. The mysterious visitor, “Piet,” is my goal here. “Piet” has had me stumped for a while. “Piet,” who is as tough to accept and as enigmatic as my mother’s block of wood. “Piet,” whose full name is “Zwarte Piet,” who is part of the Saint Nicholas tradition, and who is now at the center of controversy in Holland: Black Pete, some say, is an embodiment of racism, an embarrassment, and offensive to many non-white Dutch. Zwarte Piet, they say, has to go.
I had to think about Black Pete for some years to work out how to understand one of the towering images of my childhood, one I do not easily recognize as “racist caricature.” Black Pete is “defended” vehemently by many, including people who haven’t celebrated this holiday in years with more than a shoe by the radiator (in which a bribe in the form of a carrot for Sint’s horse and a cigarette for Piet). Why can’t they (I?) simply dismiss it as racist heritage and be done with it? Why does it matter so much? And what’s the most important message in all this? It’s clear it isn’t obvious what is the right thing to do to many otherwise well-intended people. Can we simply dismiss them as reactionary or does that make for a worse outcome in a world that is not that successful in grappling with racism — that most social of human cultural frameworks in which we insist on making those other than oneself the “other” against which to define our own value? In other words, what’s up here? Can it teach us something?
In the Dutch holiday concept, Black Pete is the right-hand-man of Saint Nicholas (“Sinterklaas”): he makes things happen. When I was growing up, Sinterklaas most often had one Piet, whose jobs included writing in or reading from the big book, going down the chimney with gifts and meting out punishment to bad kids — oh, and flinging candy around corners at great speed. These days one Sinterklaas may have many, many Pieten who each have their own job, and many of them do acrobatics. Piet was, and likely still is, most often a slender Dutch man (ethnically Dutch that is), woman, or teenager in blackface wearing the colorful outfit of a knight’s page topped by black curly wig and a beret with a feather. S/he often wore gold hoop earrings and lips painted red.
Is this portrayal stereotypical? Lips? Hoops? Feather? Duh. Holland in the sixties was not exactly filled with people from Africa. Black was exotic in the literal sense of the word — not just tropical but National Geographic-type unknown. We kids sang a song about “Moriaantje,” who was black as soot, who had an umbrella to protect him from the sun. The first Black man I consciously met was the cultural attaché of the Kenyan embassy — I was maybe 7 or 8 or even older. (My Dad, who’d been a sailor across the world before studying medicine, offered healthcare to embassies.) So that, without too many real live Africans around, portrayal of an African would almost of necessity be stereotypical. Central to Piet’s identity as we know it is that he is a “Moor” or dark-skinned north African. One assumes the stereotypical portrayal followed — or did the identity follow the portrayal?
Is stereotypical portrayal necessarily racist? Piet’s “defenders” say among other things that his origins are not racist and therefore are legit: he’s simply a black man and thus you can portray him in blackface. Saint Nicholas (270-343) is said to have freed enslaved children, and Piet is likely to have been one of them. I looked into this and am not going to tire you with an endless unpacking of possible interpretations and analyses of Piet’s history, Sint’s history, slavery, and the whole history of the relationships between northern Europe and North Africa, as well as even older histories of good men and their scary sidekicks coming along in the middle of the winter, which would all come into play. The point is: possible antecedents and relations of Piet poke up their variously curly heads and uniforms and devil’s horns in northern Europe ever since there was such a thing, and no two scholars can agree on what came first or who is the real Piet. (You can read some of it in Wikipedia. While you do, donate) Piet’s origins are, to my mind, not so much murky, as that Piet is the sum of a series of complex cultural portrayals and evolving archetypes. Although Piet-the-Moor is what we know, “Zwarte” Piet isn’t about where he came from or about a historical tale: he’s black as a result of some other factors, likely more than one.
If we can’t tell from the history, is the meaning or portrayal of “Zwarte Piet” racist because of what it looks or sounds like? (does the association of his identity and African-ness express something about generalized understandings of African identity?) In this context, I hear my father, who evolved into a psychotherapist, say about a woman we knew that she “always makes someone the Zwarte Piet” (she always finds someone else responsible). He was referring to the Dutch version of Old Maid, which is called Zwarte Pieten, which apparently derived from playing Old Maid with on black Jack wild.
So how does this relate? Does it? Is one black Pete the same as any other, can we separate them out? I found a large collection of Zwarte Piet decks (1880-1970) at a website entitled “Historic Exhibit of Dutch Parlor Games,” which has games from a whole slew of Dutch museums. Again, we could spend a year looking at these, but suffice it to say that the games have in common that they have one “bad” card, who the game is named after and who is portrayed on the outside of the box. Plus, the rules describe a “hilarious” process of putting cork soot on the face of the loser, “I am the Black Pete.”
Overall, the games seem quite dominated by stereotyped drawings, perhaps of African-American (jazz) band leaders in top hats and tails and with instruments (who toured Europe since the late nineteenth century as a way to evade Jim Crow), alternating with more Minstrel-show-like drawings with big red lips, curls, and hoop earrings that seem to me to be those of a pirate. Little of the imagery seems to originate in Holland. I found my game, from 1955 (not weird, I was born in 1958), and the amazing thing about it is that the “Zwarte Piet” is a white chimney sweep. Clearly, the nickname covered him, too. Coincidentally, the rules for game immediately preceding this one in the collection (1954) still describes the sooting of the loser with a picture of a girl that might have been me. I had never even heard of anyone doing that. Guess we didn’t play by the rules….
I conclude this: Zwarte Piet is a particularly fruitful cultural vehicle with great staying power. Without going into facile interpretations, every generation seems to use the idea of a “Zwarte Piet” for its own purposes, and we can all imagine what a scary black man or a silly black man might be about as cultural vehicles at various moments, or what the equation between black and silly or subservient might do for a slave trading nation.
A couple of things stand out in my evaluation of what is right for me: first, that despite the origins of Zwarte Piet imagery in early modern paintings and non-racist portrayals of Africans, the image of Black Pete in the cards or today seems to me not at all insulated from commercial representations and caricatures of Africans elsewhere.
Second, that insofar as the current “Piet” participates in that imagery, it is neither homegrown nor innocent, and a vehicle of racist ideas. I keep remembering the wrapping paper more than the blackface, even.
Third, the Piet I grew up with was a serious enforcer of parental rule but now that serious is out of vogue, along with morality, Piet is fun and s/he has a role in the capitalist production of gift giving (Packaging Piet, Procurement Piet, you name it) (yes, that’s a joke). In other words: I hate to break it to my friends, but Piet of today not nearly the same as the Piet we grew up with. He is marked deeply by Hallmark. In fact he was so before Hallmark was born. Or we were born. The idea that kids “deserve” Dutch tradition does not in any way need blackface any more than that it needs the devil’s horns of an earlier variation or the rod or the sack. Kids live forward, not backward.
I left Holland more than 30 years ago so I can’t really say what makes Black Pete so important. Still, of course, I am going to speculate. A couple of things stand out in a tiny country that is now part of Europe, a tiny country that is no longer as uni-racial as my card game in the early sixties would have me believe it was.
Black Pete is, along with the whole complicated and messy rest of this tradition, part of what makes Dutch people feel they are a people. And he does make them a people in a way, because he is a locus of cultural negotiation. And now he has become a way to set boundaries in the equally complex post-colonial, post nation-state identity politics of the Netherlands: “I will not give up this last part of my cultural identity.”
But I think there’s a bit more, a bit that has to do not only with the blackness of Pete — but with the strength and viability of the cultural tradition — including the tough issues that raises. In this tiny country, they have a way of celebrating mid-winter with gifts that seems not nearly as crass as the far more commercialized and yet far more moralistic Christmas tradition. In some way, my Dutch friends with their vehement beliefs in the non-racist nature of Piet are drawing a line in the sand against Hallmark commercialism and other bits of American cultural hegemony. Among these other bits, in addition to Piet’s new capitalist role, is the American way of dealing with its own horrendous racist history, which is to simply outlaw caricature and other forms of open speech about racial issues. “That’s not us,” say the Dutch I know, “not talking about stuff, simply sending it underground, doesn’t do the trick. You have to be tolerant of difference.”
Are they right with respect to Pete? I don’t think so, and that’s also not where the cultural conversation is going it seems. Moreover, like many Americans, they are in deep denial about how they are –today– benefitting from our country’s and people’s history of racial exploitation and extermination. And they are so upset they can’t see that they are elevating an icon over the need to tolerate and be kind for the common good.
But they do have a point, in the sense that you can try to outlaw cultural traditions, but if you do, they will come back to bite you in the rear. And Americans are experiencing that today.
A good essay on Piet’s iconographic history is Rebecca Brienen, “Types and Stereotypes: Zwarte Piet and his Early Modern Sources,” in Dutch Racism, eda. Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving Thamyris/Intersecting No 27 (2014) 179-200 (Amsterdam/NY: Rodopi, 2014)