My Little Dutch ABC Book
Zwarte ~ Black
Well, being that this is the last letter of the alphabet and my last letter of My Little Dutch ABC Book, I will end this part of my blog with a controversial subject in The Netherlands. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete.
In The Netherlands in November, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus) makes his way to The Netherlands. Traveling all the way from Spain on his steamboat he docks with his trusty steed Amerigo at a designated port and is greeted by thousands of adoring fans. But the wee little tots are not there to only see Sinterklaas, they are also there to see Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’ trusty friend who has come along to help Sinterklaas pass out candy, kruidnoten or pepernoten (little round gingerbread cookies), do funny tricks and help Sinterklaas decide who has been naughty or nice.
As innocent as this sounds, I would have to say this was my first truly shocking thing about The Netherlands. It truly taught me that there are very different cultural differences around the world. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, makes his first appearance in history in a book as the nameless servant of Sinterklaas. The book, Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht or St. Nicholas and His Servant/apprentice, was written in 1850 by a school teacher named Jan Schenkman, a school teacher from Amsterdam.
Usually the Zwarte Piet’s are white people but Blackfaced to appear like a Blackamoor from Spain. Zwarte Piet arrives dressed in Blackface makeup, colorful outfit from the 17th century, curly wig and over emphasized red lips, lace collar and a feather in his cap.
Blackface is a term that became popular in the 1800’s where white people would appear on stage in minstrel shows with burnt cork or shoe polish grease covering their faces to appear as if they were a black person. Usually the person’s facial features were dramatically exaggerated to try to be even more comical emphasizing super red big lips, big eyes, and curly wig and overstated baggy outfits. This continuation of Blackface in minstrel shows in the United States and also Britain helped to multiply the spread of racial stereotypes of black people from the days of slavery of being happy go lucky darkies off a plantation.
In recent years Zwarte Piet has come under public controversy. One side saying that his character is dated and racist and offending to people of color.
The other side saying that it’s just an innocent childhood character who brings such joy to children during the Christmas season.
I totally can see both sides as I actually have seen both sides with my very eyes. When you witness innocent children filled with joy with the prospect of seeing not only Sinterklaas, but also Zwarte Piet, the child can barely contain their joy. Jumping up and down, promising to be good and go to bed early.... right after they’ve laid out their shoes for Sinterklaas to put little treats in. The children don’t get the controversy no should they. That innocence is part of the joy of being a child. But the adults in their lives have a choice to make. In today’s contentious times, I feel the Dutch should start phasing out Zwarte Piet’s Blackface color and his over emphasized hair and lips. They have tried.
One year there were rainbow Piets, but I think that was too fast for the little ones. They missed Zwarte Piet. I feel Piet should just go a little shady like Dick van Dyke in the classic musical movie Mary Poppins.
After all, the Dutch in recent years have said Zwarte Piet is so black because he came through the chimney. Bert, the beloved character as the Chimney Sweep in Mary Poppins, is charred black from cleaning the city of London’s chimneys. Maybe all the Piets can be more like Bert.
But the children all need to be kept in mind. I’ve heard the Dutch say, if you don’t like the tradition, then go home. I don’t think that is the answer. The Dutch are known for being progressive, liberal thinkers. But this tradition is right there in front of their faces. With today’s times, I think it’s safe to say it’s a good thing not to offend other people.
People have said they feel offended so we as the adults should take notice and see if there is a way we can change traditions so that no one will be hurt and so that our children can grow up without feeling they were part of a race controversy. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are fabulous endearing traditions. It would just be nice to people around the world if Piet could tone down a bit. Keep the black but ditch the racially offensive Blackface.