AMSTERDAM – I’d just gotten off the train, thrown my bags in my room and was rushing over the pedestrian bridges and down the narrow cobblestone lanes to meet a friend for lunch on Keizersgracht. I turned a corner near the Royal Palace and stopped dead in my tracks in front of a shop window.
It was my first encounter with an image of Black Pete. On the door, was a plastic holiday sign featuring a beaming blackfaced cartoon wearing a heavily decorated turban. There was a television in the window of the small boutique that was showing what looked like a low budget children’s skit featuring the same grease-painted character hamming it up and acting the fool while passing out gifts. I tore myself away and hotfooted it toward the restaurant while pausing at some of the more absurd versions of the curious character. He was everywhere and his popularity seemed to completely dwarf Santa’s.
I’d barely taken off my coat when I asked, “So what exactly is going on with Santa’s Sambo? Are they serious?”
“Oh, I see you discovered Zwarte Piet — Black Pete,” Martin told me. “Oh, yeah, he’s Santa’s helper and sidekick and the Dutch are crazy about him.”
For hours, in between bottles of wines and plates of bitterballen, we chewed on cultural differences, history, and the folly of inappropriateness. And like the layers of an onion, as we peeled back the myriad myths of Black Pete, our debate became more and more malodorous.
“So,” Martin began, “On December fifth, Santa arrives in the Netherlands on a boat and he passes out presents and candies — or rather he has his minions of lesser Black Petes, lead by the head Black Pete, do the grunt work. He’s a bit of a national treasure in the Netherlands and get this: blond-haired kids even dress up as him with afro wigs and black makeup. They even sell the costumes in a packet like we have for Halloween.”
I could barely believe what I was hearing. And according to Martin, most Dutch people don’t see anything racist about Black Pete whatsoever.
And to prove the point, Martin asked the waiter what he thought about Zwarte Piet. He lit up like Christmas tree, “Oh, he’s very special and all the children love him.” When pressed if he thought the character was racist he shook his head, “No. no, not at all. How can it be racist if he is beloved even more than Sinterklaas?”
As he cleared away our bowls of tomato paprika soup, Martin whispered, “Yeah, well, there’s an actual term for that; It’s called cognitive dissonance. It’s what happens when your mind rejects the acknowledgement that something you once loved is no longer worthy of your love. It’s a subconscious defense mechanism that attempts to balance two things that are in are conflict with each other – reality, and in this case: nostalgia.”
“Could this be like their version of Brere Rabbit and Uncle Remus from Disney’s now-banned Song of the South?” I asked. “I grew up in the South and had black playmates, and loved the movie and saw nothing wrong with it. However, now that I think about it, Disney banned it years ago and when I learned you couldn’t find the full DVD anywhere I couldn’t believe it — like the Dutch with their Black Pete, I thought the characters were much beloved. Then I researched the film and saw a “tar baby” reference and understood why Disney has distanced itself from the movie. Yet, Uncle Remus wasn’t, from what I recall a caricature of a black man, rather I remember him as being wiser and more elevated than those around him.”
Martin nodded. “Exactly, and there’s one difference right there: Uncle Remus, the film’s narrator, had dignity whereas Black Pete is little more than Santa’s hamming-it-up Stepin Fetchit. Black Pete acts like a child, he fumbles and he’s the brunt of jokes like the cartoon characters in Song of the South. Of course Dutch kids think this is hilarious, or at least the white kids think so.”
Another plate of steaming bitterballen arrived just as a table of businessmen folded themselves into the tiny table next to us. I had just asked Martin why Black Pete’s costume looked Moorish and before he could answer the man in the checkered shirt next me leaned in asking where we were from.
“Ah yes, Americans especially are very fascinated by Zwarte Piet,” he said. “It’s our tradition and if you speak badly about him at a family gathering you’re likely to be asked to leave. It was fine for a time, but when I learned that Zwarte Piet is a Moor — who in old times represented the devil — and was tamed and Christianized by our Saint Nicholas, then suddenly I didn’t think this was funny anymore. I am against it but I am the minority.”
The conversation continued with our new neighbors, while our once-friendly waiter turned as chilly as the wind whipping down the canal across the street. I flagged him down, asked for another carafe of water, and when he returned, I asked him what he thought about the controversy surrounding the Dutch tradition.
“Like I told you, the children love him and I have a son and I like the tradition that I grew up with. We don’t have the negative association that you have in your country with the blackface and the minstrel shows.”
“Yes,” I reminded him, “but the Netherlands’ hands were soiled in the Triangle Trade as well. Your country also had slaves.”
The checkered-shirt man chimed in as the waiter ducked back into the kitchen. “But what you’re both talking about is history and I am talking about the future. The bottom line is that black people do not like this and they find it offensive. And why? Because it is offensive, and it is racist. Zwarte Piet is a joke but it’s a racist joke. Zwarte Piet even speaks sometimes in broken Dutch.”
“When I was a boy,” he continued, “my parents would take me to see Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. We would stand before them and Sinterklaas would ask if we’d been good or bad. I was nervous because I was scared that if they knew I had been bad Zwarte Piet would take me back with him on the ship to Spain. I would say I had been good and I got candy and it was nice. I didn’t realize that Zwarte Piet was a white boy dressed as a Spanish Moor or that he was portraying a slave. But the difference now is that I do know.”
The debate continued straight though dessert and ended shortly after clinking our shot glasses of Dutch jenever with our new friends.
Martin and I walked out just as the sun was slipping behind the Westerkerk’s steeple as we headed back to his place in the Jordaan.
“You know, it’s funny,” I said. “When I first saw Black Pete while I was running to meet you earlier, I was shocked but amused — I thought it was so culturally naïve that it was actually humorous. I was agog, if you will, by an image of a golliwog.”
“And what do you think of ol’ Black Pete now?”
“Honestly, the more I learned the worse it got. Black Pete is a bit like that nasty shot of that Dutch liquor we just had — sure it’s fun at first, but the lingering aftertaste, and the hangover I’m sure to have, make me wish it’d never existed.”