From the 1930s onwards, a lot of water has flowed under the bridges of the canals. The debate on the figure of Zwarte Piet – the black-faced clown-like servant and helper to the gift-giver St Nicholas – has experienced moments of silence, a moderate debate immediately after the independence of the former colonies, and disputes that have become increasingly virulent in recent years.
The question is apparently clear: the racial and racist character of Zwarte Piet.
Challenging or worshipping Zwarte Piet?
In 1927 in Rotterdam there was the first case of using Zwarte Piet as a racial insult: in a trial for a violent crime, the defendant declared at the court in his defense that in the street he constantly received insults such as “Zwarte Piet” or “Monkey Brand”. Similar incidents were reported in the following decades.
In 1930, Herman Salomonson in the pages of De Groene Amsterdammer published an in-depth study of racial stereotypes, including that of the figure of Zwarte Piet. African-American soldiers stationed in the Netherlands at the end of World War II also protested against the figure of the black servant. In 1968, Riet Grünbauer, a resident of De Bilt, published a piece of opinion in which he opposed the “old tradition of the black slave”.
Since the 1970s, criticism of Zwarte Piet has taken on a structural character, partly because Surinamese organizations in the Netherlands have begun to focus on this issue.
Even if it were limited to the last decade, since the 2011 demonstrations against the arrival of Sinterklaas in Dordrecht, many things have happened: in November 2014, the State Council voted in favour of the mayor of Amsterdam and the Pietengilde organization – an entity that promotes the figure of Zwarte Piet – about the right to refuse or not the intocht of St. Nicholas because of the racial connotation of his helper.
Even before the legal question, the Zwarte Piet problem had been tackled on a cultural level: from research conducted in 2010 on the centrality of Sinterklaas in Dutch culture by the “Centre for Folklore and Intangible Heritage” (Nederlands Centrum voor Volkenkunde en Immaterieel Erfgoed – VIE), the association Sint Nicolaasgenootschap had tried to include the feast of Sinterklaas in the list of protection and safeguarding of intangible heritage of UNESCO, claiming that it was the longest-standing tradition in the Netherlands.
In Paris in November 2012, the members of VIE had brought a Sinterklaas in the flesh to support the cause but had “forgotten” at home the brave Zwarte Piet. Faced with the request for explanations, the association preferred to withdraw its candidature.
In 2013 Barryl Biekman, the politician and activist of Platform Slavery Past, denounced to the UN the racist character of the figure of Zwarte Piet. Result? An official letter from the High Council for Human Rights to the Dutch government. Only a year later, Pietengilde, on the strength of his victory in the Council of State, succeeded in having the Sinterklaas tradition successfully included in the national list of the Dutch intangible heritage.
Beyond the political vicissitudes, the theme has also attracted the attention of artists and researchers. To name just a few: the artistic project Read the Masks; Tradition is not Given at the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven) in 2008; the artistic project ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme‘ in 2011; and the criticism of Zwarte Piet by Verene Shepherd of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) in 2013 are just the main stages of a journey full of examples.
In the collective imagination, Zwart Piet is not only black but also cheerful, dumb, silly and in need of someone to lead him by the hand. If you dig a little, you discover that behind it lies a world that touches our cultural heritage as well as the way in which you build the identity of a people and the very idea of citizenship.
Even if they are lost in the mists of time, the legends around Peter the Black are fascinating. And they are all the more fascinating because they are not just about the Netherlands but about the way in which the choice and adoption of one or more stories has real consequences in terms of the inclusion and exclusion of minorities.
How is a legend born?
Arguments in favour of or against tradition are constantly trying to exploit the story in one way or another. And they have a good game because one of the major problems is the opacity of the legend, that is, its stratification over time.
In Jan Steen’s 17th century painting The Feast of St Nicholas, a naughty boy finds his baton in his shoe flanked by a “good” girl who receives beautiful gifts. In the background, a man points at the boy’s fireplace. Of the helper, still no trace. After all, it is only in a poem about Saint Nicholas from the end of the 18th century in which a servant is mentioned for the first time.
Although in the 16th and 17th centuries there is no evidence of the helper of St Nicholas, the story of Zwarte Piet sinks into the mists of time precisely because of its archetypal character of the servant/helper.
Perhaps they are only suggestive combinations, but in Nordic mythology, Odin himself – depicted with a long white beard – has at his side two black crows – Huginn and Muninn – who bring him the news in the world, eavesdropping from the chimneys.
Grýla appears in the Icelandic saga, a female monster living in the mountains, traditionally used in Iceland to scare children just like St Nicholas of the origins. Her 13 children, the Jólasveinar (Christmas boys), scared children by threatening to put them in a sack and take them away from their parents. Nowadays, on the contrary, they have become lovable creatures who leave gifts in shoes hanging from the windows 12 days before Christmas.
Even in “exotic” Iran, the figure of Haji firuz appears in the streets a few days before the beginning of Nowruz – the Persian New Year – to give the good news of the arrival of a new year. His face is painted black and he is dressed in red clothes, a felt hat and pointed shoes. He crosses the streets of the city while dancing, singing and playing a tambourine.
Does it remind you of anything?
Just like its “owner”, the origins of the helper of St. Nicholas are also controversial: is it a demon forced by the saint to do good deeds or a Moorish servant captured during the wanderings of the saint?
In both cases, what stands out is the different treatment that history has given to Nicholas and poor Peter: if the saint has a name, a hagiography, a birthday, an exact date of death and is recognizable as a specific individual, Piet is just a type without a biography which can characterize him as a person.
The Catholic narrative of the medieval feast of St Nicholas as protector of children was born in medieval monasteries to celebrate the arrival of the novices and continued, albeit privately, after the Protestant turn of the Dutch Republic: St Nicholas was told everywhere but never depicted himself. When his image appeared during the 19th century together with that of his helpers, they were depicted in many ways, including the option “with dark skin”.
In reality, in Europe the figure of the perfidious servant is widespread everywhere and roots into ancient medieval tales: alongside the saint of the moment, there is always a demonic element, but one that has been calmed down. The benevolent saint is all the more credible precisely because he has managed to shake up the devil with his thousand disguises. Piet would be none other than the defeated devil: “Black as soot, with a chain at the foot” (Zwarte Piet zo zwart als roet, met een keten aan zijn voet) recited an old poem. Zwarte Piet in medieval Dutch jargon indicated the devil.
In Austria, St. Nicholas is accompanied by the perfidious Krampus, a frightening creature with horns and a curly red tongue. On the evening of December 5, during the festivities in Austria, Bavaria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the parade opens with the passage of St. Nicholas, on foot or on a cart that distributes sweets to children.
Then there is a group of angry devils – unleashed and very disturbing – who wander the streets in search of the “bad” children. The krampus or its female version Krampa – always impersonated by a man – reminds us of a time of winter famine when people “masked” themselves, or rather they covered themselves with skins and feathers to terrorize and rob the nearby villages.
In Germany, St. Nicholas is served by a mean apprentice named Ruprecht, who in France and Luxembourg is similar to the evil ogre Père Fouettard or Housésecker and in Switzerland to the perfidious Schmutzli.
These readings are especially dear to those who want to oppose the connotation of Zwarte Piet as a slave: affirming his non-human nature would like to erase any connection with colonial racism. Associating him with the devil and recovering an ancient pan-European and pre-Christian cultural practice, the supporters of Zwarte Piet would like to anaesthetize the debate on the racial character of the affair, stressing that it is also present in those countries that have not had a strong colonial past as the Netherlands.
Moreover, we could add that during the XVIII-XIX century the complex iconography of the patron saint of children with a white beard was accompanied by a Black Nicholas, who wore a black mask and a black cloak. A tradition that still lives on today, even if unintentionally.
From this point of view, Zwarte Piet would have done nothing but introject the punitive element of the Saint who was supposed to threaten the bad children. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the emergence of a new national identity needed a more uniform tradition: according to historians working on this option, the nascent bourgeois values of a rewarding function of the saint would be grafted onto the oriental taste typical of the Napoleonic era of the Moorish helper dressed in a gaudy style.
All three of these “academic” interpretations have their own legitimacy even if the very symbolism of the blackface is very complex to decipher: from the blackened face of the Persian Haji Firuz symbolizing his return from the world of the dead as a propitiatory rite for the return of life and fertility of the fields to the “Germanic” reworking of the Grimm brothers – in turn instrumentalized by the Nazi attempt to appropriate the proto-Germanic tradition – and to the “Moorish” declination, not all the passages are clear. But this is another story.
What is fundamental, however, to understand in the Dutch tradition, is the fact that a mythical archetype – such as that of the servant with the face painted black – has undergone a racial acceleration at a very specific moment.
The influence of the American tradition of blackfaced minstrels
Even today, many in the Netherlands believe that the figure of Zwarte Piet was born in 1850 from the pen of schoolmaster Jan Schenkman in St Nicholas and his servant, 13 years before the Netherlands, the last of the European nations, abolished slavery.
But is this really the case?
Last year the historian Lise Koning tried to show how the figure of the Dutch and Belgian Zwarte Piet is based on the British and American tradition from the shows of the black-faced “minstrels” dated 1820, about thirty years before Piet became ethnically connoted in the Netherlands.
In an article published in December 2018 in Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, the young historian recalls how Ethiopian Serenaders – a group of blackfaced performers active in the States around 1840 who left for London after their American success which had led them to perform in 1844 at the White House “for the amusement of John Tyler, his friends and relatives” – embodied exactly the stereotype of black minstrel and were also emulated by white artists: already in 1820 the white actor Thomas D., after attending the performance of an African-American artist named Rice, decided to blacken her face using burnt corks, wearing bright rags and hollow shoes.
Beyond the simple staging of the “dancing and singing n*gger”, it is interesting to note what this image is associated with and for what purpose: apparently the black person dressed in the latest fashion is a deviant and eccentric element that can make the bourgeois and popular audience live an exotic experience. As Koning recalls, the serenaders initially performed in places accessible to the lower classes of Dutch society: in Utrecht in the auditorium next to the theatre or in cafés such as the Nieuw Koffijhuis in Rotterdam, the Locaal in Middelburg and the Milles Colonnes in Amsterdam. After changing their name to ‘Lantum N*gger Singers of America’ they were welcomed in the royal theatres of The Hague and Rotterdam.
On closer inspection, however, the figure of the minstrel with a black face and bright clothes also tells us another story: that of his impossible integration into society. Taking his cue from the tradition of the vaudeville theatre, the exotic n*gger tests social relations and therefore threatens the established social order that is restored at the end of the performance.
Something not dissimilar also happens in the 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowes, “Uncle Tom’s Hut” (De Negerhut van Oom Tom), or rather in the theatrical reductions that followed one another after the incredible success of the book. The character of anti-emancipatory humor – the desire on the part of blacks to civilize is stigmatized by the fact that in the eyes of whites this will never be entirely possible – is a typical feature of every dominant culture and serves to reaffirm the distance between “their” and “our” world.
Zwarte Piet then becomes the figure forced into a limbo: he differs from his world of monkeys and cannibals but his attempt at emancipation is destined to fail or be unfinished.
But is Zwarte Piet ultimately racist?
Putting aside the most banal objection used by pro-Piet rhetoric – that of the innocence of a children’s party and of the unfortunate helper who became black because of the soot in the chimney into which he is forced to descend – depends on the extent to which we have the concept of racism.
Obviously, if we are referring to a conscious and intentional idea of racism as an individual or group offensive practice, we cannot assume that all Dutch people celebrating Sinterklaas are racists. If we refer instead to social structures and unconscious racial stereotypes, Zwarte Piet is a problem.
Beyond intentions, as Het College van de Rechten van de Mens also acknowledges, “the figure of Piet the Black can trace a negative stereotyped image, which can have discriminatory effects and can be experienced as offensive”. Such a tradition can contribute to bullying, exclusion or discrimination and is therefore in conflict with Articles 2, 3 and 6 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The idea at stake sponsored by the Centre for Folklore and Intangible Heritage states that the purpose of the institution is “to promote and make accessible the intangible cultural heritage by stimulating and professionalising the sector and encouraging people to participate in it.” Promote and make accessible but to whom and for what purpose?
After all, if tradition, moreover, is immaterial and dynamic, it is clear how risky it is to build a museum-like vision of something that changes over time and an official authorized discourse that can decide what and who to include or exclude.
Even today, second and third generation Dutch boys and girls still try to rinse their faces when they come home after being insulted at school. On the other hand, young people from Amsterdam – or any other city in the Randstad – understand that the party is not as harmless as they were told from an early age. As if to say, Chim chim cher-ee the sweeper, who finds himself with a ring to his nose, frizzy hair and big red lips, begins to create more than a few discomforts.
Even in the tolerant Netherlands, a time will come when we will move on to publicly trace not only the profile of a cultural counter-history of the Zwarte Piet phenomenon, but to understand how the notion of a pure national identity – which not by chance passes through an interweaving of sexuality and race, a discourse on how the nation is reproduced, from the exploitation of children who are called into question to the metaphorical one of mothers who care for their offspring – is a fetish, just like the idea of a homogeneous past and an exclusive canon that distinguishes us as Italians or Dutch.
It is not certain that this will happen or that it will happen shortly. Times are changing, said someone. Will it be enough to sit on a channel and bet on which corpse of the two factions you pass first?
Or can we help to build a completely different narrative of the tradition where everyone is free to (not) celebrate the Sinterklaas that they want, maybe with a Santa Nicoletta queer and a white nativist helper with oxygenated hair?