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117 - Lecture on the representation of Blacks in the Netherlands and Europe

Zwarte Piet, moorkoppen and negerzoenen (Black Peter, chocolate éclairs and chocolate mallows)
19 November 2007

The Netherlands has been known for centuries as a tolerant country and a safe haven for refugees. At the same time there are still plenty of images in Dutch culture that preserve racist stereotypes of Black people. Zwarte Piet (one of Saint Nicholas’s attendants) and the negerzoen (a chocolate mallow whose name in Dutch means literally: Negro kiss – a name that was officially discarded last year) are examples of this type of surreptitious stereotyping. In his book entitled Blacks in the Dutch World, the American historian Allison Blakely investigates how this representation evolved over the centuries. He is currently working on a book on the Afro-Arabic diaspora in Europe. On Monday 26 November he will visit the University of Groningen where he will give an English-language lecture with the title ‘Afro-Europe: Rhetoric or Reality?’ (4.30-6 p.m.).

The representation of the zwarten (Blacks), negers (Negroes) or moren (Moors) in the Netherlands is multi-faceted, ambiguous, and occasionally even paradoxical. For centuries, this kind of image fired people’s imagination at a time when there was almost no Black population in the Netherlands. We still encounter this image of the zwarte or moor in folklore, the visual arts, literature and religious traditions. It varies from slave, uncivilized savage, devil, bogeyman or clown to the dignified Black king in the Christmas story. Many images are united in the figure of Zwarte Piet, who arose from Christian and heathen traditions but is also a moor who symbolizes, in conjunction with Saint Nicholas, the meeting of East and West. The same applies to the image of the Gaper (the Moor’s head on the sign outside a chemist’s shop), the Smoking Moor in the tobacco advert, or the Black bogeyman in many children’s songs.
These have little to do with realistic images based on experiences with Black fellow citizens, but are rather expressions illustrating how the general public and artists regarded these Black ‘savages’. It was only with the advent of large groups of people from the Netherlands Antilles and Surinam, and against a backdrop of the economic crisis in the 1970s, that racial discrimination began to become a problem in the Netherlands.

In his rich book Blacks in the Dutch World: the Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society (1994), Allison Blakely analyses the origins of racial stereotypes against the background of the industrial, scientific and agrarian revolutions in the Western World. Racial ideology in the Netherlands is closely linked to its colonial past and prominent role in the slave trade. Blakely argues that humanism and liberalism are no guarantee against the development of racial bias. To obtain a better understanding of the origins of racial prejudice in the Netherlands and Europe, it is essential to make a historical analysis of the representation of this group in society.
His study is still extremely topical. The spring of 2008 will witness the publication of a Dutch translation of his book, entitled Negers in Nederland. Hoe de zwarten in Nederland worden afgeschilderd, published by Uitgeverij Synthese.

Allison Blakely (1940) is a professor of African and American Studies and European and Comparative History at Boston University. In 1988 he won the American Book Award for his book Russia and the Negro. He is currently in Europe to perform a new study on the history of the Black population in Europe: ‘The Emergence of Afro-Europe’.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.26 p.m.

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