Tuesday, 8 December 2009

One step forward, two steps sideways

Christmas is bearing down on us with ever increasing velocity. Books are being boxed up and made ready for shipping to various locations. On Friday several hundred books will be picked up ready for shipping to the UK. In Leiden we are expecting a visit from the Kessler Stichting who run a number of refuges and drop-in centres in the Hague. We have saved a number of special books for them to be given as Christmas and New Year gifts - with gift labels instead of the usual rubber stamp.

On Saturday last we attended a children’s party in Amsterdam for mainly Surinamese and Antillian children avoiding the customary Dutch phenomenon of Zwarte Piet. This ‘tradition’ involves the servant of St Nicholas, generally played by white people in blackface (a la Al Jolson), jerry curls and velvet puff pants and tights. He tends to be the fool and magically generally has a Surinamese accent. In spite of all this, some people try to say that Zwarte Piet is not ‘really black’ he got dirty coming down the chimney… well, um, did he get lipstick and a perm on the way down and why are his clothes spotlessly clean? The origins of this curious piece of Dutch folklore are shrouded in mystery and excuses. It may even date back to the days when St Nicholas was considered to have been accompanied by the devil - represented as, surprise, a Black man.

The fact that this racist tradition persists in the 21st century should perhaps not surprise us in a country that was so tardy in abolishing slavery. But the fact that at the main Schiphol airport you rarely if ever see Zwarte Piet suggests that the Dutch know perfectly well the image is offensive to many. The idea that each year Black children in Dutch schools are teased and made fun of around this time is distressing to some and infuriating to others. Zwarte Piet is represented in caricatures on wrapping paper, mobiles, stickers, cookies and chocolate as a figure akin to a golliwog – a figure which long been seen as a racist image in the UK.

Nonetheless, this party was fun, the children enjoyed themselves and we gave away more than 200 books in just a few hours. This the second time we’ve given books as presents at this party and I hope we’ll find a way to continue this much more positive tradition in the future.

We'd like to give special thanks to the Arbeiderspers and Querido who donated a huge number of books for the fourth year in succession . We are always truly thankful for this gift of quality literature, non-fiction and children's books.