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Who is Black Peter? - January 2005


Who is Black Peter and what does he have to do with Christmas?

-- Vera Falk, Warren, Ohio


Black Peter

Every Black person in the Netherlands hears being shouted at least once a year; "Look, black Peter!!!!". The fact that it is often a child mistaking me for "black Peter", a Sambo/Golliwog-figure that's part of a Dutch 'holiday', does not make it less painfull.

On the fifth of December two very persistent myths join hands in the Netherlands. One is the myth about "Saint Nicholas", the other is the myth on the existence of race, and its manifestation; racism.

Nicholas was a bishop who lived in (what we now call) 'Turkey'. After he died the Byzantium church declared him a Saint. The legendary bishop is remembered during an annual holiday that is widely celebrated in the Low Lands; in offices, schools and homes. The idea is to give each other presents and to write poems filled with irony and humour, offering you the chance to poke fun at each other. Children are taught to believe that they receive their presents from Saint Nicholas who is accompanied by a black servant called 'Black Peter'. Adults will dress up as Saint Nicholas and Black Peter (a white person painted in black face), and visit children and adults. Saint Nicholas "arrives" from Spain in November by boat in Holland together with his black servants. This ritual is shown on national television and opens the festivities. From that time on the stores are filled with candy, books, decorations and toys covered with representations of coal black skin and ruby red lips and an old white male with a funny hat. Children sing songs at school referring to the skintone and character of Black Servant "...even if I'm black as coal I mean well...' and play 'Black Peter' by painting their face black.

Black Peter

Before I'll problematize this controversial black figure I will discuss his white master, Saint Nicholas.

There are several books written about 'Saint Nicholas' that give different explanations about his origin. Some ascribe to him an origin that is strictly Christian while others write about a mythological origin that goes back to Wodan, German God of wind and fertility. Writer Rahina Hassankhan (1988) states that the Saint Nicholas-legend we are familiar with now is probably based on stories about two figures that both lived in the province of Lyke. The youngest bishop named Nicholas lived in the 6th century and became known for his ability to cure people from bad spirits and illnesses. He died in December 564. The older bishop who was also called Nicholas was born in the 3rd century near a city called Myra. He died on the sixth of December.

Many legends were being told in which Nicholas is the patron of children, sailors, merchants and female virgins so the Byzantium church declared him a Saint. One such a story is the tale of a poor nobleman who is unable to offer a dowry for his daughters, so they may marry. He decides that his daughters will have to prostitute themselves in order to survive. Saint Nicholas prevents this from happening by throwing bags filled with money through the poor nobleman's window at night. Each bag contains enough for the dowry of a daughter and makes it possible for them to marry. Many of the legends take place in the so-called 'Land of the Mores' as Byzantium was at war with the Arabs during the 9th century (Meisen, 1933).

In the 10th and 11th century Saint Nicholas became known for his legendary miracles in what we now refer to as 'Western - Europe' (one can still find a lot of churches that carry his name). His remains were stolen from Myra, the city he died, and transferred to Bari, South Italy, in 1087. Christians who thought it wasn't right that his remains were on Islamic ground did this. As a consequence of this transfer, which was experienced as a triumph, Bari became a destination for pilgrims. The Roman Catholic Church began to celebrate December 5th, the day Nicholas has thought to have died. In the convent-schools, children would perform the stories of the legends. One child would be chosen to play "Saint Nicholas", while the other children would blacken their faces and play the devil. These stories were performed throughout the month until the 28th of December.

From the beginning of the twelfth century on, it was publicly celebrated in the streets. But the Protestant reformation brought an end to this. The celebration was forbidden because it was perceived as idolatry. From that time Saint Nicholas was no longer an official Saint. In spite of this the celebration continued to exist in the Netherlands in the private sphere of people’s homes and after the French revolution the holiday re-enters public life (Nederveen Pieterse, 1995, 1998).

As stated earlier the black slave-characters that accompanied Saint Nicholas originally symbolised the devil, a 'joker' who was submissive, frightening and disobedient at once. At this point there were no 'racial' references to people of African descent. Although the Mores were also associated with the devil, the blackness of the children did not refer to them but to the devil-figure. In other words; this color bias preceded the racial-bias. When Saint Nicholas re-appeared at the end of the 18th century after being banned, he returned alone, without Black Peter.

In the 19th century the black devil returns, this time re-invented as a servant of Moorish descent. He wears the costume of the child-slaves that work in Europe at that time, the pages. Carrying a large bag and his rod he threatens to take children that behaved bad. In an era of slavery and colonialism the racial ideas of that time were translated onto this figure.

Saint Nicholas and Black Peter

The combination of the small Black Peter and horse-riding Saint Nicholas, represents the triumph of good over bad, Christian over heathen, and later; Christianity over Islam. They're caught in a relationship of dualism. Val Plumwood describes dualism as: '(...) dualism (...) results from a certain kind of dependency on a subordinated other. This relationship of denied dependency determines a kind of logical structure, in which the denial and the relation of domination/subordination shape the identity of both the relata.' (Plumwood in Gravenberch, 1998). Gravenberch points out in his article on this dualist relationship that: 'the contrast between the Saint Nicholas and Black Peter stands in a long tradition of dichotomised representation in which Europeans portrayed themselves and Africans as essentially different: Europeans as rational responsible, civilised, mature and as masters. Africans as irrational, wild, childish and as slave'. Saint Nicholas is being portrayed as everything Black Peter is not. The Saint is an old white, wise, and articulated man. Peter is a young, black, simple, cheeky (classically followed by a reprimand from the Saint), boy.

In the 21st century the black figure is still with us, dressed in the same outfit. The role is usually played by a white woman or man who wears black or brown grease paint on their faces (Saint Nicholas is always performed by a man). He or she wears large golden earrings, a curly wig and red lipstick. Right now they wear brown grease paint more often because "the blackness frightens children".

Once the transformation is completed, a change in voice and behaviour usually follow. He or she will speak improper Dutch with a low voice and a Surinamese accent. In other words; a racial stereotype is reinforced. While the stereotype and its origin, are obvious, many people (also respectable scholars) contend that the figure has either no racial connotations, or the racial connotations should be viewed as being positive.

A very popular explanation about his color is that the blackness stems from the figure's passage down the chimney. In the story Black Peter comes down the chimney to deliver presents and according to this explanation he's black because of the soot. Other explanations use the figure's origin to de-radicalise him.

While writer and historian Louis Janssen attacks the belief that Black Peter symbolises racist beliefs, he does not come up with any counterarguments as to why the figure is not racist. He states that the critics do not take the historical dimensions into account. Janssen therefore looks to Karl Meisen for historical background about the origin of Black Peter. He says that Black Peter symbolises the devil who was easily associated with people of Moorish decent. The current Black Peter is simply a variant of this devil-figure, according to Janssen. This theoretical explanation about Black Peters 'roots' is not an argument against but for the critics of the figure. The fact that the current Black Peter is a racialised variant of the devil figure and people (esp. children) are still being taught, through the celebrations and rituals, to "easily associate" evilness and Black Peter with people of color, is exactly the problem here.

Janssen's 'historical perspective' does not address Black Peter and the historical context that made such associations and images possible. The heritage of the French revolution (freedom, equality and fraternity) did not exactly characterise the relationship between whites and Africans. The oppression of Africans was legitimised by an ideology, a discourse translated in 'scientific' and religious theories about blacks that 'proved' they were inferior, destined to work as slaves. Unfortunately Janssen is so busy proving the critics that the 'original' Black Peter is not a product of 19th century colonial thought, that he uses historical facts selectively and focuses on devil-versions of Black Peter one does not see anymore. Contemporary Black Peter is a caricature of a black person.

This denial of the racist component is present in most works on Saint Nicholas. Writers on Saint Nicholas often fall back on 'historical explanations' without analysing the claims that are being made about 'race' through the representation of the black servant and white saint, and the historical context that led to such images.

Writer Tonny van Renterghem states in the book When Santa was a Shaman (1995) that the image of Black Peter leads to confusing accusations of racism. Van Renterghem claims that the solution to this confusion is simple; we should return to the old image of Black Peter, which is not a caricature of a 'Negro'. He bypasses the content of the criticism by pointing to a vague notion of the figure's authenticity. He recognises the racial features of the modern Black Peter while claiming it's all a matter of mistake: If we could only see Black Peter's "real" identity and return back to this. In the mean time we are stucked with the realness of the caricature. Notions about an authentic identity of Black Peter does not lead us out of the power relations that make racist images possible. When we deconstruct the myth of Saint Nicholas and Black Peter we discover the conviction that blacks are inferior, a conviction that does not stand on its own but as we all know is still translated as truth in certain academia, popular media and politics. By including race thinking in the ritual it becomes part of the attributes of a power structure. In it's recent form it shows us how power relations can be read in Dutch multicultural society. This is not only evident through the ritual itself but especially through the public debate about the imagery of the white master and his black servant.

The first voices that protested against Black Peter came from the former Dutch colony Surinam where the holiday was also a national celebration. When Surinam received its status of independence in 1975, the black slave was abolished. A new movement came into existence that searched for new positive images of black people. Representations of blacks as docile and submissive were no longer accepted. "Saint Nicholas" was changed into a black figure called "Good Father" and accompanied by black "employees". This change may seem minor but also in Surinam the myth of the white saint and his black slave was difficult to contest or criticise. For example, in 1970 writer Astrid Roemer was a High School teacher who refused to celebrate the holiday at school. She talked to her colleques and the principle of the school, but they refused to listen to her arguments. The day of the celebration she did not appear at the school. She was fired the next day.

In the seventies a lot of Surinamese people migrated to the Netherlands due to the political circumstances in their home country. Their presence led to a re-evaluation of the ways the Dutch dealt with their colonial history and their images of black people. Again Black Peter was scrutinised, only this time in a context where the majority of society was white. Blacks had already experienced the insult of hearing "Black Peter!" shouted at them on the streets in Paramaribo (as they were associated with the figure), but the person shouting was often black himself. In the Netherlands they entered a society that hardly knew anything about them; the only images white people were familiar with were stereotypes like 'Black Peter'. In response to the insult of the stereotype some Surinamese people refused to send their children to school when "Saint Nicholas" was celebrated, others urged for alternatives like a red or blue "Peter" in stead of a black one. For a while the yellow, blue, red painted versions of "Black Peter" were successful but as the protest-voices declined the Black version of Peter dominated the eighties.

In the Netherlands 17 percent of its citizens are people of 'color' right now. Most people are from former colonies like Indonesia and Surinam but a lot of people have their roots in Morocco and Turkey. They were drafted to do factory-work in Holland during the seventies with the idea that they would return home after a few years. But history decided otherwise; their wives and children joined them later and together they started a new future. This 17 percent of citizens are called "Allochtonen", a combination of two Greek words that literally means; "from another world, earth". This definition of citizenship is problematic in itself because it denies everyone who isn't white, Dutch membership. The 'allochtoon' is the Other; the ones who are usually discussed as a problem population by the media, in the political sphere and academia; all of which are pre-dominantly white and male. The 'allochtonen' are located in the so-called 'multicultural' society that exists in juxtaposition to the 'Dutch society', the domain of 'Dutch' people also called 'Autochtones' which means "from this earth".

The dualist relationship in which the two groups are locked in characterises the way Dutch society deals with the identities of her citizens. One can be Dutch by passport but that doesn't mean one can automatically claim the national identity of 'Dutchman'. For this identity the main condition is that one simply is White or looks White. Although whiteness determines whether one can claim the national identity, the effects of this ethnic factor are not being acknowledged. The ethnic factor and its power effects become invisible as it's turned into an neutral universal category (that sets the norm) by particularising the identity of the Other; the migrant, her children ànd grandchildren. The identities of non-whites versus "Dutch" people are defined in terms of difference, dichotomies: the Allochtoon becomes everything the white Dutch person, the Autochtoon, is not.

This is problematic when it comes to having an active role in the way the nation-state should be organised. Although we are officially all equal, membership counts when it comes to public deliberation. The second rate citizenship of the 'Other' was also used as a strategy in the debate on Black Peter.

While there were always people, black and white, who individually protested against the celebration, the protest got organized in 1995 by a group of second and third generation migrants. Contrary to their parents or grandparents they are born in the Netherlands, not limited by the idea that they are "guests", having to conform to the symbols of a "host" which they find insulting. They are part of a generation of people that demands a place in Dutch society much more forcefully. Because of their input the discussion became a national one in 1996 in the sense that it was being discussed on television, in newspapers and schools.

The critics of Black Pete were repeatedly confronted with the argument that 'they' did not have the right to critique 'Dutch tradition' because they weren't 'Dutch'. The discussion was being polarised as if the different opinions were divided along 'racial' lines. The argument is as follows: as an 'allochtoon', a 'migrant', one has to accept the Dutch 'traditions'. Just as a 'Dutch' person would have to accept local traditions when they lived in 'another' country. The logic here is that it's not their country and culture that the youngsters are criticizing.

By ascribing second-rate citizenship to the critics who aren't considered "Dutch", the authority of the speaker is undermined. On the other hand when it appears that the critic is white, he or she is often being marginalized as being "political correct", which is used as a contemptuous term. The letters in the newspapers and on the internet were in general very emotional, reflecting a fear that 'Dutch' culture is being 'threatened' by 'foreigners' The main arguments were:

  • The holiday is a celebration for children and children aren't racist.
  • It's a matter of 'tradition' (that certainly can't be changed by 'Foreigners').
  • The critics are the ones who make it racist.

The refusal to listen to counter-arguments and reply those with substantial criticism (in stead of ridiculing or marginalizing them) reflects an insensibility for the opinion of a minority. The portrayed image of the Netherlands as being "the most tolerant nation in the world" makes a critical self-reflection also very difficult: every accusation of racism is beforehand answered with denial.

One could say that the real problem in the Netherlands is not Black Peter, but for example the fact that the unemploymancy rate among colored people is ten times higher than whites. Of course the real problem is not Black Peter in itself. The debate about Black Peter and the white Saint however, is a discussion about citizenship, identity, and racism. And because this discussion does not take place behind closed doors between politicians and intellectuals only, but in schools, between colleques, family-members and friends, it offers us a chance to challenge old conceptions of self and other at many different levels. However, this annual debate is not sufficient to change things, but it can lead to more activism, a critical outlook and recognition of those situations where the same strategies of marginalization are being used. The Black servant and his White master can not be isolated from the social context, Dutch society, in which they exist.

Answer/Article by

Lulu Njemileh Helder ©
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