Archives For America

When I was in my last semester of graduate school two years ago, I took a course on “Rethinking Human Rights”, cause well, I had to. We were called on to write a paper of our choosing, and I decided I’d write about the Biafran War in Nigeria in the late 1960s, and how it was really the origin of the modern field of humanitarian intervention. An estimated 2 million people died in Nigeria’s bloody civil conflict, which pitted ethnic group against ethnic group, and displaced many, many more. My mother, who was 12 at the time, was one of those refugees from the war and resettled in Ghana.

I realized then I did not know much about the Biafran War. Even though my mother lived through it. Growing up, my mother would refer to that time as “the war”. Her tales to us about growing up were either “B.T.W” (Before The War) or “A.T.W” (After the War). My brother and sisters and I didn’t really press her on it to learn more. We just knew something kinda bad happened and a few people died, and then she ended up in Ghana and life went on, she went to a good school, met my dad, got married, had us, and we are awesome kids, so I always figured my mom did alright for herself in the end.

I called my mom to tell her I was writing a paper on Biafra. Just to inform her, really, nothing more than that. I told her that I had this class, and I wanted to write about Biafra, and was learning about the radio addresses of Colonel Ojukwu, the fiery leader of the Biafra secessionist movement. I told her about how I was finally learning about the massacres. How armed groups stormed trains and bludgeoned people and cut off limbs of mothers and children. How an entire region was deliberately starved, resulting in images of malnourished children with distended bellies being beamed around the world to the shock and horror of those in the West.

“I didn’t know it was that bad, Mommy.” – I said. I really didn’t know. I felt bad for not understanding. I felt guilty, in a way, that I was learning about this dark period of her life from the cushy vantage point of reading details of the events in books I checked out from my ivy league university.

“Yes, Karen…it was….you know…It was a genocide,” She said. She told me about listening to the radio addresses of Colonel Ojukwu. “Every night, she said, we’d crowd around the radio and listen to him. And he had such a powerful voice, he spoke so well….” I’d never heard her speak about this before.

“You know Karen, we had such a nice life before the war. Grandpa J. was part of the colonial finance ministry so he was respected. We were like what you might say, middle class.  We had just bought a new house and we were moving our things in, and then the war….” Her voice trailed off. Then she got angry.

“It just wasn’t fair Karen! We had a nice life. We had everything. And then everything, EVERYTHING was taken from us. We had to run and only take what we could carry and then we were in the jungles…some people had no food, eating lizards in the bushes!”

I just let her talk, just let her release. The Biafran war had taken, the war had robbed, the war had starved people out of their lives as they knew it. Like all wars tend to do, really. I didn’t know if what I was doing was good, letting her release, but I did anyway.

She talked about the air raids. The bombs that killed her classmates in school.

She talked about the dog she had growing up. The faithful dog that would follow her and her siblings to and from school every morning for years. And how on the day that they had to take everything they could carry by hand and flee, that she knew the dog would be eagerly waiting for them to return. They never returned to that house. The image of the dog waiting for a family that would never come back for him is one of the more painful images for her in her mind. (Its for that reason that my attempts to convince my parents to let me have a puppy never succeeded).

She talked about how the war interrupted her education. For a year or two, they could not go to school and had to start over when the family resettled in Ghana. “I loved books, I loved learning,” she said, but we couldn’t even go to school!”

We got off the phone, so I could finish my paper.

A few days later during another phone conversation, she told me, “You know Karen, after our conversation about Biafra, I just…I literally curled up into a ball and cried. I sobbed, like I haven’t sobbed in years.”  Here I was, listening to my mother relive painful, traumatic memories for perhaps the first time ever, all because I was writing some trivial paper for a class that I would probably get a B+ in.

I watched the movie adaptation for Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun a few weeks ago. For the first time, I watched a narrative of Biafra on the screen and saw what it was like to see how the war ripped apart lives. I thought of my mother throughout the whole film.

It left me to wonder, what about us who are a generation away from Biafra? How are we to speak to our grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who lived through such a monstrous conflict? And the personality quirks I would see in my mother growing up–were they really her or were they the scars from war? Quirks like–her clear love for animals, but her reluctance to get attached to them for fear of losing them, extreme guardedness around strangers, a sense of detachment from both Ghanaian culture and a sense of anger towards Nigeria, and her tendency to frame what I would consider normal challenges in life in terms of spiritual warfare, struggle, and victors and victims.

In a way, the Biafran War robbed me too, in disrupting my mother’s life. I’ve never been to Nigeria. The new house that my now deceased grandfather built has been sold, I think. I am disconnected from Nigeria because of my family’s displacement. At the same time, Ghana was never “home” for my mother. She learned the languages, learned to cook the foods, but Ghana were not her native home and the culture was not her culture. So in many ways, as someone who has really tried to study Africa and find out more about my roots, I feel like I’ve inherited her distance from those two worlds, and sometimes I feel a bit geographically displaced too.

War is the worst of thieves. It continues to rob for generations. But maybe talking about it can be a path to healing.

 

 

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A year ago, I remember reading for the first time about the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas. I happened across the Slate article written by Jessica Olien, an American new to the Netherlands at the time, where she described her first encounter with Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet celebrations, which she calls “Holland’s favorite racist Christmastime tradition. She puts it pretty bluntly,

In Holland, Santa doesn’t have elves. He has slaves.

For those who do not know, Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. But According to the background story, Sinterklaas is a Turkish bishop who arrives in Netherlands via steamship from Spain every late November. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet, or literally, “Black Pete”. Every year, hundreds of people dress up as Sinterklaas’ helpers by painting their faces black, coloring large red lips on their faces, and donning curly black afro wigs and gold hoop earrings.

Sinterklaas Arrives in Curacao in 2012. Photo by Karen Attiah

When I first heard about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, I was 2 parts shocked, 1 part disgusted, 1 part angry, and a dash of saddened to learn that such a stereotypical image of black people was not only allowed, but celebrated. Even the word “celebrated” doesn’t do it justice. Since coming to live in Curacao, I’ve learned just how ingrained Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is to the collective Dutch culture. It is a huge children’s event. My Dutch friends tell me that growing up, most children believe Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are real. There is a Sinterklaas news channel that documents his journey into the Netherlands. Famous Dutch national actors play the different Zwarte Piets. Every year Sinterklaas parades into a different city, greeted by thousands of families with eleborate ceremonies. Its like Santa Claus on steroids. All for the kids.

A toddler in a Zwarte Piet hat waits for Sinterklaas to arrive in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Even more peculiar to me, is the fact that here in Curacao, a former Dutch colony of mostly African descendants here in the Caribbean, celebrates Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet as well. I went to the Sinterklaas arrival this past weekend in Willemstad, and when I saw local black Curacaoans painting their own skin darker, their own lips redder and bigger and donning the Zwarte Piet costumes, I was equal parts surprised and confused.

Sinterklaas parades into Wilemstad Curacao, flanked by a helper playing “Zwarte Piet” dressed in blackface. Photo by Karen Attiah

The parade was HUGE. Well, as huge as a parade can get for a small island. Okay, the parade was island-sized huge. Hundreds of parents brought their young children out early Saturday morning to wait for Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets to arrive to Curacao. Kids were dressed up in Zwarte Piet hats.  And arrive he did. Curacao’s Sinterklaas was not on a white horse, but a pony led cart in the Brionplein area of Otrobanda, on the edge of Curacao’s famous harbor. The celebration was a bit like Christmas meets Carribean carnival. I have to admit, if I was a child, the celebration is a blast. Drumming Zwarte Piets performed on drums, while dancing Zwarte Piets entertained the crowd with acrobatics and choreography. Other Zwarte Piets toss out candy for the children, while Sinterklaas sits on his big throne on the stage and watches the show entertained by the Zwarte Piets and their acrobatic skills.  Young performers danced and sang to welcome Sinterklaas to Curacao. Here in Curacao, Sinterklaas is greeted by a mayor, and addresses the crowd in Papiamento.

Local Curacaoans don black facepaint and curly afro-wigs to play “Zwarte Piet” Photo by Karen Attiah

But how can an island that boasts a population of 85% African descendants celebrate a character that for many is reminiscent of the offensive minstrel shows of Black Sambo? How can parents line up every year to watch community play Sinterklaas’ goofy, mischievous helpers, who always screws up something with the presents, and requires an overseer Piet to to supervise the rest of them? How can Curacao, an island where many locals blame Dutch neo-colonialism and slavery for the island’s problems, still celebrate what many think to be one of the most racially insensitive traditions out there? It was eerie to feel like I was watching a 2012 Holiday Minstrel Show, in the Caribbean. Watching Zwarte Piets dance and be goofy while Sinterklaas runs the show reminds me of this clip from the Cotton and Chick Watts Blackface Comedy Routine from 1951. (Forward to the 2:45 mark)

I’ve had conversations with Dutch people here on the island about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and many of them cannot find anything wrong with it. In fact many have gotten downright angry and defensive at the suggestion that Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature for black people. Common responses:

There’s nothing offensive about it. Zwarte Piet isn’t black, he’s Moorish! ( Okay, that makes it all better if Zwarte Piet is a North African Muslim.)

Children love Zwarte Piet! It’s not like we hate him or looked down upon. All the kids want to be like Zwarte Piet. They are a little more afraid of Sinterklaas. Do you want to ruin the children’s fun? (Using children to justify maintaining Zwarte Piet is the most common. But it is the adults who create the tradition and perpetuate it, right?)

Zwarte Piet isn’t a slave, he’s a helper! It is not a race thing. (If he is just a helper, does it matter what color he is? Why is he black? *Note* Holland tried to introduce non-black Piets in the past, using other colors. People did not receive it too well and that was the first and last time they used colored Piets)

Zwarte Piet is black because he got dirty from falling down the chimney, not because he is black! (Then why aren’t his clothes dirty? And why is Zwarte Piete’s hair always a black and curly Afro wig? Did the chimney change Zwarte Piet’s hair? Did it make his lips bigger and redder too?)

It can’t be racist. Black people and locals here in Curacao paint their faces blacker too. And they sometimes they paint their skin whiter to play Sinterklaas! (Doesn’t make it okay.

Americans are just too sensitive! You have no right as an outsider to judge our traditions if you don’t know the story. And if 95% of the Dutch population sees that there is nothing wrong with Zwarte Piet, then who cares what the other 5% say. Don’t Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and the slaughter of Indians? That’s worse than Zwarte Piet! (Usually if the conversation has come to this point,  it signifies the end of the hope of a productive dialogue.)

Zwarte Piet Enthusiasts in Curacao for the arrival of Sinterklaas. Photo by Karen Attiah

Zwarte Piet would never happen in the States, my friends say. Others ask how it is possible for Curacaoans to also celebrate a character that is so demeaning to black people, while at the same time claiming that they desire to be free of Holland and its neo-colonial attitudes towards its former colonies.

I asked a local Curacaoan blogger Jermain Ostiana, about the Sinterklaas celebrations. He been quite vocal on Twitter about what he calls the “coonfest” that is the Zwarte Piet celebration here in Curacao. He told me that last year, the only form of protest against Zwarte Piet was a banner hung on the walls of Fort Amsterdam. “Nobody is going to risk sticking their necks out here, its sad but true here.”

Curacao is the same island where the controversial Dutch comedy “Only Decent People” that depicts Surinamese women, as loud, fat, oversexed, ghetto welfare queens opened to crowds. The producer of the film offered free tickets to large dark skinned women here in Curacao. And people bought in. This is also the same island where little media attention has been paid to the fact that a major motion picture about Tula, the slave who led Curacao’s biggest revolt in 1795 is currently being filmed here. This is also the same island where on the 2 year anniversary of Curacao’s autonomy from Holland on October 10th, which was a national holiday (Dia di Pais), there were basically no celebrations.

Could it be that social, political and cultural apathy has allowed the Zwarte Piet caricature to thrive here in Curacao? I hope that is not the case.

Yes, Zwarte Piet is colored black. But it is more than just the skin color. The black curly hair, oversized red lips, and goofy character is not unique to “Dutch tradition”, but rather were/are common mockingly stereotypical images for dark skinned people that have appeared in various narratives for children, from Herge’s The Adventures of TinTin comic books in Belgium in the 1930s, “Black Sambo” in Britain in the late 1800s, and Jim Crow and the various minstrel shows in the Americas. The reason why Zwarte Piet resonates with “outsiders” or alloctoons is because they have seen Zwarte Piet before. We have seen the exact same character to represent non-white people in other historical narratives. Zwarte Piet actually is nothing new. In most other places, that character has been recognized to be a relic of a racist time long gone by (or so we think) and is no longer in use in public. Why Zwarte has been fiercely guarded and protected by people living in the Kingdom of the Netherlands to this day in the name of “tradition” baffles many people.

A Zwarte Piet In Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

 

My sunny rock of a new home may be hurricane free right now, but I cannot help but feel I am going through a bit of personal turbulence, both culturally and intellectually one month into my time here in Curacao.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to spend more time in Curacao was the fact that I fell in love with the mix of different nationalities and cultures here on the island. Before I came to live here, I had a rosy idea that Curacao was one big tropical United Colors of Benneton world of diversity. Realistically, I knew that the racially situation couldn’t be totally harmonious because of Curacao’s historical role in the Dutch slave trade. But hey, I thought, it looks like people are doing the best they can to co-exist.

However, the recent parliamentary elections in Curacao have brought a lot of racial and cultural tension to the surface. Long story short, Curacao’s parliamentary election gave the people of Curacao a choice to vote on the parties who either side with maintaining ties with Holland or calling for the independence of Curacao from Holland. I had the chance to report on the elections here and got the opportunity to speak with locals about their views.

Many Dutch people and other immigrants are upset with the victory of the political party Pueblo Soberano under the leadership of the controversial Helman Wiels. Wiels is largely seen to be anti-immigrant. He has been quoted in the past as saying that Dutch people should go home, and depending on who you ask, Wiels allegedly said that the Dutch should “go home in body bags”.  Conversely, ask Dutch people about what they think about Curacao, and they often say that the locals are ignorant,  are not thinking about their future and that “Curacao will become the next Haiti” without the help of Dutch people. I had one Dutch guy tell me, “I don’t know what is wrong with black people. They don’t know how to think about the future.”

I’ve heard “jokes” before here about how it would be better if local people here just went back to being slaves and the Dutch were masters again. Yeah. Really.

It is so clear that racial tensions are a real problem here in Curacao. Yet, when I have talk about racism and discrimination against people of color all over the world to Dutch people here, they are quick to blame those who are offended as “being overly sensitive”, and that there’s something “in your head to make you see a problem when there is none.”

I’m not surprised. I remember when articles came out last year about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Sinterklaas is like the Dutch version of Santa Claus and Zwarte Piete, or Black Pete, is his helper who usually appears in what resembles a blackface costume), and the Dutch magazine Jackie using the word “niggabitch” to describe a sort of “ghetto style”  Dutch commenters on the internet were quick to defend the practices by accusing Americans of being overly racially sensitive and politically correct. I’ve had some people tell me, “ugh you Americans, you guys are the ones with the race problem, not us. “

I don’t know how to react in these situations. I’ve never before been in societal circles where people refuse to think critically about history or global power structures. I’ve never been before in situations where the burden of proof is on me to somehow prove racism still exists outside of my own black American head. The United States is by no means a post-racial paradise, but the times when I’ve engaged with people here on issues of racial and cultural discrimination, their responses make me think I’m back in the 1700s.

My response options are limited. I can: 1) Ignore them. 2) Engage them and hope to encourage people to think a little more critically. 3) Change the subject. 4) Get upset.  Three out of the four options usually are not particularly effective. Engaging people without getting emotionally frustrated about issues of race based power asymmetries is a tough task.

I have a friend on the island who was born in Curacao but is of Surinamese descent.  She lived in Holland for some time before returning to Curacao. We discussed these problems over drinks. “You just have to develop a thick skin,” she said.  “If you get emotional, you play into their stereotype of being the ‘emotional ethnic person’. So just try to tell them the basics…for them to try to imagine being in someone else’s shoes other than their own. You have to tell them to stop for a second and think about what they are saying and why they are saying it.”

The reason why I think Curacao is fascinating is the same reason why I think New York City is fascinating; worlds within worlds of cultures sharing a small piece of geography.

But I cannot help but feel something about this place sometimes. It feels as if Curacao is not free—emotionally, spiritually, economically, and financially—from its colonial past. As there are hidden wounds within all the communities masked by words unsaid, and dialogues avoided through socially constructed taboos on both sides about talking about race. I don’t agree with internal hierarchies and discrimination among locals based on who is Yu di Korsou, or a true Curaceleno….but that is a post for another time.

I do find myself missing the States lately, its openness, its freedoms in some senses. For now, I’ll take the edge off of my homesickness for New York by watching Sex and the City episodes.