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Black Pete and Negro Kisses

The representation of Blacks in the Netherlands and Europe
Prof. Allison Blakely

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 (Black Pete, 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 racist 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 Black African diaspora in Europe.

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.

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.

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’.

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