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Change is good

by Bonnie van der Lee

History is present
If I would have to summarize this course I would say that during it we’ve talked about the history of slavery and colonialism and in particular how this is still seen and felt today. Due to the fact that we had guest lecturers every week this gave us a unique insight into multiple different fields and opinions. This essay will focus on protecting cultural heritage through dance (Aminata Cairo), change through activism and preserving of black history (Mitchell Esajas) while also taking into account the actuality of slavery past (Wayne Modest).

Africans sold as slaves


The effect of slavery
The history of slavery and the effect it has on current society has often been the centre of debate, take for example the zwarte piet discussion, with varying opinions ranging from extreme right saying that they are ‘anti-zwartepiet’ “in order to protect their own culture” 1) and to defend themselves from that “hassle from the cities” 2) (meaning the changes meant to improve the image of zwarte piet by removing the black paint, but just having some soot streaks) all the way to the extreme left movement that have advocated for banning zwarte piet altogether, as did humanrights researcher Verene Sheperd from the United Nations. 3) Either way it has to be said that the understanding of the Sinterklaas tradition is very complicated, as stated in the article by Koen Lemmens in his “The dark side of ‘Zwarte Piet’: A misunderstood tradition or racism in disguise? A legal analysis”. In which he argues that the appearance and the origins of Zwarte Piet have changed over time and there are geographical differences, which have lead to multiple interpretations of the figure. 4)
These different opinions can lead to physical manifestations. To take for example the situation a couple of months ago in Dokkum. The extreme right activists barricaded the highway so that the extreme left could not pass in order to peacefully protest during the Sinterklaas parade. Whatever people’s opinion there is no denying that this is an example of how the history of slavery is still relevant today and continues to influence the present.

Africans in Peru. Vanderbilt Historical Review.


Dancing for culture
Firstly I would like to discuss is the way in which our guest speaker in the second week of this course, Aminata Cairo, deals with cultural heritage. With her work she is paving the way to inclusion, as is indicated by the title of the inaugural talk she will hold at De Haagse Hogeschool the 17th of january; “the unconventional road to embracing inclusion: the charge and challenge of changing our narrative.” 5) Week 2 of the course focussed on dance and its importance on cultural heritage. Cairo elaborated on her research on traditional african dances asking questions such as: “What does your tradition say about you?”. “Through dance a story was told, but what story did we tell ourselves and the world about who we were.”
There was huge spiritual meaning in traditional african dance, an example of this was “gimme the kneebone bent” where one would need to bend their arms and legs, cause if they were straight it would mean death, seeing as this is how one would lie in their coffin. Ballet for example, is completely different, this was meant to reach the sky and honour the king (Louis the 15th). Cairo’s research had the goal of protecting cultural heritage and generating a feeling of pride for black culture in Surinam, in the form of dance. While also creating an understanding and appreciation for traditional dance. In times of slavery dance was a way of being free when the slaves were anything but. Her goal was to honour and remember this, as well as creating awareness for it, to try and change society, which was necessary because the traditional dances were not given the same opportunities and that was were the problem was.

Fighting for equality
Secondly I want to mention another person that tried to change societal views on black culture and history is Michel Esajas who created The Black Archives, which in their words is “a unique historical archive where one can find inspiring conversation, activities and books from a black perspective along with other perspectives that are often overlooked or neglected”. 6) As with Cairo’s work it became clear to Esajas that black history and culture was not given the attention it deserved and this resulted in an apparent absence of material, and platform; he set out to change this. However Esajas’ method of changing society was different from Cairo’s though, he chose a more activist means of action; Esajas was part of the bus with protesters that was blocked on the highway by right wing pro-black pete protesters while they were on their way to Dokkum to have a peaceful protest against black pete.


Nicolaas Porter – “Everything has a price”


It’s not over, but there’s hope
Lastly I would like to repeat the quote Wayne Modest used to make his point of claiming slavery is very present; “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery–skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” This quote is saying something that a lot of people are trying to undermine or ignore. The knowledge about colonial history is too limited, as is made clear by the exhibition that was recently opened in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam; an exhibition that will encourage thought about how to deal with the black page of our history. “It’s a shared history about which there is too little known in Dutch society” This view was shared by Wayne Modest who worked on the exhibition.

Looking back on this course I’ve gained a lot of insight on various different topics dealing with the history of slavery and the way we deal with that now. However what has also become abundantly clear for me is that there are such conflicting views in how we should deal with this history and it sometimes feels like the only two point of views that receive attention are the extreme right and the extreme left. The main views that came forward in this course were the need for remembrance of the slavery past, in order to fully understand how we deal with race today and change it. A second thing that became abundantly clear, which for me was the reason I took this course, was the fact that there is way too little knowledge about the Dutch colonial and slavery history, especially in my own generation, in my opinion. To give an opinion of how society is still not equal is the fact that my black friend has to answer to the question “where are you from” simply because of the colour of her skin when her mother and grandmother were both born in Amsterdam and I never get asked this.
The ways in which people like Cairo, Esajas and Modest are trying to change this are to be applauded and their example should be followed, I say this in hopes that every day society changes just a tiny bit.



1) Charlotte Huisman, “Activist die als Zwarte Piet basisschool binnendrong: ‘Ik ben niet extreem-rechts en geen racist” De Volkskrant, 27 november 2017,

2) Huisman, 27 nov 2017.

3) Pim van den Dool, “Hoofd VN-werkgroep Zwarte Piet: Sinterklaasfeest moet stoppen”. NRC, 22 october 2013,

4) Koen Lemmens, “The dark side of ‘Zwarte Piet’: A misunderstood tradition or racism in disguise? A legal analysis.” The International Journal of Human Rights 21, no. 2 (2017): 120-41. doi:10.1080/13642987.2016.1276448.

5) Aminata Cairo, “Aminata Cairo presenteert de weg naar inclusie bij Haagse Hoge School” Afromagazine, 11 january 2018,



Caïro, Aminata. “Aminata Cairo presenteert de weg naar inclusie bij Haagse Hoge School”. Afromagazine (2018).
Van den Dool, Pim. “Hoofd VN-werkgroep Zwarte Piet: Sinterklaasfeest moet stoppen” NRC (2013).

Huisman, Charlotte. “Activist die als Zwarte Piet basisschool binnendrong: ‘Ik ben niet extreem-rechts en geen racist” De Volkskrant (2017).

Lemmens, Koen. “The dark side of ‘Zwarte Piet’: A misunderstood tradition or racism in disguise? A legal analysis.” The International Journal of Human Rights 21, no. 2 (2017): 120-41. doi:10.1080/13642987.2016.1276448.
Unknown. “Tropenmuseum wil laten nadenken over slavernijverleden”. Het Parool (2017).


[Dit is deel 6 in de reeks papers Side Wings of Slavery & Colonialism; zie ook deel 1,  2 , 3, 4,  5.en 7 en 8.]

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