While doing research for Herald I spoke to many people about the themes and subject of the story. A friend of mine was doing a project together with documentary maker Sunny Bergman about white privilege in the Netherlands. While this wasn’t exactly the theme of Herald it did have some clear connections with my own research. So I was invited to attend a “Salon”; an open discussion night about the subject where we could talk freely and learn about each others ideas and opinions. Sunny did a couple of these as research for her documentary “Our Colonial Hangover”, which mainly focuses on the much debated traditional Dutch figure of Black Pete.
The night itself was enjoyable enough, but the feeling I got from most of the discussion bothered me. Most of the guests were in disbelief about the level of ignorance of the Dutch people regarding white privilege. Some told stories that opened my eyes about a few strange issues our society still has, like Black Pete and the lack of diversity in the media. Others had more personal stories that, for me, didn’t seem to be a problem with society in general but more with the people involved. But what mainly bothered me was the pent up anger I felt with some of the attendants. What had actually happened to them to feel so disappointed and angry with the way some things are? Surely, the modern version of Black Pete as a jester can’t be that bad, can it?
It was clear to me that the frustration and anger over racism and white privilege goes a lot further than outdated traditions. As Sunny’s documentary showed, it is almost impossible for any human to be completely unprejudiced, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the people who stand out most for being different pull on the short end of the stick. Traditions like Black Pete confirm black people’s position as a minority of Dutch society with a troubled past. By re-branding a nasty part of their history as some kind of joke we aggravated those people that valued the truth behind the character and its origins.
What makes it even worse for me is that the annual Keti Koti festival, the celebration of the abolishment of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles, is not at all known by many people outside of the black community. None of my family members ever heard of it, not a single one.
When I left Amsterdam the morning after the salon, I thought about the discussions of the night before and my own place in Dutch society. I know that it was difficult for me to adjust to the idea of being gay and having a future with a man. I wanted what my parents had for a long time and felt like I could not live up to the standards of “normal people”, whatever those are. While I won’t say that this is the case for all minorities, I do believe that a lack of identification with a mainstream identity can lead to frustration with the environment you live in.
As a writer and storyteller, I believe that being content with your personal narrative, the story of your own identity, is very important to your self worth. And if we keep celebrating the lives of famous Dutchmen of the Golden Age, why can’t we celebrate the lives of all those freed slaves on July 1st?
In my discussions with Bart the next couple of days, I discovered a pattern that would ultimately lead to Devan Rensburg’s story. It seemed that national identity and personal identity are very much linked to one another. I wanted to do something with this, so Devan became a man stuck between two worlds, born in an eastern colony but raised in a dominant western empire: the Protectorate. Yearning to find his roots and uncover his lost past, he would sail back to his country of birth in search of his origins.
I liked the idea. It had a strong personal motivation for the main character to go on a quest, and the theme of 19th century colonialism was a perfect fit for his story. I knew I wasn’t finished interviewing yet, I had barely scratched the surface of this topic, so I went out looking for people who were in the same position as Devan Rensburg: Caught in between worlds. More on this, next time.