Black Pete was first mentioned in a book by Jan Schenkman, published in 1850.
Parents teach their children that Black Pete is black because of the soot in the chimneys he goes through to deliver presents. But the tradition is less innocent that it seems.
Written by Kristen Poel
Guest Contributor from Undivided, a student-faculty diversity initiative at KU Leuven
There have been a few social media controversies in Belgium surrounding a white person doing blackface. In the comment sections of articles, there are a lot of reactions by Flemish people (both with and without a migration background) who don’t understand what all the fuss is about. This is because they believe that the intention was not racist, but also because they find it hypocritical that there never are any controversies surrounding whiteface. Those comments often are born out of ignorance, as most Belgians have never learnt in school that there is a complicated history to blackface.
Blackface is when a white person paints their face black, often accompanied by exaggerated features such as wide noses and thick lips. In the United States, it was used to ridicule people of color in theater. Since white people would not work with actual people of color, they had to find a solution: blackface. These blackfaced characters were often idiots, criminals and rapists. They sometimes acted more like wild animals than human beings.
When the first full feature films were made, blackface offered a great way to make black people (most often black men) look like the enemy. This was the case in D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, which showed a black man harassing an innocent white girl. But luckily, the Ku Klux Klan members come to the rescue, catching the “bad n*gger”. Back in the village, they are welcomed as true heroes. ‘Birth of a Nation’ became so popular that it caused a resurgence of the KKK, and it is that resurgence which provided us with those infamous images of the horrible lynchings.
Once you are aware of the history of blackface, it is probably clearer why a face painted black can cause such controversy. However, there is a difference between Bazart’s band member painting his face to be Kanye West for Halloween and the members of Forza Ninove using blackface for a promotional clip that ridiculed people of color; there aren’t any bad intentions in the former, but there are in the latter. Nonetheless, innocent ignorance does not make it less painful for people of color to see their skin used as a costume. Especially considering the damage that blackface has done in the past. Blackface was once a loved tradition in the U.S., but in the 21st century it is only met with disbelief.
The problem isn’t over though, because in Belgium and the Netherlands, certain colonial images are still accepted because they are “a part of tradition”. Parents teach their children that Black Pete is black because of the soot in the chimneys he goes through to deliver presents. But the tradition is less innocent that it seems. When you google ‘Zwarte Piet Ketting’, multiple images depicting cozy scenes of happy women (or Sinterklaas himself) holding Black Pete by his chains appear. Originally, Black Pete was a slave, and even though his chains are no longer present, he is still imprisoned by his traditional attire, curly hair, thick lips and gold hoop earrings.
Black Pete was first mentioned in a book by Jan Schenkman, published in 1850. In the book, familiar elements – a horse on the roof and presents being delivered – are combined with new elements, like the steamboat and Black Pete himself. Thus it is fair to call Schenkman the inventor of Black Pete, whom he explicitly called “the Flemish equivalent of a n*gger”. We assume that the tradition of Sinterklaas is a homogenous one but in fact the tradition is a construction birthed from the hands of people like Jan Schenkman. It is also astonishing that Black Pete was whitewashed later, as a white person who looks black because of the soot. Even though the intentions surrounding Sinterklaas are no longer racist, Black Pete undeniably is, in origin, an angry black slave who would put naughty children in his bag and take them with him.
The discussions surrounding blackface are often unproductive because most Flemish people have never been taught the history of its use and the scars it has left on some groups of the population. Such ignorance is just one of the symptoms of a country wanting to bury rather than acknowledge its colonial history. The denial of Black Pete’s history is part of that. If Black Pete really is black only because of the soot, then why can’t we go for a ‘Roetveegpiet’ without thick lips, golden earrings and an Afro wig? Just because some Flemish people with a migration background say that they do not find the tradition offensive, does not mean that people who do find it offensive are exaggerating.
It is obvious that traditions do change, because otherwise Black Pete would still be held by his chains. So maybe the time has come to finally free Black Pete of his invisible chains as well.
(The longer original version is on the UNDIVIDED blog, available in both Dutch and English. Check out this site - http://undividedforkuleuven.com)