Sunday, December 19, 2010
The break: Blogging Black from the Netherlands and how I became an Afro-European
Ground level Ganzenhoef Amsterdam Bijlmer
I am going to take a break, but of course blogger Sibo wil continue to post his views on Afro-Europe. But before I leave I would like to share some of my toughts and experiences about becoming Afro-European and how I started blogging.
A year ago I received an e-mail from someone who wanted to know more about black people in the Netherlands and how I got there.
Of course I have had these question before. I remember a few white Americans stopped me in the city centre of Amsterdam to ask me if I could translate a few English words for them in Dutch. Suddenly they asked me where I came from. “I was born Amsterdam,” I replied. “No, where do you really come from,” they answered. Great people by the way, so I gave them an elevator pitch about the “African-Americans” of Holland.
This post will not be an elevator pitch.
Growing up ignorant in Amsterdam
I grew up almost colourless. Although I knew I was black there was no racism around me that made more aware of it. I was born in Amsterdam before the big Surinamese migration started in 1975, and I lived in a part of Amsterdam which was almost 90 percent white. But luckily my social circle was cultural diverse. I had Dutch, Surinamese, Bi-racial Surinamese, Jewish and Chinese friends.
Moving to the “black” part of Amsterdam, Amsterdam South East (De Bijlmer)
Moving to a black environment was an experience. The place exploded with anti-racism activists, rastas and black culture advocates. Everything was black, including the junkies of course. But it was a tremendous experience. Walking in the Bijlmer in the summer was like walking on a Caribbean Island, black people everywhere.
From an identity point of view the move was gift from God. But since I was born and raised in the Netherlands I actually had to integrate into the black community. Because I also had an uppity Dutch accent (so to speak) this also complicated the challenge to integrate into a society which was a “deep” black Surinamese Caribbean community back then with a lot of black American influences. I was considered "white” of course. But thanks to shooting hoop all winter I managed to get into the pickup basketball games in the summer. And that’s where my black identity journey began. The character in the book “The white boy shuffle” is me.
Becoming “Black” gradually
I also got new friends of course. They introduced me to the black organisation scene, which meant that I got to meet a lot of black artists and black activists and different black people from across Europe. I remember how I got lost when I had to speak to a French black girl, she could hardly speak English and I hardly could speak French.
What I did learn during that period was the way skin colour was perceived. Most of my black friends dated white girls and I dated black girls. The entire racial dimension when past me like a ship in the night, but I would gradually learn the deeper structure of things. I think it’s a part you miss if don’t grow up in a environment where skin colour is like a military rank.
But although my black identity was developing I felt something was missing. It was like watching CNN, but not understanding the background of things. I was missing a deeper understanding of blackness.
My black experience
I knew that my knowledge of blackness wouldn’t come from playing basketball, eating rice and beans, or hanging out with my friends. The difference with my friends was that I had learned nothing at school about colonialism, slavery or even the history of Suriname. I knew it vaguely, but that was it.
Because Suriname lies in South America one of the first books I read was the “Open viens of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano. I think it’s the book that Venezuelan president Hugo Chaves gave to president Obama. I remember it opened my eyes about the history of Latin American from a left wing point of view. It’s a radical book, but I think a needed a radical view at that time. I read a lot of books about latin American, but later I found out it wasn’t exactly “my” history. Although Suriname lies in South America, it’s in fact a Caribbean country. But I am glad I read it, it’s a classic. Although Galeano could have added some more black history in it.
The book which really took me closer to my roots was “Van Priary tot en met De Kom, the history of resistance in Surinam”, by Sandew Hira. Hira is the Surinamese version of Eduardo Galeano. although he didn’t made me wear a dashiki, he did gave me a deeper understanding of the black struggle in Suriname and of Dutch colonialism.
The book that shaped by black identity was “Black Skin, white Masks” of French writer Franz Fanon. I think James Baldwin would have said, that it takes you to the dungeons of your black soul. I started reading the book, closed it and opened it again three month later. Fanon dropped an issue that I never thought of before, one of his famous lines is, a black person wants to be white. But he made me feel at ease by explaining that it was a logical consequence of slavery and colonialism that I could have these feelings. But after finishing his book he didn’t leave me with the feeling that I wanted to be white, but he did leave me with the question: why should I be proud to be black if being black meant having a twisted black frustrated mind.
Fanon's book really gave me a Teflon layer so to speak, but as African scholar once said: it didn’t cure Fanon. Did it add to my black identity yes, to my Afro-Dutch identity, no.
I don’t have an Afro-Dutch identity, I have a Surinamese-Dutch identity. Saying you’re Dutch to a Surinamese person is sometimes even considered an insult. I think the mayor difference between the French and the British is that the Dutch were more preoccupied with trade then with assimilating slaves into Dutch Culture. Not very a long ago in the Netherlands children from foreign countries could get lessons in their own language and culture during school time. Comfy together, or as they say in Dutch “gezellig bij elkaar” with your own people was the Dutch mantra for integration. Foreign films in Holland are not voiced over as in France or Germany, but subtitled. But the perception about integration and minorities has changed now.
Being Surinamese-Dutch feels like belonging to a cult group, and to be honest I am comfortable with it.
I am going to take a giant leap forward in time.
Blogging and becoming Afro-European
Fast forward two years ago. Before I started blogging about Afro-Europe I was focused on the Netherlands. Although I had met black people from different countries in Europe and Africa, I had virtually no deep knowledge of their backgrounds. Even on holidays in Europe I was running to see the buildings, or other tourist places. A market full of black people in London doesn’t differ much from a market in Amsterdam-South East.
Like most holidays I focused on the beach, or on sight seeing. There is hardly time to actually meet black people in their countries. Before you know it, you’re home in the rat race again.
The inspiration for Afro-Europe began after an interview I did with an Afro-German woman. I am not going to say who it is, but if she reads this: thanks for the inspiration and your mind blowing insights. Although I had met French, British and African people it never came to mind that there were actually black people in Germany, although Germany is the neighbouring country of the Netherlands. What also inspired me was the blog Black Women in Europe.
One of the books I read was the book of Noah Sow, "Deutschland Schwarz Weiss - der alltägliche Rassismus" (Germany Black White - the everday racisme"). The thing I got out this book was the subtle racism I had never seen before. It was as if different lights went on on the same stage. I saw objects I had never noticed before. The little black boy on my cornflakes box who was surrounded by African Elephants and zebras, were thinks I hardly noticed before. To me they were just part of yet an another “Africa” contest campaign. But after reading Sow’s book I realized that there is an implicit racist connection when black kids are portrayed with African animals. Her book made me more aware that I was living in a society with hidden and sometimes even subliminal racist images. I somehow felt as ignorant as the day I moved to Amsterdam-South East. It was strange to get this information out of German book. And yes, these images were floating around me in the Netherlands.
Then I got a mail from Belgium. My name is Sibo and I would like to contribute. It was again strange to find out there was a person from another country who wrote about everything I always wanted to write about, but couldn’t. I was again interested to see new a perspective from a black person from Belgium. But he has something I don’t have, a close connection to Africa.
To me being Afro-European is not the same as being a Dutch black person. I’d like see as an element of it. I’m different from a black British Caribbean or African person. Growing up black in a class structured society is perhaps different from growing up in the egalitarian Netherlands. Growing up black in a French society where showing your black colours was in conflict with the all-people-are-French ideal is very different from my black experience. And being Afro-German is also different because it’s small community in a big white country with an infamous racial history.
But my Afro-European element what I perhaps share with other Afro-Europeans is that I want to have a piece of the country where I was born and raised in. It’s position I don’t even have to defend. Being black and European means that I also have an Afro-European connection on issues like race, black success and other specific black issues. But there is one issue that I consider very important, I don’t only have connection with Afro-Europe, but also with Africa.
How I became African, again
I don’t know if it sounds familiar, but although I read the ‘positive’ books about Africa I still remained biased. I read books about Africa, about the copper masks of the Yorubas and about the monument of great Zimbabwe, but still it looked as if they were compensations for the daily reality I saw on TV. The images of the machetes in Rwanda, the hunger, the child soldiers and the corrupt leaders. If in Europe one person dies it almost seemed similar to 500 deaths in Africa. As if large scale deaths is a natural thing in Africa. That was ignorant me two years ago when if first started blogging.
Thanks to all those wonderful African blogs I know that “Africa” doesn’t exits and that my lack of interest and knowledge made me stereotype a whole continent. It reminds of the silent Nigerian basketball player who trained in my basketball team. I never asked him anything about Nigeria. If you read this Femi, sorry for being so, “basketball minded”? Or the African woman who asked me the direction, and while we were talking I asked her about the “war” in a country in Africa which I had seen on TV. “No that’s not my country, that’s another system,” she replied while shaking her head. If you read this, sorry.
I can honestly say that blogging has changed my perspective on African countries and Africans completely. I have never visited Africa, but the slave fort Elmina where my ancestors left Africa will not be on my visiting list. There is so much more to see then a broken down slave fort, a fort which is just one leave on the tree of Africa.
Has blogging about Afro-Europe changed you?
A lot. I can’t go back blogging on a national level because I have seen, heard and experienced so much of the Afro-European community. I’ve seen people who would outsmart me ten times. I’ve seen successful initiatives that could be copied in other European countries with the same results. And I’ve seen a media landscape which could be a goldmine and powerful network if they would only touch each other.
Two years ago I lived in the dungeon of my own community, today I have new and different perspective. If I was a community consultant I think I would be the one with all the great and successful ideas. I won’t go into personal details, but the blogging has even changed me on a professional level. Blogging Afro-European means reading French, German and Spanish and of course English again, so working on my languages was also a good training.
Is this the end?
No, I think it’s just a break.
Best wishes for 2011!