Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Zwarte Piet

Today is Sinterklaas. I thought I was just going to leave for Berlin with my last post being about Berlin, but I was so inspired by my class on Monday that I thought I would write a little bit about it. I was also completely amazed (again) this year at the variety zwarte piets that are decorating the windows between our apartment and my work. So I will sprinkle them throughout this post for your viewing pleasure.

My first thought on zwarte piet, which many Dutch people will translate as "black piet" (helpful, but...what's a piet?), is, They would never get away with this in the US! There would be a rock throwing campaign in about three seconds. But also, people there are so politically correct that they would also never put them in windows there in the first place. It's a totally different culture there.

The zwarte piets are so very black face that is sort of freaks me out a little. It's like minstrel shows and picaninnies. But the history here is different than it is in the US, so it's accepted and people have sort of "gotten over it." My first year here, I worked at a volunteer waiter in a nursing home (the only volunteer with an MBA, I should point out) and I was a little shocked when a Black colleague of mine showed up accompanying Sinterklaas on December 5 dressed as Zwarte Piet. I wondered what she really thought about it. It seemed to me that they could have asked any number of white people to do the black face thing. She just put on the outfit and smiled. No harm was done, I assure you.

My students on Monday told me that it was the Canadians that increased it from zwarte piet singular to zwarte piet plural. Apparently, it was originally Sinterklaas and one zwarte piet. After the Canadians showed up to save the day at the end of the war, they thought that it was such a fun idea to have a person in black face that they said, "If one is good, several will be even better." We discussed how the Canadians got the Dutch to implement this increase, but no firm conclusions were drawn. Those poor Canadians, blamed for one more thing. As they say in Southpark the Movie, "Blame Canada."

Years ago, there was campaign to change them from zwarte piets to gekleurde (colored) piets. So for a while, black face went out of fashion and they had red, blue, green and yellow faces. That was ending when I arrived on these shores (suitcase in hand and my heart full of hope). I'm glad. Being part New Yorker, I prefer the basic black thing. Plus, it just seems like they were trying to cover up a racial thing by saying, "Look. We won't do away with the whole thing, but we'll try to distract you with the nice colors."

One of the stories is that piet got his face black by climbing down the chimney. However, no one really believes that. If people say they believe that, they are pulling your leg. He's got a black face because he's a Black man. David Sedaris has a pretty funny story about Sinterklaas in his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim called "Six to Eight Black Men." (I was going to say to just read through his books and find it because it's worth the time spent, but I found it. But still, go ahead and read them. They're all good.) His sister, Amy, is pretty fabulous too. Fred won't read to anything that's got "Sedaris" in the cover. Pity. He's so good otherwise.

This last image is of the only Sinterklaas I saw on the whole street. It was in a child's window as opposed to a store window. It was strange to me that the emphasis is on zwarte piet and not on Sinterklaas, for whom the holiday is named. At any rate, Happy Sinterklaas everyone!


Mel said...

I have a live recording of Sedaris reading that story and just listened to it again last weekend. I think it should become traditional holiday listening.

Eric & Tony said...

Between you and Wikipedia, I got another fun Dutch history lesson.

Hope Berlin is a good time!

Tammie Nolte said...

Andy we are twinkies. I have a signed David Sedaris book and will give it to you next Black Piet holiday.