Last month, I traveled to Amsterdam for two weeks as a participant in the sixth annual Summer School on Black Europe. While I was there, I also had the opportunity to experience the veritable flurry of activity surrounding the 150th anniversary of Keti Koti, the legal abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies. (It is important to remember, however, that although slavery was abolished in 1863, enslaved people were forced to work for another ten years on the plantations during a so-called “transitory period”). Activists and radical scholars in the Netherlands have been using the 150th anniversary as a way to prompt Dutch people to think critically about the history and legacy of slavery and colonialism, along with the harsh and violent realities of racism, inequality, and xenophobia in their country today.
Although the Netherlands has a reputation as a tolerant society where “anything goes,” people of color in the country face a constant barrage of discrimination, institutionalized racisms, and microagressions. Lest you believe that racism in the heart of liberal Europe cannot be little more than the pathological utterings of an extreme few, look no further than to the popular Dutch Christmas character Zwarte Piet, a recent comedy film that leaned upon every tired stereotype of black hypersexuality, and a magazine article that called pop singer Rihanna the foulest slur imaginable for a Black woman. For all of these reasons, it was truly a revelatory time to be in Amsterdam and think about what it means to be a tourist in Western Europe (or, in my own case, an African-American tourist/student/researcher who also carries an Italian passport). Whose history do we normally celebrate, and why, when we stick to the “beaten path” of monuments and museums in new cities?
Speaking of museums, on 26 July Amsterdam’s National Maritime Museum opened a controversial exhibit called “The Dark Chapter” about Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The exhibition focuses on the journey of the Leusden, a Dutch slave ship that sank while carrying African men, women, and children into Suriname. The ship’s crew feared that a violent storm would give their captives the opportunity to escape the ship, and so bolted them all below deck. In total, 664 Africans were killed–the largest death toll of its kind during the transatlantic slave trade.
Four days after the exhibit opening (and the day before Keti Koti), the second-annual African Homecoming festival was held in Amsterdam-Noord. The aim of African Homecoming is to commemorate the legacy of people of African descent. The event included food, fashion, a small film festival, musical performances, and a debate about the meanings of diaspora. I was especially enamored with the Afropolitan-inspired styles of Nomi by Naomi, a fashion line from Amsterdam-based designer Naomi Rosheuvel. If you are visiting Amsterdam, you can find Nomi by Naomi clothes and accessories at the Kliek Uniek boutique.
Every year, July 1 marks the official celebration of Keti Koti. While the event is often described as a festival, it is really much, much more than that, with elements of direct action (the parade shuts down major avenues in Amsterdam) and protest, with the food and shop stalls of a cultural fair. Keti Koti brings together solemn remembrance with celebration, drawing explicit links between past and present in order to demand a better future. The day-long event commenced at Leidseplein, where prominent (white) Dutch personalities served breakfast to the assembled participants. Following the meal, the group walked through the city to Oosterpark, chanting, singing, and often dancing along with the music of marching bands. Many of the women participating the march wore beautiful koto dresses, voluminous traditional garments that Surinamese women designed during slavery to protect themselves from sexual assault by slave masters, along with elaborate headdresses that were used to communicate covert messages. The Keti Koti march represents a radical display of public Blackness in a country where the mere fact of being non-white is reason enough for being denied a job interview or being subject to extra surveillance and policing.
The procession ended at Oosterpark, the site of Amsterdam’s National Slavery Monument, where activists, researchers, and political figures gave speeches to mark the anniversary. In addition, delegates lay wreaths sent from countries around the African Diaspora on the monument itself. Every year during Keti Koti, Amsterdam’s Black community awaits an official apology from the Dutch government for the atrocities of the country’s intimate involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, but this apology is yet to come.
While in Amsterdam, I also had the opportunity to go on the new Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour, led by Jennifer Tosch and Lianne Leonora.* The goal of this tour is to illuminate the history of Afro-descendants in Amsterdam, which dates back at least to the 16th century, and to reveal the material traces of the city’s wealth that accumulated from involvement in the slave trade. The tour generates a powerful counternarrative to the glorious stories of the Dutch Golden Age that tourists usually hear on mainstream Amsterdam canal tours. These celebratory readings of history conveniently skim over the Dutch connections to slavery, colonialism, and exploitation that made Amsterdam into such an important global center of trade and commerce. The Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour also tells a story of resistance, highlighting evidence of the struggle by Blacks against slavery, colonialism, and discrimination.
As someone who travels quite frequently, I came away from my experiences in Amsterdam with some very important food for thought about the meanings of tourism and urban exploration. Whenever you travel to a new city, always remember to look for hidden stories–those chapters of history that do not fit into a neat, pretty, or teleological narrative of the past. You never know just what you might uncover.
* For information about booking a Black Heritage tour of Amsterdam, please visit www.blackheritagetours.com.