Black Pete


Greetings from Belgium. Friends who are on vacation have put their house for some ten days at our disposal. And so we are having a very comfortable stay near Antwerp. We have taken some work with us, but we also thoroughly enjoy this special break. It gives us the opportunity to meet some good friends, preach in the Antwerp church, pay a visit to the office of the church in Brussels and, in particular, to visit a few museums. We went to the M-Museum in Leuven—a beautiful museum in an extraordinary modern building, close to the marvelous Gothic townhall on the historic city square.

So far my wife and I had never visited the Museum for Contemporary Art in Antwerp. This was our opportunity. We were mostly interested in the special exhibition ‘Paintings and Other Stuff’ of works of the American artist Kerry James Marshall. Marshall is a prominent black artist, who was born in the South of the United States and presently lives in Chicago. This extensive exhibition of his work will remain a few months in Antwerp and will then move to Copenhagen, Barcelona and Madrid.

If I had been asked to suggest a title for this exhibition I would probably have come up with something that points to the contrast between Black and White. For this impressed me most: I was faced with a different world, a world of racism and oppression. This world is largely unknown to me, but I realize it is good to be confronted with it.  The intense blackness of most of the paintings and other objects presented an intense, compressed experience, a life history and a‘statement’ one cannot easily forget.

In this same week I followed, from some distance, the ridiculous debate in the Netherlands that became ever more extreme and even became an issue  for the United Nations. It was about the question whether Black Pete has to be eliminated from the St. Nicolas-feast. It was argued by some that this black person is a painful memory of an atrociously racist past. It can no longer be tolerated, so it was said, that in our twenty-first century a black fellow human being is cast in the role of a slave for a white man. Well, my appreciation for the United Nations had not been increased this past week. Does this organization not have any greater priorities?

I have tried to imagine what it means for an African, or someone from Surinam or the Antilles, to suddenly see a St. Nicolas and his back associates speed through the Dutch streets. Does this cause severe traumatic thoughts about ancestors who were sold on slave markets and then had to work for the rest of their lives on a plantation? It seems a bit exaggerated to me. When I (many years ago) regularly served as a St. Nicolas, and accompanied by two Black Petes and riding on a white horse, visited the local elementary school and the homes of sick children, it never occurred to me (or, I think, to anyone else) that I was guilty of reinforcing racist ideas in these tender souls.

In any case, if there are people who feel offended by the Black Pete tradition, I feel I have also reason to feel highly upset. As a member of the clergy I could feel utterly frustrated when I see how someone is dressed up as a Catholic colleague and treated as an object of derision. And, let’s be a little consistent: If Black Pete is a problem then we should also include Father Christmas in the discussion. For it could be argued that the figure of Father Christmas is highly offensive to elderly, bearded and obese men. Strange, that the UN does not feel it ought to be concerned about their plight.


My conclusion? If you have a chance, pay a visit to Antwerp and experience the impressive visual message of Kerry James Marshall. But ignore this nonsense about Black Pete hat is really about nothing.