Black Achievement Month; celebration or segregation?

 

This month the Black Achievement Month will take place in the Netherlands for the second time. Its purpose is to commemorate talented black people and to acknowledge black heroes. Black Achievement Month is based on the successful Black History Month in the United States and United Kingdom. However, the name of the Netherlands’ edition has a positive approach: the organizers do not only want to look at the history, but mainly focus on  the present and the future. Ainton Deul, president of National institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee), calls it the “black renaissance”:

‘There is a lot of talent and we want to give them the opportunity to showcase that excellence. Together we want to make the story complete, claim our history, create a future together. I call it the revival of black culture, the black renaissance.’

In the Black Achievement Month cultural organizations play an important role. As sites of public education and platforms for art and culture they make and legitimate social meaning. However, there is still deep-rooted racism and discrimination in the Dutch society. Museums and historical sites are also guilty in supporting white supremacy. The racialized representations in these places align with representations in the larger society. The article ‘Museums and (in)justice’ by  Jennifer Eichstedt designates this  problem. It appears from her research into the representations of slavery in plantations museums that almost sixty percent of the museums focus on white people, instead of on the enslaved people:

‘These sites construct and maintain public white racial identities that both articulate and reinforce the idea that whites created “freedom”, democracy, and epitomized the idea of hard work. (…) These strategies continue to exist because they help meet a continuing need of whites to understand ourselves as morally worthy in the face of ongoing oppression of all peoples of color and, in particular, African-descent peoples.’

Eichstedt distinguishes four categories of representation. The first category  is ‘symbolic annihilation and erasure of African people while aggrandizing lives of white enslavers’. If black people are included in the story, there role is peripheral to the role of white people. The second strategy is ‘trivialization and deflection of suffering of African-descent peoples while framing white enslavers as moral and hardworking’. The focus is on the negative side of enslaved people, that mesh well with contemporary stereotypes of black people, and their “loyalty” to their master-enslavers. The third category is the ‘segregated knowledge’. Museums marginalize the knowledge of enslaved people, even as a central focus on whites is maintained, instead of an interweaving them. As an example of this, Eichstedt mentions the Black History Month. The one-month effort to celebrate the black culture does not mean that we are moving to the interweaving of the black history in the western history. One month is not enough to learn from the impact of the black community in our society.

In my opinion, the positive perspective of the Black Achievement Month challenges the segregation of the knowledge of black people. It gives way to the history and the present of oppressions and violations, discrimination and racism. Besides, letting the voice of black people speak creates pride and self-consciousness. This month raises awareness, the necessary beginning of change to make The Netherlands more inclusive. It is only possible to achieve the ultimate goal, what Eichstedt mentions as the last category: ‘The relative incorporation of lives of African-descent people into the story of white life.’

Exhibition ‘Afterlives of Slavery’, Tropenmuseum Amsterdam

The important role of museums in this change cannot be forgotten, because they are in a powerful place to effect the understanding of the social world in which people live. A good example of a museum that does understand this role is the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. They recently opened the exhibition ‘Afterlives of Slavery’ during the Black Achievement Month. It functions as a platform, as preliminary to a major presentation on the Netherlands’ colonial past. The museum incorporates black people in the western (his)story and strives for the connection between the different communities. The foundation of the whiteness through racialized stories and misinformation should be questioned and be the reason for change of the representational strategies in museums, because it creates a world that is still unjust.

To reach the ultimate goal of the Black Achievement Month our white-centric image will have to stagger and even disappear. This is the only remedy against feelings of moral superiority. This is an urgent task for whites, because changes have to start within ourselves. We cannot longer close our eyes for this inconvenient reality, but rather we should look deeply at our practices and their consequences, and strive for a racially and socially just world. This will eradicate the segregation that exists between ‘black’ and ‘white’, and give reason to celebrate the diversity in our country.

 

Geeske Bisschop

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