Criticising your own narrative can prove to be extremely hard. That’s why teachers always encourage you to ask for feedback from someone who isn’t involved in your topic. This way, the ‘outsider’s’ fresh way of looking gives you the insight you can’t possibly provide being as involved as you are in your own research. Yet, not everyone is as happy receiving critique from an ‘outsider’. Jennifer Tosch experienced this first hand when she, a ‘SuriAm’ (Surinam-American) woman, took part in a class on colonial history at the University of Utrecht.
Having just finished the ‘BESS’ programme (Black European Summer School) in 2013, Jennifer decided to stay in the Netherlands and learn more about the colonial past of the country. She was disappointed to say the least, when it turned out the course on colonial history did not encompass the experiences of colonial people, nor the tragedies that occurred there. When she asked her teachers about this lack of content, the most common response was that ‘the course did not entail that topic’ and business resumed as normal.
Feeling let down by the Dutch history canon, Jennifer took matters into her own hands and founded ‘Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam’. The goal of this organisation was and is to inform participants on the African diaspora that is still present in buildings, statues and street signs throughout Amsterdam. The slavery institute Ninsee send her a card regarding the presence of black and colonial history in Amsterdam. It contained 14 different locations, whereas now she expanded that total to a stunning 118. “There is so much to see, as long as you are willing to see it”, she said.
There is no denying the huge success Tosch has had regarding her tour. Since 2013 she won the Blogher ‘13 International Scholarship Award, the African Diaspora Tourism Award (2016) and the Luxury Travel Guide Award (2017), as well as receiving the ‘certificate of excellence’ (2018) from Tripadvisor. The Black Heritage Tour Amsterdam has received 154 ratings, of which 5 rated it ‘very good’ and an astounding 147 ‘excellent’, the latter being the highest possible rating. Considering all this it should not come as a surprise that Tosch’s Heritage Tour is being expanded towards Brussels, Belgium and since 2016 to New York.
Partners contain of the New York State Library, Mapping Slavery, Dutch Culture and the New Amsterdam History Center [sic], among many others. However, at the outset of her project, Jennifer was struggling to find shipping companies who saw potential in her tours. Only one company was willing to facilitate her tours. They even offered her a boat for free, which she sees as ‘typically Dutch’: getting motivated by a decent business instinct.
Perhaps the most fascinating part is the way in which Tosch created this opportunity. In 2008, the financial crisis hit, and hit hard. She lost her house, two cars and got fired. She had to ‘re-invent’ herself and decided to go to college. Inspired by her mothers Surinamese descendance, she visited the Netherlands. Not only to follow the aforementioned BESS, but also to research her own family history: “It was like coming home. The acquaintance with my family, the smells, the landscape, the places my mother had told me about, it still makes me emotional just thinking about it. All the stories suddenly turned into reality.” The tours have always coincided with her journey towards finding her own roots and history. It is probably thanks to this personal passion that this once small idea turned into such a huge success. In June, she was even invited to speak at the Amsterdam Black Lives Matter protest. In an interview with AT5 she stated she has the feeling being ‘divinely guided’.
The path Jennifer Tosch followed is a seemingly unique one, simply inspired by circumstance and personal inspiration. Her mission is not to ‘change’ history, as it is often being regared by opponents of special attention for black history. She simply wants to add more perspective to the existing curriculum and general knowledge on colonialism and slavery, whilst also pointing out how these histories still play a role in today’s society. By moving to the Netherlands and providing a new perspective as an ‘outsider’, she has gained her fair amount of popularity. Whilst speaking at the BLM protest in Amsterdam, her main focus was to inform people that racism is not a solely American problem. The Netherlands is not ‘color blind’ as some like to think. Although black activism has, according to Tosch, existed ‘for over a 100 years’, the momentum is now to actively change things. Tosch can take credit for delivering her fair share of positive activism by being here and educating the people.
Written by Mike Xhofleer