Every year on the first of july people from the Dutch Caribbean and Suriname celebrate the abolition of slavery in 1863. During the last 40 years there has been a steady migration from Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean to the Netherlands. As such, Dutch culture has slowly been infused with Caribbean and Surinamese elements in popular culture. Aside from the influences on popular culture there is also an increasing call for a more transparent dialogue about Dutch history and the role of African slaves. It is the general opinion of many descendants of African slaves living in the Netherlands that the role of the Dutch in the slave trade and colonial slavery has been severely downplayed. For some this blind spot in Dutch history is a source of anger and results in harsh criticism on contemporary Dutch attitudes towards a multicultural society that others who have a more moderate approach to the history of slavery see as polarizing. Whatever path descendants of African slaves choose to walk in regards to the history of slavery, it is clear that feelings and opinions are like a palet of shades of gray between black and white, all shades fully entitled to its merits.
Keti Koti Table
Enter the Keti Koti Table, an initiative by Mercedes Zandwijken and people around her to find a way to make dialogue between white Dutch people and Dutch people of Caribbean and Surinamese descent happen.
I participated in my first Keti Koti Table today at the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam. Today was the end of their exhibition called “Joden in de Cariben”, an exhibition about Jewish life in the Caribbean that also dealt with the role of colonial Jews during slavery. It was an interesting location for the Keti Koti Table since Jewish people have a 3500 year old tradition of celebrating the end of their slavery in Egypt: Pesach. During the Seder which is held on the first and/or second night of Pesach Jewish people commemorate on the twin themes of slavery and freedom with rituals and food. The Keti Koti Table is similar to a Seder as in that the participants also take part in rituals and eat food that evoke the themes of slavery and freedom. As this Table is a relatively new tradition there is a guide for a basic set of elements one can follow. A tori means the story and is a directive for this ritual as in that the participants pas on the stories to each other and the next generation.
The elements of a Keti Koti Table
The elements are:
The StoriesSharing stories is one of the most important parts of the Keti Koti Table. During this session we were asked to share a personal family story that shows the connection with slavery. One of the most profound stories I heard today [note: per request of the narrator of this story, I have decided to remove this part of my post. Even though I think I had good intentions with sharing her story, those intentions are secondary to her opinion and feelings about including it in this blogpost. As a descendant of the people of this narrative she has the full right to request censorship from someone who cannot claim this descent and as such I feel I have to honor that request. I also misrepresented her full ancestry in my description of who she is and for that I apologize. I should have asked for and verified the info I was going to share.]
There was another story by a woman who shared that she is the granddaughter of a Jewish woman who had a Black father and a Jewish mother. Being a biracial child of an unwed Jewish mother and a Black father meant that the mother disowned her child officially but that the child still had a status aparte in the Jewish and Black family. Although she was never formally recognized as the daughter of a Jewish mother, she was treated with the respect of an unofficial Jewish daughter. It was a gray area of being given a certain standing in the Jewish family but not being able to claim that spot.
The story that I shared was that I have discovered through research that the history of slavery is more complex than just a case of White/Jewish slave owners and Black/Colored slaves. I have discovered three generations of free women of color, two of whom I am fairly certain were born as slaves, who themselves have had slaves at one point in their lives and who all three have also bought freedom for those slaves. Discovering that information has given my family history more body, more stuff to think about and thus more to reflect upon.
Breaking the Chains
I saw a clip this morning from bishop T.D. Jakes on Oprah’s life class where he says:
“When You Hold Onto Your History, You Do It At The Expense of Your Destiny.” He basically advises to forgive the past to look to the future. When I reflect on todays experience I think that in a way this Keti Koti Table can help us reclaim our past, accept what was by forgiving and then fully embrace our destiny. There can be a tremendous power in sharing stories and connecting with people. There is an even higher power in discovering commonalities with people from other walks of life and colors. Let’s ignite this dialogue!