The Racial Burden of being Black Pete



“I wonder what would happen if we had a Black Pete in Rolbos.”

Gertruida does this, sometimes. She’d throw out the bait, sip her beer, and wait quietly for the response. Now, those who know Gertruida, will know she’ll have more than one reason to stir up an argument in Boggel’s Place. The main reason – contrary to what those who’ve spent only a short time at the bar might think – is not to show off her vast knowledge, but simply to jolt the townsfolk out of the lethargic silence that tends to settle in the bar after another hot day in the Kalahari. Also: experience has taught her that there’s no way anybody can predict which way the conversation will swing – and what eccentric action might follow such a remark. It is this unpredictable randomness she enjoys most of all.

“Hey Gertruida, this is 2013, man! You can’t use language like that any more!” Servaas is visibly upset. Ever since Fiona’s departure, he’s been particularly cantankerous. He now knits his brows together and sucks in his cheeks as he winds up to deliver his argument. “Way back it was okay to say ‘black is beautiful’ or to call somebody ‘a black sheep’. But you know as well as I do we can’t do that any more. The very word makes people cringe.”

“What are you talking about?” Kleinpiet isn’t following the conversation at all.

“Oh, come on, Servaas! Black Pete is Santa’s helper; been his sidekick ever since Jan Schenkman published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht in 1850. It’s not a racist thing – it’s a tradition!”

“But wasn’t Zwarte Piet an ominous character? I read somewhere that he is, according to old legends, the devil. Saint Nicholas bound him in chains and made him his servant.”

“You’re right, of course Fanny. There are many theories about Zwarte Piet’s origin. Initially he was, indeed, a depiction of evil. But then again, Saint Nicholas himself have undergone changes over the years as well. Although the saint lived from 270 to 343 AD, the feast attributed to him apparently had pagan undertones.  Sint Nikolaas became Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus. But some trace the actions of Father Christmas back to the legends of Odin, the ancient mythical Germanic god. Odin also rode through the sky, and his helpers listened at the chimneys of houses to tell Odin whether the people inside the house were good or bad.

“So, the sky-travelling, rewarding of good behaviour , super-human character of Santa Claus is not without blemish either. Once we dig back in history, we find that a lot of so-called Christian feasts have all kinds of pagan traditions behind them.”

“That’s true.” Oudoom clears his throat. “Easter bunnies and Easter eggs are good examples. The original Churches bent over backwards to accommodate and include pagan feasts. Same thing happens today: churches want to remain popular with society. Sometimes I think church leaders are more worried about what people think than what the Gospel dictates.”

“Well, an unpopular church would have no income.” Vetfaan lets the statement hang in the air for a while. “And no income means no church.”

“But what has this to do with the so-called Pete, who’s alleged to be heavily pigmented?”

“Everything. And nothing.” Gertruida sighs happily. She likes it when people start arguing. “Santa is merely a figure – a symbol – of kindness. We don’t talk about his race, or his religion. He’s universal and he’s a tradition.

“And so, with Pete…what’s wrong with Father Christmas having a helper? Would the world be upset if his helper was an Englishman or a Jamaican? No. But because he’s named as Black Pete, he becomes racially tagged. You may be Hispanic, Indian, German, European….but not black! Why is that?”

“I’ll tell you why, Gertruida. We’ve become obsessed with race. Now, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong in recognising race. It is the most natural thing to notice skin colour – it’s the first thing you see when you meet somebody, after all. But then people take it a step further by labelling individuals on the basis of race. Spaniards are dark and handsome. Jews are light-skinned and clever. Italians are seen as romantic and the French are wine-drinking womanisers. For some reason it is okay to refer to these people in a light-hearted way. But as soon as you add a bit of Africa to the mix, it suddenly becomes taboo. Yellow and white are acceptable, not black. The world seems to refer to black – the word, not the people – as a derogatory term. It’s a perception, nothing more.”

“Okay, Fanny. What you’re saying is: there’s nothing wrong with a symbol – like Father Christmas – having a helper – like Pete – as long as he’s not black?”

“You’ll never solve this, Gertruida.” Mevrou holds up a hand to stop the banter. “We have to look at the spirit of the tradition. Believe me: once you start analysing feasts, traditions and customs, you open a can of worms. Take anything – from weddings to Halloween; the saluting a senior officer to saying ‘Bless you’ when somebody sneezes – and you’ll dig up some strange facts in the history of its origin. We don’t realise how many of our everyday habits have roots in the distant past and many of them have pagan backgrounds. Black cats, the number thirteen, walking under ladders, opening umbrellas indoors, broken mirrors – we’ve completely forgotten why, but to some these superstition remain.

“My suggestion is this: keep the tradition. Don’t, for heaven’s sake, politicise everything. People are people, no matter what colour they are. If Christmas is celebrated as a Fast of Goodness – why, so be it. Enjoy. Forget Odin and the devil in chains – be good to thy neighbour. And that, as Mister Gump said, is all I have to say about that.”

Kleinpiet is still confused. Why is everybody so upset about ‘black’? Just the other day he saw a cellphone in a shop in Upington. Blackberry. In big, bold letters. And there was a Black and Decker saw in the shop next door.  What about the whisky – Black and White? Maybe, he thinks, it’s only in rural areas where ‘black’ is such a bad word. He’s sure that in the huge cities of the world, like Bloemfontein and Kimberley – even Potchefstroom – nobody cares much about anybody using the word black?

Surely not.

It’d be like the enamel pot calling the enamel kettle white.

It just doesn’t ring true.


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