Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary: An Interview with Shantrelle P. Lewis

Shantrelle Lewis from the waist up. She is in front of a wall. She is looking directly at the camera, wearing a dress that comes up to her neck. She has short black hair.
Shantrelle P. Lews (photo credit: Jati Lindsay)

Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is “the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet, a Dutch folklore character associated with the celebration of Sinterklaas. According to folklore, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands via steamship every November, rides into town on his horse, and is assisted by his helper Zwarte Piet, which literally translates to “Black Peter.””

Every winter in the Netherlands, it is common to find people,both black and white, the latter often in blackface, dressing up at Zwarte Piet. There are plenty of critics of this practice (this piece at Space Invaders explain the very complicated racist underpinnings of this image) as well as supporters.

Shantrelle P. Lewis, an independent curator and researcher, wants to make a documentary about this phenomenon. She currently has a Kickstarter, which is raising funds to make this film happen.

As the Kickstarter page explains, “Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary explores both sides of the tradition – and everything in between. Who seeks to change the tradition? Who seeks to maintain it? And why? The film features interviews of Dutch citizens, historians, scholars, activists, artists, and members of the general community. The film also explores the representation of Black people and the Black body in Dutch popular culture and how these images affect the lives of people of African descent on a day-to-day basis.”

Here is our interview with Shantrelle P. Lewis, producer and director of the forthcoming Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary.

1. Why have you decided to focus on this particular topic, Black Pete? Do you have a personal connection to it or to the Netherlands?

Contrary to popular belief, Zwarte Piet is actually very secondary to my interests in the Netherlands. My research is primarily focused on examining the history, culture, politics and spirituality of people of African descent in the Dutch Caribbean Diaspora.

A black man in a black hoodie reading "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" is smiling at the camera.
Kno’Ledge Cesar, Zwarte Piet is Racisme Movement

I traveled to Amsterdam for the first time in 2011 to participate in a residency at Open Ateliers Zuidoost. While there, I was introduced to the Dutch Caribbean by way of Amsterdam’s residents from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. I fell in love immediately! I was enamored with the diverse and rich history of the Dutch Caribbean. I sought to learn more.

Then in 2012, I received an Andy Warhol Curatorial Fellowship to return to the Netherlands to continue my research for an exhibition that I’m curating for the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) in 2015. I’m also preparing to travel to Suriname, Curacao and Aruba to complete the second part of that fellowship next month.

Zwarte Piet was something that I encountered while in the Netherlands. It happened to be at a time where there was a growing wave of public activism against Zwarte Piet, namely the Zwarte Piet is Racisme movement. I thought that it would be interesting to document the history of the tradition and the sentiment growing to abolish if not change the tradition. I also thought it would be interesting to interview people whose lives are both positively and negatively affected by Zwarte Piet.

Personally, this topic impacts me because it affects many people that I have close relationships with in the Netherlands. Also, I’m a Black woman who is at this point, deeply connected to the Netherlands. So although I’m African American, I’m not affected any less by the Zwarte Piet tradition when I encounter its celebration and symbolism.

Beyond that, I believe that Zwarte Piet is symbolic of a broader reality of institutionalized racism. The (mis)representation of Black people and the black body in the Netherlands can be found throughout popular culture, its highest institutions and what scholar Philomena Essed calls “Everyday Racism.”

2. How are you imagining or planning on telling the story of Black Pete? Personal interviews with people in the Netherlands? The role of the Dutch history in the slave trade?

Despite what’s been said by some critics and other individuals with valid concerns, this documentary is not the product of what I believe or don’t believe about what should be done about the tradition of Zwarte Piet. As a non-Dutch citizen, I don’t know that it’s my place to do so, even though I have personal feelings about how the tradition is celebrated.

This film will serve as a documentation and exploration of how people in the Netherlands feel about the tradition, on both sides of the argument. Furthermore, it’s an exploration into large issues of race and racism in the Netherlands and Europe.

Of course, the role of Holland’s involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism must be taken into account. As well, the history of the Dutch Caribbean and the recent migrations of people of African descent and other immigrants into the Netherlands, must be illustrated to provide further context.

Most importantly, one cannot address an issue as nuanced and complex as Zwarte Piet without providing further connections and parallels. Through the film, we also intend to look at the tradition of blackface, not solely as a Dutch problem but as a global issue of concern.

Just recently, there have been several incidents of people donning blackface, including New York State Assembly men, Dov Hokind’s blackface costume as well as the wearing of blackface by a 16-year old white European model who posed for an editorial spread entitled “African Queen.”

It’s the 21st Century. When will people come to realize that blackface, particularly in this context, just isn’t cool?

To be clear, I’m also aware that blackface happens in my own backyard – in through tradition of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. It’s something that my great-aunt Ora Mae Lewis actually wrote about back in 1940. I’m also researching this tradition and examining its history and whether or not it serves the same purpose that it did when it originated, today.

3. Where all will you be filming? Only in the Netherlands?

We’re planning to film primarily in the Netherlands, in major cities as well as in smaller towns. Additionally, if we are able to raise surplus funds via Kickstarter (we’re shooting between $40,000 and $60,000 specifically to cover the costs of travel and filming interviews), we will definitely travel to other places in Europe where there are similar traditions.

Also, we’re going to travel to Curacao, where there is a larger population of people of African descent who also celebrate Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.

There are also scholars, historians and Dutch citizens who live in various cities in the States that we intend to film interview.

4. Can you tell us a little about the Kickstarter? Why you are raising money? How long do you all have to reach your goal?

Screen shot from the Kickstarter campaign video: Two white women in black face behind the title of the film.
Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary

We launched the campaign on Kickstarter to provide us with the seed money needed to go back to the Netherlands and shoot during Keti Koti, a festival that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African people in Dutch territories.

Also, it will provide us with the money needed to shoot during the annual Sinterklaas celebration during the end of the year.

March 12th is the deadline.

We actually reached our minimum goal in an incredibly short amount of time! However, while $20,000 is the minimum we asked for, we need much more than that to produce the film in full. Based on what more experienced, award-winning filmmakers such as Byron Hurt has shared with me, the minimum amount that we need to make the film from pre-production to post-production is in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $500,000. We’ve already begun applying for grants.

So, Kickstarter will get us going but we need a lot more to make the entire project a success from beginning to end. We’re hoping to double if not triple that amount by the March 12th deadline. So we encourage anyone reading this to donate to the campaign if it compels them but most importantly, please help us get the word out by posting on social media. Every time someone shares the post, we notice that donations roll in.

Our motto this entire campaign has been “Teamwork makes the Dream work.” More than ever before, we now know that to be true.

5. What is it about film that appeals to you? (versus, say, writing a book)

Since I’m a curator by trade, film isn’t necessarily the first medium that I’d turn to when interested in exploring a new topic. However, the story of Zwarte Piet is very nuanced and complex. It isn’t something that I wanted to approach from my usual platform.

Additionally, the primary purpose of this film is to educate people around the world who have largely been unaware about the history and contemporary realities of this tradition. If it can be used as a vehicle of change, even better. But my primary purpose is to teach, not preach. That’s the form of activism that appeals most to me. It’s the most powerful method of invoking change because it allows people the space to act from a place of their own agency in making decisions about how to shift their own thoughts and behaviors.

6. Since Flyover Feminism is about making connections, can you speak a little the most effective forms of communication you’ve found in your activism? How do you locate other activists and allies?

That’s an interesting concept and question.

I feel as if I both find and create community wherever I land. It seems as if by synchronicity we find each other. I can only credit the cosmos because I’m not sure that I go above and beyond to connect with like-minded people. I’m such a workaholic that it’s very challenging for me to even attend the kind of events and programs that I enjoy that would even place me in an environment to network with potential colleagues and comrades.

I will say that the vast majority of my professional allies are people who I actually have to engage with in some level during my work.

Also, I live by the adage “steel sharpens steel and light attracts light.” I feel like the universe places the proper people in my path at the perfect moments.

Since my community is so international at this point, I’d say that I definitely use social media and skype to remain in contact. One of my Dutch BFFs, who happens to be a Dutch Caribbean cultural critic based in the Netherlands, and I communicate almost daily via “the internets.” I have many other colleagues and friends that I gchat and skype with pretty regularly. I’ve also been connected to people via facebook (although I have to admit, I rarely “befriend” strangers on facebook). I met two sisters in person that I connected with via facebook who are based in Stockholm when I traveled there last Fall to participate in Fahamu Pecou’s project. I also connected with two women and a brother in the U.K. via facebook who are now really good friends. I’ve actually stayed at their houses when I visited. So social media can definitely be utilized as a tool to bridge communities and connecting with other Warriors of the Light.

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One Response to “Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary: An Interview with Shantrelle P. Lewis”

  1. Zwarte Piet, Black Pete - The Documentary - C L O S E R — C L O S E R

    […] Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary: An Interview with Shantrelle P. Lewis | Flyover Feminism Zwarte Piet was something that I encountered while in the Netherlands. It happened to be at a time where there was a growing wave of public activism against Zwarte Piet, namely the Zwarte Piet is Racisme movement. I thought that it would be interesting to document the history of the tradition and the sentiment growing to abolish if not change the tradition. I also thought it would be interesting to interview people whose lives are both positively and negatively affected by Zwarte Piet. […]


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