‘Headwinds will arise. But our steps are irreversible’

It gets very quiet in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark when Winti priestess Marian Markelo performs her traditional ceremony. “Ancestors, I bring you a libation and ask you to make the Netherlands aware of its history,” she says. “Because many Dutch people still cannot accept it.”

The park is packed on Monday afternoon, during the annual commemoration of the history of slavery. The public enjoys the newly shining sun, eats snacks brought from home and can meanwhile follow the libation on two large screens. Markelo receives thunderous applause when he stresses that no one in the Netherlands should be excluded. “We all have the right to be here.”

About the Author
Marjolein van de Water is a reporter for of Volkskrant and writes about asylum, migration, religion and multicultural society. Previously he was a correspondent in Latin America.

Behind the security barriers, next to the slave memorial, is an unusually large government delegation of ten outgoing ministers and state secretaries. It is their last working day before the new cabinet takes office tomorrow. Mark Rutte is sitting next to Linda Nooitmeer, president of the National Institute for the History and Legacy of Dutch Slavery (Ninsee).

“The lead-up to this commemoration was unsettling and uncomfortable, to say the least,” Nooitmeer said in her speech. She calls it “very unfortunate” that “for the first time in 22 years, the House of Representatives is not represented at the national commemoration.” Without mentioning his name, Nooitmeer refers to Martin Bosma, who was not welcomed as Speaker of the House because of his controversial statements on the history of slavery.

Most of those present are happy with Bosma’s absence and prefer not to waste words on the PVV politician. The radical right-wing wind blowing across the country is felt mainly here in the Oosterpark as a headwind. The speeches are surprisingly fierce and receive a lot of support from the audience.

“The pain has been passed down from generation to generation,” said Amsterdam’s mayor Femke Halsema in her speech. ‘Because the history of slavery was kept silent for too long. Because old wounds are infected with theories of depopulation, white superiority thinking and xenophobia. Because burned skin does not heal if it is repeatedly torn with the iron of contemporary racism.’

In his speech, outgoing Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (Education) explains how much he has learned in recent years from conversations he had with descendants of slaves. ‘I thought I knew it in broad strokes,’ he says. ‘But I had to learn how one-sided my knowledge was, how narrow my bubble was. How deep-rooted and widespread racism and discrimination are in the present.’

‘Irreversible’

“It’s very, very important that he says this,” says Sophia Franklin (57), one of the spectators in the Oosterpark, whispering words of approval during Dijkgraaf’s speech. “It’s very relatable; many white intellectuals think they know how it works,” says Franklin. “It’s very nice that Dijkgraaf honestly explains how he went through this mental process. That might make other white people think too.”

“The road ahead is long and winding,” Dijkgraaf continues. “There will be headwinds. But our steps are irreversible, just as the excuses are irreversible.” The crowd applauds. Everyone knows that Dijkgraaf says this because the PVV is calling for the apology to be revoked.

As every year, Franklin attended the commemoration with her good friend Nancy Macnack (58). The two of them saw how the Oosterpark became more crowded over the years and the audience became increasingly white. On the one hand, they consider this a good development. “The commemoration is gaining more and more support in the Netherlands,” says Franklin. “But because of all the security measures, the real victims are increasingly far away.”

Commemoration of slavery on Monday in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark.Image Joris van Gennip for the Volkskrant

The Ketikoti festival, the celebration of freedom that always follows the commemoration, has since moved from Oosterpark to the larger Museumplein since last year. According to friends, this also has its good and bad sides. “Before, you could stay here after the commemoration of the festival,” says Macnack. ‘But it is also good that the black community has a space on the normally white Museumplein. And so the festival reaches a much larger audience.’

Southeast

The two are not the only ones who recall the intimacy of the past with a certain nostalgia. Roshnie Phoelsingh (45) organised an alternative Ketikoti festival this year in Nelson Mandela Park in the Zuidoost district (better known as Bijlmer). “The cradle of apologies for the history of slavery is in the south-east, residents have been fighting this battle for at least thirty years,” said Phoelsingh. “A smaller-scale meeting in the neighbourhood itself was necessary.”

In addition to the festival, Phoelsingh also organised a festive parade for Zuidoost residents to the Oosterpark. Before the commemoration, participants, including Brazilians and Dominicans, walked in a colourful procession through the city. “I want to show the diversity of the south-east,” says Phoelsingh. She is not concerned with politics. “The Netherlands is a democracy, we have to respect the results of the elections.”

Franklin and Macnack believe it is important to keep talking, even with Dutch people who have very different views. “A good conversation sometimes works wonders,” Macnack knows from personal experience. Linda Nooitmeer from Ninsee also calls on those present to keep seeing “the person behind the opinion.” “We must find each other in the swamp of contradictions, suspicion and mistrust.”

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