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Black European experience in The Netherlands

Ineke Bockting

Being of Dutch origin, I would like to talk to you about the Black European experience in The Netherlands. More specifically, for this paper, I would like to focus on a book recently published in The Netherlands, the highly acclaimed Sunny Boy by Annejet van der Zijl.
In fact, Sunny Boy is the son born to an unusual couple, consisting of a young student recently arrived from the Dutch West Indies (Suriname), and a married woman with four children, from The Hague. The difference between them could not be bigger, he black and she white, he barely twenty years old and she twice that age.

The book describes, in a moving way, the experiences of this couple, the culture shock they experience as each of them moves down in social status and is forced to give up important family relationships, in addition to the prevailing racism of the 1930s. It is even more astonishing, therefore, that Waldemar and Rika are able, all during the time of the depression, to keep their bed-and-breakfast facility in the sea resort town of Scheveningen, close to The Hague, flourishing.
Finally, it is not their personal difficulties, which are substantial, but the Second World War that brings their life to a halt, as both Rika and Waldemar are arrested for having provided shelter for persecuted Jewish people at their home in Scheveningen, and deported to the camps. Rika finally dies in the concentration camp Ravensbrück and Waldemar, after having survived Neuengamme, where he is strangely “treasured” for his exoticism, is likely to have died in the “Big Shipping Strike,” when the allies bombed the cruise ship Cap Arcona, on which, it was thought, Nazi officials were trying to escape to Norway at the end of the war.

Meanwhile, the little Sunny Boy of the title, or formally Waldy, like his father, is not able to be a major player in the story. Still a child, his fate is to be dragged from here to there, unclassifiable and unwanted, simply to wait and wait, and to finally to never see his parents return.

I have to admit that I am not a specialist in the field, being a professor of American literature with a major interest in the American South. Yet, my interest in this story is two-fold. First of all there is the form, hovering between a historical account and a novel. Indeed, the writer did all the possible research in the various archives in Suriname, Germany and The Netherlands, but as many witnesses of the lives of Rika and her “two Waldies,” as she called them, could not be heard, and Rika and Waldemar themselves took most of their experience with them to the grave, the author decided to complete their stories with the help of fictional elements. As she explains this herself: “because I cannot stop myself from telling a story, I have written what emerged from the memories of those involved and the archives as a story, making myself guilty of plundering, to my heart’s content, the tool box of the fiction writer” (Sunny Boy, 223; translation from the Dutch is mine). In my paper, I will try to evaluate the effect of the mixing of genres—history and fiction—that the book endeavours.

Secondly there is the content, which fits in with one of my research interests: the history of the inter-racial relationship in fiction, that is to say, a diachronic investigation into what aspects of inter-racial relationships could be presented in fiction during different times of history in the United States.

I have presented parts of this work at various conferences and a publication is at the moment considered by The Mississippi Quarterly. The case of Rika and her “two Waldies” allows me, then, to expand the work that I have done on the inter-racial relationship in the United States

Below you find a short description of the project and a short vita

Scholars agree that long-lasting sexual relations between black and white have always existed in the south of the United States. They caused almost no moral or ethical problems, provided they followed certain rules, the first and most important one being that it was always a relation in which the male was white and the female was black. In addition, as the Southern historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown emphasizes, there had to be an obvious disparity of rank and race between the partners, the woman had to be of great beauty in the eyes of whites (the lighter the better), the affair had to seem casual no matter how long it lasted and it had to be conducted with the greatest discretion; that is to say, it could be whispered about between men, but it should never be discussed in mixed company, and its offspring should be meticulously kept out of sight.

Relationships that broke these rules were experienced but they were inexpressible. Lillian Smith, in her autobiography Killers of the Dream, for instance, writes that southern history is “full of profoundly passionate affairs, of relationships tender and rich and absorbing a lifetime . . . delicate, sensitive, deep relationships in which mind and body and fantasy met in complete union,” but they remain unwritten, untold, even unimaginable: a ferocious social and psychological taboo.

My purpose is to study the particular stratification of this taboo, in its evolution over time. But a taboo is in the first place a denial of possibilities, a silence, a repressed and stifled truth, in favor of prescribed, stereotypical cultural requirements, so that one can only study it indirectly, in places where some cracks show in its surface or where it can be circumvented through art. I have chosen therefore, to study diachronically fictional love stories of the South that involve people of different colors, in order to find out what was and wasn’t imaginable at various times in history. I focus, thereby, especially on “the body” (le corps): that of the lovers (color, beauty, love scenes, birth and fate of a child) and that of the text (its silences, the taboo it transgresses, the terror it taps and transforms).

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