Analyse, State of Debate

The mold on our tiles

I was asked to participate in a workshop at Spui 25 today with Nigerian American writer, art historian and photographer Teju Cole. This was my column.

I want to start by thanking Ebbisé Rouw and Johannes Kapteijn for putting Fiep van Bodegom, the producer of today’s event, in contact with me. When talking about black intellectual output in whichever context, be that national, international, cultural, social, artistic, athletic or political, we are rarely reminded of the infrastructure that makes that possible. In that sense Ebissé, Johannes and Fiep are part of an emerging Dutch infrastructure that pushes to make space available for troublemakers like myself.

The shoulders of giants

I say troublemakers because the idea of black intellectual rigor in the Netherlands was up until a few years ago seemingly destined to forever be the domain of the troublemakers. The domain of the black, migrant and refugee women who in 1983 during a feminist conference in Nijmegen stood up and demanded that their knowledge not be summarily dismissed. The domain of Barryl Biekman whose tireless and passionate advocacy for people of African descent has resulted in the national monument for the commemoration of the abolition of slavery and the acknowledgement by the Netherlands of the UN decade of People of African Descent. The domain of professor Philomena Essed whose seminal research in the 1980’s on the racism that middle class Afro Surinamese women in the Netherlands and middle class African American women in the United States of America encounter on a daily basis.

The term she coined for that normalized daily onslaught of racist slights, put downs, ridicule and abuse that seems to be ingrained in US and Dutch culture was ‘everyday racism’. A term which continues to rankle the Dutch intellectual elite from left to right to this very day. That the same Dutch intellectual elite has now been seen to sniff around professor Gloria Wekker’s latest book White Innocence, but not actually sincerely engaging with it, illustrates the gains and losses of what we have to deal with. Wekker’s work has been picked up by the mainstream but is still not viewed on its own terms. She’s been ridiculed and in a mainstream political talk show was reduced from having a solo interview into debating a female junior city council member of Amsterdam with a migrant background about racism.

Freudian slips

The reason why I briefly sketch the situation in which Teju Cole’s reading and lecture is taking place is because it’s necessary for us all to understand the infrastructure that he is being placed in with his work. A noteworthy literary engagement with Cole’s work is the discourse in which he is included within the pages of the Groene Amsterdammer. A weekly magazine which identifies itself as progressive despite having had some of the most islamophobic and hate filled public figures in Dutch journalism having worked there. Cole was first noticed by them in 2012 and has been mentioned positively in various articles since. In 2014 Cole’s then eight month old essay in The Atlantic on James Baldwin was translated and published in the same period as black emancipation in the Netherlands was being denied through municipal regulations and national supreme courts.

Of course there is something to be said of the need to look outside your own shores for understanding what’s going on within the confines of your country, but here Cole’s work was used as a reminder of how much worse others had it. A reminder that the black voices in the Netherlands were being ungrateful. It was also a way to critique the supposed absence of black intellectual thought in the Netherlands that could as eloquently reflect on our situation and place in history as Cole did in that essay. When Black Lives Matter for example rose up from the daily terror black people in the US encounter it was gobbled up by the Dutch intellectual left as a cause that was more worthwhile than what was going on here. For example one of the editors of the Groene Amsterdammer who has a history of producing glowing reviews about foreign black writers, decided this summer to publish an essay in the magazine in which he took offense to how in the Netherlands white men are now being held to account for racism.

It can thus be said that Cole’s work was disparagingly utilized to counter the voices of the troublemakers who are emerging. In the translation of Cole’s essay the magazine also continued the long Dutch tradition of racializing people who benefit from white supremacist systems as ‘blank’, which is defined as without stain, pure and fair.* It’s a Freudian slip that the Amsterdam University Press for instance did not make when translating Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me this year.

Platforms and infrastructure

The embrace of the work by Cole and Coates, because of their distance to our local structures, contrasts the manner in which, before it reaches the masses, the overwhelming majority of black intellectual production in the Netherlands first needs to be parsed through writers who mirror, uphold or are part of the dominant culture. In that regard this event and the lecture later on tonight is also fascinating in how it reproduces and anchors this dynamic. Not only in putting Cole in a position of being the example that black writers and thinkers in the Netherlands can only aspire to but never be in the same league with, but also in denying the possibility of investing in the infrastructure for the creation of writers like Cole.

I for instance am not connected to an institution, a media company or the cultural elite, the grachtengordel as we Dutch like to call them, and thus cannot actually afford to do what I’m doing right now. Presenting a lecture without being paid for it undermines exactly what for me today is supposed to be about; the nurturing and valuing of the fruits of black intellectual rigor and labor. By inviting me to present without financial compensation my contribution to the discourse is in the same breath centered and marginalized. Coincidentally more and more reporters have been asking to casually grab a cup of coffee with me based on my writing and tweets. I’ve started rejecting offers like this and hope others follow. If we’re not good enough to hire as editors, journalists or writers we should not be giving out free intellectual labor that others use to fill pages and cash paychecks.

Cole’s lecture tonight is also destructive in that it platforms a writer who has turned into one of the most disparaging voices when it comes to black emancipation and what professor Wekker has dubbed the second anti-racism wave in the Netherlands. With his weekly column Stephan Sanders has over the last few years been given the infrastructure and money to take a figurative sledgehammer to the incremental gains that have been made. Intellectual dishonesty and mischaracterizations have been rampant in his work of late and yet he is the one who will host and interview Cole tonight. Sanders’ hostility towards home grown black intellectuals will undoubtedly not be present as he engages Cole and through proximity advances his cultural capital. But were Cole based in the Netherlands you could ask yourself if Sanders would have been bothered to answer the email through which he was invited to be the interviewer.

Sincere engagement

When I look at Cole’s work I too need to look at it through its own merits and not for how I can utilize it to criticize the intellectual wasteland that I sometimes imagine the Netherlands to be when I pick up a magazine or a newspaper or turn on the television or the radio. To truly work through the themes of his work we need to engage it sincerely and honestly. That means devoid of the ethically counter-intuitive production and organizational faux pas that in my view have marred his current presentation to the Dutch public. He and we deserve better than this.


* This definition is something that has been a topic of conversation among me and my friends among whom Charl Landvreugd. Landvreugd is een PhD candidate Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in London who has been doing extensive research on it. More about him can be found on his website and can be heard in an interview he recently gave to the magazine Mister Motley

Foto: Dan Gold via Unsplash