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Immersing myself in the Netherlands’ Black* radical traditions as a BESS student

Now in its 14th year, the Black Europe Summer School (BESS) is something that has always been on my radar. Since studying for my PhD, I knew that one day I would participate. Nearly 3 years after finishing said PhD, I finally had the chance to attend! (Side-note: I am a firm believer that everything happens in perfect timing & when it is meant to). Oh yes, & before attending, I went through a straightforward & useful application process which allowed me to showcase my interest in the field of Black European Studies, what I hoped to gain from the experience & to illustrate the relevance of my research to BESS’s theme of ‘Interrogating Citizenship, Race and Ethnic Relations’.


Reading through the course content in the programme which we was sent beforehand, I was really impressed. I found myself fangirling over BESS faculty such as Dr Stephen Small & Dr Philomena Essed- whose work had informed some of mine. I also looked forward to spending 2 weeks- a nice amount of time- to take it all in, as well as connecting with the other scholars & faculty members. Having been to Amsterdam previously, I was intrigued to see it through a Black lens & to be introduced to its historical & significant Black presence & communities. While this has always been there, perhaps due to it being lost in translation &/or the American or English/British-centric Blackness that dominates Europe (which I am most familiar with- maybe French if I am pushing it), I had never really associated “Blackness” with “Amsterdam”.


To be honest, I think that what I love most about my job is the time, resources & expectation to continuously be open to & engage in learning. In that vein, I am grateful for the existence of spaces like BESS. My role as a scholar-activist a.k.a. academic a.k.a. researcher a.k.a. educator a.k.a. intellectual a.k.a. consultant (whatever you wish to call me) is to overstand connections & differences within & across communities, disciplines, boundaries, spaces & places to provide richly informed & balanced perspectives. It’s part of my professional development if you will, to ensure that I have both broad & specialised knowledge, & to be able to overstand how & where my work fits- or doesn’t. BESS facilitated the beginnings of a Dutch dimension to my learning & expertise.


Over the course of the 2 intensive weeks, I was treated to a combination of in-class & online lectures, scattered in between were excursions & experiences that were all led by knowledgeable & passionate experts, who had contributed so much to their fields & Black Europe. There were many standout classes like: ‘Theorising Black Europe’, ‘A Euro History of Race/Racisms’, ‘Black dance and performance’ & ‘‘Race’, sex work and anti-trafficking’- particularly fitting considering we were in Amsterdam- the sex city of the world! BESS may want to consider having a class about the racialised side of drugs, particularly Cannabis- just a thought. Also, as there were a lot of classes & it was INTENSE, we had been sent a long reading list beforehand to support our understanding & I may or may not have printed them ALL out to read!


Some of the BESS students out & about in Amsterdam

BESS students also had two chances to present work at the ‘Inside Black Europe and African Diaspora’ Symposium or the ‘Black Health Matters’ Round table. I really appreciated these opportunities to learn about the important work taking place, as well as the lived experiences & the challenges faced & fought against by Black communities in (but not limited to) Spain, Luxembourg, Italy, America & Poland etc. in the symposium. I personally enjoyed contributing to the symposium with a presentation titled: ‘Mapping out all the Black In the Union Jack: Being a Black Woman Scholar-activist in Modern Britain’. Though the title is self-explanatory, to give a little context, I used my talk to weave in my PhD research about the educational journeys & experiences of Black British women graduates, alongside my emerging research about the contributions of enslaved Africans in Jamaica to a castle in North Wales. I used these research examples to critique notions of Britishness & to build upon Professor Gilroy’s book ‘There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation’ to argue that without Black people, there simply would be no ‘Great’ Britain. I am happy to report that it was received well. The roundtable did not disappoint either as I learnt about how Black women in the Netherlands are failed by health services &, the importance of centring Black British women within sexual & reproductive health services. As a Black woman, I shook my head many times & recited silent prayers in advance for when I will have to visit the doctors or have my future babies! It brought home the fact that nowhere in the world are Black girls or women safe or protected. It’s a shame!


The title page of April-Louise's presentation in the 'Inside Black Europe and African Diaspora' Symposium

I was particularly moved by the annual Keti Koti (which translates to ‘Broken chains’) celebration which marks the end of slavery in the Dutch colonies on 1 July 1863. However, though slavery was legally abolished, it took 10 more years for the enslaved people to be free in 1873, so that is actually the year that many of the descendants of the enslaved people choose to acknowledge & celebrate. I guess this is similar to the Juneteenth celebrations in America or Emancipation day which marked the end of slavery in the British Empire. We got to truly immerse ourselves in Keti Koti & as part of the celebrations, we joined the lively march which comprised of live bands, traditional dress, singing & dancing as we made our way to Oosterpark where we sat through a memorial service by the slavery monument. The ceremony was attended by government officials alongside the descendants of the enslaved & whoever else wished to pay their respects. Though the service was in Dutch, the sentiments did not need any translation & tears slowly fell from my eyes as I connected deeply watching the libation which opened the ceremony, the speeches from officials including the mayor of Amsterdam who apologised, the music & the laying of the wreaths in remembrance of all the enslaved & indigenous people that had been brutalised & murdered for hundreds of years. This year the President of the Netherlands Bank also made a special announcement in his speech. Looking back, I think the fact that I had NEVER seen the transatlantic slavery acknowledged, honoured & remembered in such a beautifully dignified way as it was at Keti Koti is what brought me to tears. While so much more needs to be done from ALL governments *ahem* REPARATIONS *ahem*, this was a truly profound experience which I had no idea even existed before participating in BESS & which I was honoured to be able to witness. I don’t think I will ever forget it.


A short video clip of the preceding march during the Keti Koti celebrations to Oosterpark


April-Louise standing with a man holding broken chains to symbolise the Keti Koti celebrations

In my spare time, I loved visiting the Tropenmuseum obtaining tickets courtesy of BESS. They had an excellent exhibition called ‘Healing power’. The museum also has an awesome children’s exhibition called ‘Sabi Surinam’ teaching the youth the truth, exploring Suriname’s ‘bond’ with the Netherlands & how it connects with the world. I also loved (& won’t forget!) indulging in different Surinamese cuisines, shopping at the African market in Bijlmer & taking in all the visual art at CBK Zuidoost . (Side-note, the ease & affordability of the public transport is fantastic & this meant that I was freely jumping on & off the tram or metro as I explored the city).


April-Louise exploring Amsterdam

Another truly wonderful experience was going on the Black Heritage tour which was created & led by the formidable Jennifer Tosch. This tour wonderfully incorporated a boat ride which was a great touch. As we rode on Amsterdam’s famous canals, Jennifer shared, pointed out & ultimately centred the immense contributions & history of enslaved Africans in the Dutch colonies which is still deeply ingrained, albeit hidden in plain sight, within Amsterdam’s infrastructure. This really connected with me as I will be embarking on a similar journey as I explore the enslaved Africans in Jamaica who built Penrhyn castle in North Wales as part of my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship. I was really inspired & empowered by Jennifer who had dedicated the last 10 years to chipping away at the history *ahem* LIES *ahem* to reveal & curate a more balanced & inclusive historical narrative. The UK has a lot to learn in this regard & Amsterdam is a great place to start & use as a template.


April-Louise on the Black Heritage tour

After Jennifer’s tour, we visited The Black Archives where we were given another tour, but this time, by independent researcher, activist & archivist Mitchell Esajas. We were also able to hear about the fortuitous way the Black Archives came to be & got to see, touch & read some items from the archive, as well as taking in the new ‘Facing Blackness’ exhibition. What was also good was that Mitchell gave us another lecture the next day about Black anti-racist movements in the Netherlands. This worked well as we had the context to back it up from our tour of the Black Archives which he continued to build on in his talk. I was reminded of anti-racist movements like the ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ campaign which is big in the Netherlands & gaining momentum around the world. However, I couldn’t help feeling upset that the necessary support & solidarity that this campaign should have, outside of the Netherlands, is not there which I feel is due to the American/British-centric Blackness that dominates Europe. It motivated me to personally be more active & up-to-date so I can support the fight against anti-Black racism beyond the US & Britain. This once again illustrated just how global anti-Blackness truly is.


BESS students at the Black Archives listening to Mitchell

Overall, I found being a BESS student rewarding. I made beautiful connections. I was deeply touched, inspired & challenged in my thinking & practice. I had to adapt. I had to listen (sometimes through gritted teeth) to other perspectives. I had to de-center American & British Blackness to open up my mind to other equally important manifestations. As a passionate educator of the beauty & the diversity within Blackness, BESS taught me by re-introducing me to some of that diversity across Europe that I must now incorporate within my future work. I am grateful.


BESS students at the Black Archives

Lastly, my experience at BESS (& the UWI/UL International summer school) also made me ponder upon the following questions:


  • What is a Black (intellectual) space?


  • What is the main function of a Black (intellectual) space?


  • Will Black (intellectual) spaces be needed if anti-Black racism (& its intersections), violence & injustice no longer exist?


  • Who are Black (intellectual) spaces for?


  • Can we engage in Black (intellectual) work & have spaces without an ethics of care & if not, what would an ethics of care look like?


I am aware that I am merely echoing what has previously been explored by the likes of Katherine McKittrick (2011) & many more.

Twitter screenshot of Professor Katherine McKittrick critiquing Black spaces

While I still don’t have the answers to my questions, hopefully, with time & more learning, I will be able to articulate, & perhaps find or co-create said Black (intellectual) space.



*In a similar way to Howell et al (2020:20), in this blogpost (& my work as a whole), I choose “to capitalise Black because [I] refer to Black as a race of people who are connected by a shared history and culture. Through capitalising Black, [I am] taking a political stance against an ever-shifting category of domination and [I] aim to decenter whiteness.”