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Mitchell Esajas, Jessica de Abreu, and the public recognition of the Dutch role in slavery

By Freek Colombijn, Marina de Regt and Marjo de Theije – In the run-up to Keti Koti, the annual commemoration of the formal abolishment of slavery in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles on 1 July 1863, the discussion about the Dutch state, Dutch municipalities or other Dutch institutions making apologies returns like the arrival of summer visitors. However, we should not consider the discussion as merely a recurrent ritual. Significant steps have been taken, leading to public recognition of the role of Dutch institutions in the transatlantic slave trade and the various ways in which descendants of enslaved people can feel the consequences up to today. In this blog, we want to honour two advocates of public recognition of the legacy of slavery and graduates of our VU social and cultural anthropology program: Mitchell Esajas and Jessica de Abreu.

Mitchell and Jessica questioned the reading lists used in our teaching programmes years before the need to decolonize the curriculum was widely recognized. Displeased with the limited literature on slavery and its aftermath and denouncing the exclusion of the scholarly work of Black authors in courses, they started the student movement New Urban Collective in 2011. Some years later, the movement founded The Black Archives, which it manages in the Hugo Olijfveldhuis building of Vereniging Ons Suriname (VOS) in Amsterdam-Oost since 2016. The Black Archives is a documentation centre of the history of black emancipation movements and individuals in the Netherlands, consisting of donations and important collections. They also organized art projects, public manifestations and expositions in the Hugo Olijfveldhuis and elsewhere.

Mitchell and Jessica campaign for public recognition with unremitting zeal. Discussing racism in the classroom could lead to uncomfortable situations, but these so-called ‘hot moments’ taught students of their own biases. For instance, Mitchell would show a picture of his school class during guest lectures at the Vrije Universiteit. “What is striking in this picture?” was his opening question, but few students dared to say it was a class of white kids with only one black boy.

The more their work became known in society, the more it attracted both appreciation and opprobrium. The murals on the façade of the Hugo Olijfveldhuis, with portraits of Surinamese activists, were daubed with white paint in 2020. It is possible, though, that attacks were less directed at the documentation centre as such, as against Mitchell because of his role in the Kick Out Zwarte Piet, Black Lives Matter and other antiracist protest movements. Mitchell, more than Jessica, is often cited in the media as an anthropologist and expert on Dutch slavery and has become the figurehead of the movement and a celebrity.

Mitchell and Jessica have repeatedly received public recognition for their work. The Black Archives, for instance, won the Amsterdam Award for Art in 2018. And a few months ago, on King’s Day, Mitchell was knighted in the “Orde van Oranje-Nassau” because of his fight against racism and efforts to promote a diverse and inclusive society. In interviews, Mitchell expressed joy for this important recognition of his work but also his mixed feelings as the Dutch royal family was clearly involved in the slave trade but until now has not yet apologized for it.

Mitchell’s decoration, however, triggered a fierce reaction from people who considered him a nuisance and troublemaker. Three people who received one on previous occasions, returned their decorations to the king, a form of protest that never happened before in the Netherlands. Others voiced their critique on social media in the bluntest racism imaginable. “The fact that such a subversive person is knighted is unacceptable and an insult to all who were decorated before”, one person who had been decorated before wrote in a letter to the editor, and added that “Esajas wants to destroy Dutch culture” (NRC, 5 May 2023). Such reactions demonstrate the ongoing need for the work of the anti-slavery movement and The Black Archives in particular.

Mitchell and Jessica are effective and influential antiracist social change makers. They have shown enormous stamina and courage to withstand the constant pressure. This year’s Keti Koti, they lead the protest march “No healing without reparation.” We are proud that they are alumni of our department.

Freek Colombijn, Marina de Regt and Marjo de Theije are members of the Management Team of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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