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Nonfiction

Jaguar Man

By Raoul de Jong
Translated from Dutch by Jake Goldwasser
In this excerpt from the memoir Jaguarman, Dutch writer Raoul de Jong explores the colonization of Suriname, the immigrant experience in the Netherlands, racism, and the lionization of major Black American figures such as James Baldwin and Malcolm X at the expense of Surinamese-Dutch thinkers like Astrid Roemer and Edgard Cairo.
Black-and-white image of a Surinamese party in the Netherlands
Rob Mieremet / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Jaguar Man,

The Spanish were the first strange men to appear on your jaguar coast, in search of the mythical golden city, El Dorado. It was on April 23, 1594, that one of them hammered a cross into the ground and declared: “In the name of God I claim this land for His Majesty Don Felipe, our lawful overlord!” Those strange visitors would never find El Dorado. But they also wouldn’t leave your country in peace.

After the Spanish came the English, then the French, more English, the Dutch, and finally the English again, until 1674, when they traded Suriname to the Dutch for a city in North America called New Amsterdam.

Your magical, unspoiled kingdom was burned, bulldozed, parceled into squares and rectangles—plantations with names like “Utrecht,” “Marseille,” and “Berlin”—and from then on was known by a new name: the Colony of Suriname. The original inhabitants were driven deep into the rainforest, and hundreds of thousands of African mothers, fathers, grandparents and children were shipped across the ocean, against their will, to plant coffee, cacao, cotton, and sugar.

***

When Suriname became independent in 1975, my father was twenty-one. For three hundred years, the Netherlands had been the center of Suriname’s world. Money earned in Suriname was spent in the Netherlands, which had the universities, the good jobs: opportunity. Surinamers had Dutch citizenship until independence, at which point a five-year grace period of lenient entry requirements went into effect. Between 1975 and 1980, around 300,000 Surinamese—nearly half of the population—seized the opportunity and left for the Netherlands. Among them was my father.

Edgar Cairo, a  Black literary hero I had never read before I started my search for you, Jaguar Man, described, in his idiosyncratic, Sranantongo-inflected Dutch, what arriving in the Netherlands must have been like for my father and other Black people like him:

Couldn’t even use the sole of his foot at Schiphol to test the temperature of Holland’s frozen soil. Let alone take some big windmill footsteps [into the country]! Didn’t have a single wooden! clog!! It was gold, real gold from Sipaliwini, or the gold of a medical degree, that could get you into Holland without too much trouble. They needed brains, money and brains.

Once in the Netherlands, Surinamers were housed like refugees in new-arrival centers. A “dispersal policy” prevented them from living anywhere they wanted. In Amsterdam they settled in De Bijlmer; in Rotterdam, it was the Zuid district, or around the corner from where I was born, on West-Kruiskade Street. A newspaper article I found from 1976 gives a sense of how immigrants like my father were received in their new home:

Councilor Elisabeth Schmitz of Social Affairs points out that in the Kruiskade neighborhood, the “Blackest” neighborhood in Rotterdam, a situation has arisen very similar to that of some parts of London or New York: slums, junkies, and criminals. “When I started as a councilperson in September 1974, I had heard of Surinamese people, of course. But that was it. The following year twelve thousand came to Rotterdam. Between four and five hundred a week.”

People talked about my father the way that Dutch newspapers now talk about Syrians and Moroccans. On August 25th, 1975, Het Vrije Volk reported:

When a few young Surinamers got on the tram this week, the driver grabbed the microphone and announced: “Be careful, pickpockets boarding.” For months now, the Kruiskade (“Cross Quay”) has been nicknamed Kroeskade (“Frizzy Quay”).

When a Surinamese mother with five children had company over on Slaghek Street, a mob loomed, made up of people who were positive that at least thirty other Surinamese lived in the building in question.

When a Surinamese man—again on Kruiskade—refused to pay a parking ticket, he and some friends were brutally beaten.

And when a Surinamese person ordered a beer in a Rotterdam eating establishment, his patience was tested. Just a minute, man, I’m busy.

I also found, in an old issue of Panorama from around this time, a photo feature of dark-skinned boys in the Kruiskade, boys just like the boy my father would have been. They wore tight pants and muscle shirts, sunglasses, hats, gold chains, unbuttoned shirts with flowers on them, short leather jackets. If you know history, you will see that they are using one of the foolproof magic spells that helped our forefathers survive history: even with a knife at their throats, they were kings. But maybe the most important magic word was missing from that spell. Not one of the boys was laughing. They looked angrily, menacingly into the camera. Did the photographer ask them to? Looking at the photo now, I see, in the eyes of the only boy without sunglasses, exhaustion, fragility, and sadness: an invitation to regard him as a human being, to see that the way these kids acted was not indicative of who they really were.

This was the part my father was cast to play in the Netherlands. Every time someone looked at him on the tram, from behind a counter, or on the street, their gaze said: you shouldn’t be here. In another world, in another country, in another time, he could have become a writer, a professor, a priest, a magician, an adventurer. But in this world, in this country, at this time, the role for him to play was the criminal, the threat, the riffraff, the crook, a middle finger to the Dutch people, what would be called in Sranantango a wakaman: a vagrant. He did what we had always done to survive: he became what the story wanted him to be, he accepted the part. And he hid his magic within.

***

At the same time, there were also Surinamese people who didn’t bend under the weight, who raised their voices to tell the real story, with all the richness, depth, and power that it held, who wrote about where we came from, what we had survived to be here, and what the world could learn from our story. There were not a few of these people; there were many. Writers like Edgar Cairo, Anil Ramdas, Ellen Ombre, Henna Goudzand. And of course Astrid Roemer:

My child, there is a history that will never be written, because people say some of its facts are too disheartening to the nation. Our nation is just emerging; it is too young to let these parts go missing from its annals. A hundred thousand testimonials from people who perished in battle.
The fight for their country. The fight for their people, the fight for their faith, the fight for their party, the fight for their family, the fight for their self-preservation. So, I ask you: don’t be afraid to read carefully what is etched on the crosses that adorn our cemeteries. Remember the names and dates and try to understand the epitaphs. Then erect in your heart a memorial to these heroes.

In high school their names were never mentioned. If the subject was slavery, it was the United States we were talking about. We learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali; we watched The Color Purple, read James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. North American history was full of Black writers, thinkers, heroes. People who were known all over the world, because everyone understood there was something to be learned from them. If my father had been American, I could have felt like a part of all that, even if he himself wasn’t a hero. But when I thought about Suriname, I didn’t get any further than Dési Bouterse and salted-meat sandwiches. I knew about as much about Suriname as a typical Dutch person: almost nothing. And nothing that could make me proud to be half-Surinamese. I didn’t know I could walk in the footsteps of heroes. I only began to understand it when I went looking for exactly the thing my father told me to ignore.

“You dove straight into academic life when you arrived in Amsterdam at nineteen,” Anil Ramdas wrote, addressing himself, in his 2006 “Letter to a Younger Me”:

You went on to graduate with honors—didn’t you—and do you remember why? When you received your Kandidaatsdiploma, the professor opened the dossier and said: “In less than three years, hm. Congratulations.” Later you heard from a teacher friend that the professor saw your name on the folder before you arrived and said: “Surinamese? Will probably amount to nothing.” For me that was it; this was no longer just about me, it was about all Surinamers, it was about the dignity of our homeland, and you sat for an exam one more time because you had only received seven out of ten the first time.

When I do come across the works of Anil, Astrid, or Edgar in passing, they have been on their own shelf. They are rarely listed under “Dutch literature.” It is as if their books are about something less than being human, or, as Astrid Roemer put it, “the right of every person to be allowed to exist.”

Leo Ferrier fell into a deep depression. Edgar Cairo developed psychosis. Anil Ramdas died by suicide. Astrid Roemer disappeared without a trace for years, and my friend Iwan Brave moved back to Paramaribo. I don’t think that’s just because of the Dutch. It’s true that the Dutch public failed to listen, but at the same time, Surinamers urged each other to keep quiet. Ellen Ombre’s story “With the Best Intentions” explores this silence. The protagonists’ parents tell the young girl:

“We are going to the Netherlands for your education. But don’t forget: education is not civilization. Civilization means that you know how to act right, so you can blend in with your environment anytime, anywhere.” It was about adapting constantly and being as inconspicuous as possible.

It was dangerous to use your voice. The tactic was to keep quiet, to leave the past where it was. Underground, buried, and cursed, where no one could find it, so deep that we forgot that the past is also where our light was.

 

Excerpt taken from Jaguarman, © 2020 by Raoul de Jong. Translation © 2024 by Jake Goldwasser. All rights reserved.

English Dutch (Original)

Dear Jaguar Man,

The Spanish were the first strange men to appear on your jaguar coast, in search of the mythical golden city, El Dorado. It was on April 23, 1594, that one of them hammered a cross into the ground and declared: “In the name of God I claim this land for His Majesty Don Felipe, our lawful overlord!” Those strange visitors would never find El Dorado. But they also wouldn’t leave your country in peace.

After the Spanish came the English, then the French, more English, the Dutch, and finally the English again, until 1674, when they traded Suriname to the Dutch for a city in North America called New Amsterdam.

Your magical, unspoiled kingdom was burned, bulldozed, parceled into squares and rectangles—plantations with names like “Utrecht,” “Marseille,” and “Berlin”—and from then on was known by a new name: the Colony of Suriname. The original inhabitants were driven deep into the rainforest, and hundreds of thousands of African mothers, fathers, grandparents and children were shipped across the ocean, against their will, to plant coffee, cacao, cotton, and sugar.

***

When Suriname became independent in 1975, my father was twenty-one. For three hundred years, the Netherlands had been the center of Suriname’s world. Money earned in Suriname was spent in the Netherlands, which had the universities, the good jobs: opportunity. Surinamers had Dutch citizenship until independence, at which point a five-year grace period of lenient entry requirements went into effect. Between 1975 and 1980, around 300,000 Surinamese—nearly half of the population—seized the opportunity and left for the Netherlands. Among them was my father.

Edgar Cairo, a  Black literary hero I had never read before I started my search for you, Jaguar Man, described, in his idiosyncratic, Sranantongo-inflected Dutch, what arriving in the Netherlands must have been like for my father and other Black people like him:

Couldn’t even use the sole of his foot at Schiphol to test the temperature of Holland’s frozen soil. Let alone take some big windmill footsteps [into the country]! Didn’t have a single wooden! clog!! It was gold, real gold from Sipaliwini, or the gold of a medical degree, that could get you into Holland without too much trouble. They needed brains, money and brains.

Once in the Netherlands, Surinamers were housed like refugees in new-arrival centers. A “dispersal policy” prevented them from living anywhere they wanted. In Amsterdam they settled in De Bijlmer; in Rotterdam, it was the Zuid district, or around the corner from where I was born, on West-Kruiskade Street. A newspaper article I found from 1976 gives a sense of how immigrants like my father were received in their new home:

Councilor Elisabeth Schmitz of Social Affairs points out that in the Kruiskade neighborhood, the “Blackest” neighborhood in Rotterdam, a situation has arisen very similar to that of some parts of London or New York: slums, junkies, and criminals. “When I started as a councilperson in September 1974, I had heard of Surinamese people, of course. But that was it. The following year twelve thousand came to Rotterdam. Between four and five hundred a week.”

People talked about my father the way that Dutch newspapers now talk about Syrians and Moroccans. On August 25th, 1975, Het Vrije Volk reported:

When a few young Surinamers got on the tram this week, the driver grabbed the microphone and announced: “Be careful, pickpockets boarding.” For months now, the Kruiskade (“Cross Quay”) has been nicknamed Kroeskade (“Frizzy Quay”).

When a Surinamese mother with five children had company over on Slaghek Street, a mob loomed, made up of people who were positive that at least thirty other Surinamese lived in the building in question.

When a Surinamese man—again on Kruiskade—refused to pay a parking ticket, he and some friends were brutally beaten.

And when a Surinamese person ordered a beer in a Rotterdam eating establishment, his patience was tested. Just a minute, man, I’m busy.

I also found, in an old issue of Panorama from around this time, a photo feature of dark-skinned boys in the Kruiskade, boys just like the boy my father would have been. They wore tight pants and muscle shirts, sunglasses, hats, gold chains, unbuttoned shirts with flowers on them, short leather jackets. If you know history, you will see that they are using one of the foolproof magic spells that helped our forefathers survive history: even with a knife at their throats, they were kings. But maybe the most important magic word was missing from that spell. Not one of the boys was laughing. They looked angrily, menacingly into the camera. Did the photographer ask them to? Looking at the photo now, I see, in the eyes of the only boy without sunglasses, exhaustion, fragility, and sadness: an invitation to regard him as a human being, to see that the way these kids acted was not indicative of who they really were.

This was the part my father was cast to play in the Netherlands. Every time someone looked at him on the tram, from behind a counter, or on the street, their gaze said: you shouldn’t be here. In another world, in another country, in another time, he could have become a writer, a professor, a priest, a magician, an adventurer. But in this world, in this country, at this time, the role for him to play was the criminal, the threat, the riffraff, the crook, a middle finger to the Dutch people, what would be called in Sranantango a wakaman: a vagrant. He did what we had always done to survive: he became what the story wanted him to be, he accepted the part. And he hid his magic within.

***

At the same time, there were also Surinamese people who didn’t bend under the weight, who raised their voices to tell the real story, with all the richness, depth, and power that it held, who wrote about where we came from, what we had survived to be here, and what the world could learn from our story. There were not a few of these people; there were many. Writers like Edgar Cairo, Anil Ramdas, Ellen Ombre, Henna Goudzand. And of course Astrid Roemer:

My child, there is a history that will never be written, because people say some of its facts are too disheartening to the nation. Our nation is just emerging; it is too young to let these parts go missing from its annals. A hundred thousand testimonials from people who perished in battle.
The fight for their country. The fight for their people, the fight for their faith, the fight for their party, the fight for their family, the fight for their self-preservation. So, I ask you: don’t be afraid to read carefully what is etched on the crosses that adorn our cemeteries. Remember the names and dates and try to understand the epitaphs. Then erect in your heart a memorial to these heroes.

In high school their names were never mentioned. If the subject was slavery, it was the United States we were talking about. We learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali; we watched The Color Purple, read James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. North American history was full of Black writers, thinkers, heroes. People who were known all over the world, because everyone understood there was something to be learned from them. If my father had been American, I could have felt like a part of all that, even if he himself wasn’t a hero. But when I thought about Suriname, I didn’t get any further than Dési Bouterse and salted-meat sandwiches. I knew about as much about Suriname as a typical Dutch person: almost nothing. And nothing that could make me proud to be half-Surinamese. I didn’t know I could walk in the footsteps of heroes. I only began to understand it when I went looking for exactly the thing my father told me to ignore.

“You dove straight into academic life when you arrived in Amsterdam at nineteen,” Anil Ramdas wrote, addressing himself, in his 2006 “Letter to a Younger Me”:

You went on to graduate with honors—didn’t you—and do you remember why? When you received your Kandidaatsdiploma, the professor opened the dossier and said: “In less than three years, hm. Congratulations.” Later you heard from a teacher friend that the professor saw your name on the folder before you arrived and said: “Surinamese? Will probably amount to nothing.” For me that was it; this was no longer just about me, it was about all Surinamers, it was about the dignity of our homeland, and you sat for an exam one more time because you had only received seven out of ten the first time.

When I do come across the works of Anil, Astrid, or Edgar in passing, they have been on their own shelf. They are rarely listed under “Dutch literature.” It is as if their books are about something less than being human, or, as Astrid Roemer put it, “the right of every person to be allowed to exist.”

Leo Ferrier fell into a deep depression. Edgar Cairo developed psychosis. Anil Ramdas died by suicide. Astrid Roemer disappeared without a trace for years, and my friend Iwan Brave moved back to Paramaribo. I don’t think that’s just because of the Dutch. It’s true that the Dutch public failed to listen, but at the same time, Surinamers urged each other to keep quiet. Ellen Ombre’s story “With the Best Intentions” explores this silence. The protagonists’ parents tell the young girl:

“We are going to the Netherlands for your education. But don’t forget: education is not civilization. Civilization means that you know how to act right, so you can blend in with your environment anytime, anywhere.” It was about adapting constantly and being as inconspicuous as possible.

It was dangerous to use your voice. The tactic was to keep quiet, to leave the past where it was. Underground, buried, and cursed, where no one could find it, so deep that we forgot that the past is also where our light was.

 

Jaguarman

Beste jaguarman, de Spanjaarden waren de eerste vreemde mannetjes die verschenen aan uw jaguarkust, op zoek naar de mythische goudstad El Dorado. Op 23 april 1594 mepte een van hen een kruis in de grond en zei: ‘In den naam van God neem ik bezit van dit land, voor Zijne Majesteit Don Philips, onzen wettigen opperheer!’ El Dorado werd nooit gevonden, maar de vreemde bezoeker liet uw land nooit meer met rust. Na de Spanjaarden kwamen de Engelsen, de Fransen, de Engelsen, de Nederlanders en de Engelsen weer, tot die Suriname in 1674 definitief ruilden met de Nederlanders, voor een stad in Noord-Amerika genaamd New Amsterdam.

            New Amsterdam werd New York. Uw magische, ongerepte koninkrijk werd verbrand, platgewalst, opgedeeld in vierkanten en rechthoeken – plantages, met namen als ‘Utrecht’, ‘Marseille’ en ‘Berlijn’- en heette voortaan De colonie Suriname’.

 

            Mijn vader was eenentwintig toen Suriname in 1975 de onafhankelijk kreeg. Driehonderd jaar lang was Nederland voor Suriname het centrum van de wereld geweest. In Nederland werd uitgegeven wat in Suriname werd verdiend. In Nederland waren de universiteiten, de goede banen, de kansen. Tot de onafhankelijkheid in 1975 hadden Surinamers de Nederlandse nationaliteit, erna golden er nog vijf jaar soepele toegangseisen. Tussen 1975 en 1980 besloten zo’n 300.000 Surinamers  -bijna de helft van de bevolking – hier gebruik van te maken en naar Nederland te vertrekken. Onder hen was mijn vader.

            Edgar Cairo, een van de helden van wie ik nog nooit wat had gelezen voordat ik op zoek ging naar u, Jaguarman, beschreef hoe de aankomst in Nederland zo ongeveer gevoeld moet hebben voor mijn vader:

 

Mocht nieteens z’n voetzool op Schiphol daar gebruiken, om die temperatuur van Holland z’n vriesbodem te tes- ten. Laat staan om een paar windmolenvoetstappen te doen! Zonder één klomp!, hóuten! Want met goudklomp, al was ’t ware goud uit Sipaliwini, óf ’t goud van een doc- torstitel, kwam je wèl in Holland, zonder veel probleem. Ze hadden brains nodig, geld en brains.

 

 

Surinamers werden in Nederland ondergebracht in opvangcentra, zoals vluchtelingen nu. Ze konden niet zomaar overal gaan wonen, er was een ‘spreidingsbeleid’. In Amsterdam vestigden ze zich in De Bijlmer, in Rotterdam vestigden ze zich op Zuid en in de omgeving van de straat waar ik om de hoek werd geboren: de West-Kruiskade. Ik vond een krantenartikel uit 1976 dat een beeld gaf van hoe Nederland mijn vader ontving:

 

Wethouder Elisabeth Schmitz van Sociale Zaken wijst erop dat er in het Kruiskadekwartier, de ‘zwartste’ buurt van Rotterdam, een situatie is ontstaan die veel lijkt op die in sommige wijken van Londen of New York: krotten, ‘junkies’ en criminelen.‘Toen ik in september 1974 begon als wethouder had ik wel eens van Surinamers gehoord, ja. Maar dat was dan ook alles. Het jaar daarop kwamen er twaalfduizend naar Rotterdam. Vier- á vijfhonderd per week.’

 

Zoals nu wordt gesproken over Syriërs en over Marokkanen, zo werd er toen gesproken over mijn vader. Op 25 augustus 1975 berichtte dagblad Het Vrije Volk:

 

Wanneer een paar jonge Surinamers deze week in de tram stappen, pakt de bestuurder de microfoon en roept om: ‘Pas op, er komen zakkenrollers binnen.’ De Kruiskade heet dan ook al maanden de kroeskade.

Wanneer in de Slaghekstraat een Surinaamse moeder met vijf kinderen veel aanloop krijgt, dreigt een volksopstand, omdat men zeker denkt te weten dat er wel dertig Surinamers in het betreffende pand wonen.

Wanneer een Surinamer – alweer op de Kruiskade – een parkeerbon weigert te betalen, worden hij en enkele makkers hardhandig in elkaar getimmerd.

En wanneer een Surinamer in een Rotterdams horeca-etablissement een pilsje bestelt, wordt zijn geduld op de proef gesteld. Ogenblikje, man ik heb het beredruk.

 

Ik vond ook een fotoreportage uit deze tijd in een oude Panorama, van Surinaamse jongens op de Kruiskade, jongens zoals de jongen die mijn vader in die tijd misschien was. Ze droegen strakke broeken en shirtjes die om hun spieren spanden, zonnebrillen, hoeden, gouden kettingen, openstaande overhemden met bloemen, korte leren jasjes. Als je de geschiedenis kent, dan zie je dat ze een van de toverformules gebruikten waarmee onze vaders de geschiedenis hadden overleefd: ze waren koningen, ook al stond het mes op hun keel. Maar misschien wel het belangrijkste tovermiddel ontbreekt. Geen van de jongens lacht. Ze kijken boos en dreigend de camera in. Omdat de fotograaf hun daarom had gevraagd? In de ogen van de enige jongen die geen zonnebril ophad, zag ik vermoeidheid, kwetsbaarheid en verdriet. Een uitnodiging om hem als een mens te zien. Dat wat ze speelden, was niet wat ze werkelijk waren.
Dit was de rol die mijn vader in Nederland kreeg aangeboden. Elke keer dat iemand naar hem keek in de tram, vanachter een balie of op straat en met zijn blik zei: jij mag hier niet zijn. In een andere wereld, in een ander land, in een andere tijd had hij een schrijver kunnen worden, een professor, een priester, een tovenaar, een avonturier. Maar in deze wereld, in dit land, in die tijd, gaf het verhaaltje hem de rol van een bedreiging, een crimineel, uitschot, geboefte, een uitgestoken middelvinger naar de Nederlander, een wakaman. Hij deed wat we eerder hadden gedaan om te overleven: hij werd wat het verhaaltje van hem wilde, hij nam de rol aan. En binnenin verborg hij zijn toverkracht.

Op hetzelfde moment waren er ook Surinamers die zich niet lieten knakken, die hun stem gebruikten om het werkelijke verhaal te vertellen, zo rijk, diep en krachtig als het was, die schreven over waar we vandaan kwamen, wat we hadden overleefd om hier te zijn en wat je daarvan zou kunnen leren. Er waren er niet weinig, er waren er veel. Schrijvers als Edgar Cairo, Anil Ramdas, Ellen Ombre, Henna Goudzand. Astrid Roemer:

 

Mijn kind, er is een geschiedenis die nooit geschreven wordt omdat, naar men beweert, sommige gebeurtenissen ontmoedigend zijn voor een natie. Onze natie is in wording, ze is te jong voor wat ontbreekt in onze annalen. Honderdduizend getuigenissen van personen die in de strijd zijn omgekomen. De strijd voor hun land. De strijd voor hun volk, de strijd voor hun godsdienst, de strijd voor hun partij, de strijd voor hun familie, de strijd voor hun zelfbehoud. Schroom daarom niet nauwkeurig te le- zen wat er staat geschreven op de kruizen die onze kerk- hoven sieren. Onthoud de namen en de jaartallen en probeer de spreuken te begrijpen. Richt daarna, in jouw hart, een gedenkteken op voor deze helden.

 

 

Op de middelbare school werden hun namen nooit genoemd. Als het al over slavernij ging, dan ging het over de Verenigde Staten. We leerden over Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Mohammed Ali, we keken de Colour Purple, we lazen James Baldwin en Maya Angelou. De Noord-Amerikaanse geschiedenis was vol met zwarte schrijvers, denkers, helden. Mensen die over de hele wereld bekend waren, omdat iedereen begreep dat je iets van die mensen kon leren. Als mijn vader een Amerikaan was geweest, had ik dat allemaal mogen omhelzen, zelfs als hijzelf geen held was. Maar als ik dacht aan Suriname, dan kwam ik niet veel verder dan Desi Bouterse en broodjes zoutvlees. Ik wist van Suriname wat je als gemiddelde Nederlander van Suriname weet, bijna niets. En niets waarvan ijs trots werd om een halve Surinamer te zijn. Ik wist niet dat ik in de voetsporen kon treden van helden. Ik begreep dat pas toen ik op zoek ging naar wat ik volgens mijn vader met rust moest laten.

 

‘Hoe gulzig nam je niet deel aan de academische wereld toen je als negentienjarige in Amsterdam aantrad,’ schreef Anil Ramdas in 2006 in zijn ‘Brief aan mijn jongere ik’:

 

Je zou cum laude slagen, nietwaar, en weet je nog waarom? Toen je je kandidaatsdiploma in ontvangst nam, deed de hoogleraar de map open en zei: Binnen drie jaar, hartelijk gefeliciteerd.Later hoorde je van een bevriend docent dat de hoogleraar, voor mijn binnenkomst, mijn naam op het mapje zag en zei: ‘Surinamer? Zal wel niets wezen.’ Voor mij was de maat vol, het ging niet meer alleen om mij, het ging om alle Surinamers, het ging om het nationale belang van het vaderland, en je deed een keer een tentamen over omdat je er maar een zeven voor had.

 

Als ik Anil, Astrid of Edgar al voorbij zag komen, dan hadden ze hun eigen plankje. Ze stonden zelden bij ‘Nederlandse literatuur’. Alsof deze boeken over iets anders gingen dan gewoon over het zijn van een mens of, zoals Astrid Roemer dat verwoordde, ‘het recht van elk mens om er gewoon te mogen zijn’.

Leo Ferrier werd depressief, Edgar Cairo kreeg een psychose, Anil Ramdas pleegde zelfmoord, Astrid Roemer was jarenlang spoorloos verdwenen en mijn vriend Iwan Brave verhuisde terug naar Paramaribo. Ik denk dat dat niet alleen komt door de Nederlander. Het klopt dat Nederlanders niet luisterden, maar Surinamers maanden elkaar tegelijkertijd aan om stil te zijn. Zoals de hoofdpersoon in Ellen Ombres verhaal ‘Met de beste bedoelingen’ te horen kreeg van haar ouders:

 

We gaan naar Nederland voor jullie ontwikkeling. Maar let wel, ontwikkeling is nog geen beschaving. Beschaving betekent dat je weet hoe het hoort, zodat je altijd en overal in je omgeving op kunt gaan.’ Het ging erom je steeds aan te passen en zo min mogelijk op te vallen.

 

Je stem gebruiken was gevaarlijk. De tactiek was om je stil te houden. Om het verleden te laten waar het was. Onder de grond, begraven en vervloekt, waar niemand het kon vinden. Net zolang tot we vergaten dat in dat verleden ook ons eigen licht te vinden was.

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