Jerry, inspiring the next generation of activists

By Jerry King Luther Afriyie
Photo by Daniella van Bergen

“My hope is that we will not pass on the Netherlands of today to our grandchildren, but the Netherlands of tomorrow.”

The eternal optimist

I am often asked the question: ‘Why are black activists in the Netherlands so negative?’ ‘Why aren’t they optimistic?’ Followed by: ‘Look at Humberto Tan, Jörgen Raymann and Simone Weimans. Be grateful to be living in the most tolerant and peaceful part of the world.’ You can expect these comments when you speak up for a Dutch society in which everyone is treated equally. But we could also turn the question around: why do white Dutch people complain, when they can travel everywhere with their whiteness without being viewed as an asylum seeker? What would people think if I’d say: ‘why does it matter if plastic bags stay behind in the sea. They should worry about more important issues.’

Do you see how meaningless it is to ask the other to look away because their activism doesn’t please you? I am not fighting institutional racism because I have nothing better to do, but simply because I have no choice. I have seen the hate in the eyes of my fellow citizens on the highway to Dokkum and at other places, my relationship with the mother of my four children has failed because the struggle became too much for her, I have been living in financial insecurity for four years. This is merely the shortlist. I have seen white people come and go as if black activism is a gallery and every time I find myself thinking:

“I wish I had the privilege to step out of the battle when it suits me and move on with my life.”

I do not have the privilege to let go of the battle against the power structures that oppress my community, and occupy myself with “important issues”. Because even when you are not dealing with racism, racism is dealing with you.

White version of Martin Luther King

Until my teenage years, I had only been familiar with the white version of Martin Luther King. The black version, the most accurate one, came years after. Until my teenage years, I had little to no resemblance with the man that was adored by white people. He told a beautiful story of love and hope, but that wasn’t my story. My story was one of despair, a rough diamond, rejected and hidden deep in the Bijlmer area. My story was the black experience, which even takes ‘people of colour’ by surprise. My story resonated in the black churches on Sunday afternoon, in the barbershops beneath the Bijlmer apartment buildings and at the kitchen table during family dinners. My story was articulated by Anton de Kom, Philomena Essed and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King, the man who should be known for his battle against poverty, the Vietnam War, capitalism, police violence, racism and unemployment, is now mostly known for only one captivating speech.

His black experience has been disconnected from and subordinated to the story that the West likes to tell itself. Non-threatening, non-confrontational, but approachable. Martin Luther King belongs to all of us. But before he belonged to all of us, he was a black man. His battle began with the way the world treated him as a black man. Martin Luther King was a man of unending optimism, charisma and mostly hope, but he was also the black man for whom white people decided where he was allowed to live – in the ghetto, where he was given access to education – at a segregated school. He was the black man for whom white people cherished hatred, and the black man they eventually killed. He was the black man who did not know his place.

White moderates

One of the biggest disappointments of Martin Luther King was the apathy of the white moderates, who find order more important than injustice and who prioritise obtaining and maintaining materialism and friendship over a just world. From the moment over 50 years ago, when King wrote it down on a toilet paper sheet in a prison in Birmingham, Alabama ‘until now, nothing has changed’. Neither in America, nor in the Netherlands. White moderates approach me regularly and urgently request me not to protest at the national Sinterklaas parade, because children will attend it. I have a lot of respect for all the white people who are willing to step out of their bubble to stand on the right side of history. Signing petitions and sending open letters to public broadcast channels are daring steps in these times, when being openly racist is the new normal, but it isn’t enough.

I expect from my white allies to understand that when white parents consciously decide to take their children to a parade that dehumanises so many people, a counter protest in the form of our presence is essential. When teachers protested against lower salaries and high work pressure on December 12th and March 14th, I didn’t hear those same white moderates say ‘Hey, the children are becoming the victims of this’. There was understanding and compassion. But time after time we are told ‘It is not the right time’, ‘It is not the right place’. The price that this country will pay for its cluelessness will fall squarely on the shoulders of the white moderates.

A person

Martin Luther King showed what is waiting for us if we want to be a person. Not Jesus, but a person. A person with passion, charity, responsibility and endless optimism. But also a person with shortcomings and immense room for improvement. The future of the Netherlands lies in our hands, and will lie in the hands of our children and grandchildren. We are living here with different people, different cultures and traditions. Everyone is just as beautiful and just as important.

But I also really cherish the freedom of speech. I sincerely welcome criticism of all taboos, established values and supposed holy books. However, I reject one-sided criticism of Islam and the Quran with my loudest voice and fierce protest. You will always find me on the side of the Kurds and Palestinians, but also on the side of people living in poverty despite working for forty hours a week, on the side of those who don’t make it past poor housing and on the side of Turkish-Dutch people who constantly have to account for what is happening in Turkey.

There is hope

You will find me on the side of those who want to conquer the oppression. My battle isn’t disconnected from the battle of others. A Netherlands that treats me right, but approaches my trans-neighbours or refugees with pure hatred is not the Netherlands I want to pass on to the next generation. The Netherlands is my house and my house is still unfinished. The building blocks are in its place, the tap water is clean and the furniture is looking lovely together, but the atmosphere is fouled. Fouled by those who think they are superior and act as such, by politicians who fuel discrimination and racism in the country, by a government who forces unjust laws on her people, by a lack of knowledge about our colonial past and migration history, fouled by xenophobia, poverty and economic inequality.

My house is not ready, but there is hope. I see young tulips, standing out from the crowd. They are saying ‘vote for a woman’; they invite you to ‘The Black Archive’. They demand their city or their village back from gentrification and gas extraction. They reach out for refugees, who have been whirled away from their countries of birth by our bombs and weapons, and they say ‘come in, you can rest here’. They represent the best in us. They form the link between a bloody past and the Netherlands of tomorrow. The beautiful words of article 1 in our constitution are still an unfulfilled wish from our forefathers. My hope is that we will not pass on the Netherlands of today to our grandchildren, but the Netherlands of tomorrow.

This text is the spoken column that Jerry King Luther Afriyie gave on April 5th, 2018 during the Martin Luther King Lecture in The Hague. Watch the video of the event here.

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