The best sentence from Rutte’s historic speech was not invented by him


Photo: self portrait of Serana Angelista

On December 19, Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized on behalf of the Dutch state for the Dutch slavery past at the National Archives in The Hague – a long-awaited and historic event. Everything went wrong about those apologies, but most people afterwards agreed that Rutte’s speech was well composed. “Behind the past of slavery there is not a period, but a comma,” he repeated several times in his speech to make it clear that there is an unbroken line between slavery and structural racism in today’s society. He also emphasized that the apologies are the beginning of a recovery process.

By historian Karwan Fatah-Black was noticed that the phrase is not used for the first time in that context: In 2019, the artist Serana Angelista (30) said those words in an interview with Vers Beton. Fatah-Black herself had quoted him in the introduction to her book Slavery and Civilization. Angelista responded rather measuredly in their stories – “People stealing originality and ingenuity from black women is not new.”

Angelista has previously collaborated with Black Archives and with the Counter/Narratives platform brought to the surface hidden stories from the colonial past in the Netherlands. She creates graphic work where words become artistic forms, and everyday objects such as an Afro comb in clear patterns. “My work is now primarily concerned with what connects black people in all their diversity,” says Angelista.

VICE called them to ask what it was like to hear their statement from Rutte at such a historic moment.

VICE: Hi Serana, when did you hear that Rutte used your words in his speech?
Serana Angelista:
At first I didn’t really want to listen to those excuses, of some kind of resistance. I feel that the apology has been delayed far too long. So I was scrolling through the NOS website when I saw that statement in a headline – heck, I thought, I said that too. Afterwards I learned from Karwan Fatah-Black that he quoted me in his book. It is therefore quite coincidental that this phrase resonates in the same context.

What do you think about it?
For me, Rutte as Prime Minister symbolizes a lot of inequality in Dutch society. And I’m also not a fan of how the lead-up to these apologies has gone. So I’m cynical about it. This is definitely not about me, but it bothers me that a speech writer seems to very easily grab something like this from someone who is a descendant of slavery. It is much more common for theories and ideas to be taken from black women without credit for it. This mechanism is also an example of how the slavery past continues to influence the present. So in this case it feels very double.

You said these words in an interview in 2019. What exactly did you mean by that?
This was prior to an investigation into Rotterdam’s slavery past. The trend back then was: it all happened so long ago, it’s just closed. Within that context I then said: no, there is no full stop behind that past, but a comma. You can see that past working through when you look at the way people still interact with each other in the Netherlands today and when you look at the imbalances in our society. I was looking for a simple but profound counter to the statement “it’s been so long”. I like to keep it simple because of my work. I’m a graphic designer, so I do a lot of visual communication and make things known in an instant. I like when you can express something in everyday language.

Is that meaning well understood by Rutte’s speech writer?
Yes. But in this case, the person who spoke the words symbolizes the imbalance in the Netherlands. Whoever says it gives color to such a sentence.

At the time you were working on Counter/Narratives, a platform where unheard stories about the colonial past are told. Has much changed recently?
There is change when it comes to vocabulary choices and traditions have been adapted. It’s a start. But I can’t see if there has actually been a change in a material sense. The misery has not been eradicated. I miss structural awareness that is acted upon. The apology didn’t happen on the descendants’ timeline. And it also symbolizes crooked relationships. I’m glad it’s happened now, but I’m still skeptical. Even when it comes to Curaçao, there is still plenty to restore.

What do you hope will happen now that the apology has come?
I really hope that the Caribbean islands will be seen, with their own history and their own history, and that they will be more prominent. In the Netherlands, little attention is paid to Saba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten. The islands are now an afterthought, or last on a list, which is very bad. Because everything happened there, there is so much to tell about it. I’m part Curaçao, so my heart goes with it. I hope that in addition to repairs and restoration, there will be more attention from Dutch politics, but also that we will learn more about the culture and history of the islands here in the Netherlands. And the stories of resistance, also from the female perspective.

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