Jerry Was Ashamed Of His Origin But Now Proud: ‘Will You Pass It On’

When Jerry Bergraaf came to Tilburg from Suriname in the mid-1980s, he left his own culture behind. He was even ashamed of it. It wasn’t until his eldest daughter went to school that he could no longer deny his own origins: “She came home and said, ‘I’m black!'” The excuses for the slavery past do him good: “I thought the timing was wrong. But it’s a start.”

We talk to Bergraaf in the Peerke Donders pavilion in Tilburg. The only place in the south of the Netherlands with an exhibition about slavery. He helped with the composition.

Bergraaf is a descendant of Nigerians who were enslaved and brought to Suriname. He married a Dutch woman and absorbed the Dutch culture: “I wanted to be accepted in this society. My parents told me that to achieve anything, I had to work twice as hard.

It was only when he grew older and had children that Bergraaf began to appreciate his own culture more: “I remember when my eldest, then four years old, went to school for the first time. When she got home, she said: Dad, I’m black. Previously she had not seen that she has a black father and a white mother. It wasn’t until she went to school that she was confronted with it. That’s how subtly it creeps in.”

“People got to feel my body.”

Racism, discrimination: Bergraaf had to deal with it more and more: “When the youngest went into town and didn’t go to the disco, I found it strange. When I came here in ’85, I was picked out of line. I was an attraction. People came to feel my body: what color is it? Through my children I noticed how society is hardened. Then I thought: I have to do something about it.”

Bergraaf woke up: “I can be proud of my culture and proud of who I am. And I have to pass that on to my children. They have to be strong and know where they come from. But then I also have to know my own culture . Because if I don’t know it myself, how can I give it to them?”

Yet Bergraaf has never been an activist. Not even when there was trouble in his city of Tilburg about the statue of Peerke Donders in Wilhelminaparken. The missionary is said to be a racist who supported slavery. “It went too far for me. Most Surinamese, including the Maroons, believe that the image should remain. It is a Dutch man who voluntarily came to Suriname to help the lepers. It is almost sacred.”

But at Bergraaf’s home, opinions were divided: “My daughter was born here, studied Cultural Heritage. She looked at the picture and said: that is not possible. Among young people, almost everyone said: that image must go, it is no longer possible, it is not of this time.”

Still, Bergraaf’s daughter turned around when she heard about her father’s background. And Paul Spapens, who has written the texts for the exhibition together with Bergraaf, does this well: “Of course I understand where the resistance comes from. But if you know the background of the picture, you know that it tells a completely different story. Namely out of solidarity.”

“Unfortunate are those who enrich themselves with the sweat and blood of poor slaves.”

As a priest, Peerke Donders spoke strongly against slavery. On the side of the pavilion is a saying of his: “Unfortunate are those who enrich themselves with the sweat and blood of the poor slaves, who find no defender but God!”

Many of the objects on display at the exhibition originate from Bergraaf’s collection. Traditional costumes in bright, lush colors. And scarves: “People were not allowed to communicate with each other, so they did it by tying their scarves in a certain way. ‘Let them tell you’ or ‘Go to the pump’ if you were angry. Or the ‘jealous chair’, a low chair: “Slave women were often concubines. The owner was jealous of it, hence the name. It’s a corner chair, that was your place.”

When he looks over the exhibition, Jerry feels proud: “It makes me strong. When I think of what they have had to carry, why can’t I carry the burden I have? I have strong ancestors, I show that to the youth. Be proud of who you are!”

ALSO READ: Pollus on Peerke Donders: statue to be removed from Wilhelminapark?

Jerry as a child in Paramaribo with his mother Henna and sister Mireille (photo: Jerry Bergraaf).
Jerry as a child in Paramaribo with his mother Henna and sister Mireille (photo: Jerry Bergraaf).

Jerry on arrival in the Netherlands in 1985 with mother Henna Baidjoe (photo: Jerry Bergraaf).
Jerry on arrival in the Netherlands in 1985 with mother Henna Baidjoe (photo: Jerry Bergraaf).

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