Monday, December 22, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: Black Peter, Santa Claus, and Some Christmas Cheer for You Bad, Bad Grown-Ups Everywhere

The Black Israelites are always a source of great amusement--and their energy is oh so fitting for any reflection on Black Peter. Random thought: don't the Black Israelites in Time's Square look like Power Rangers?

Last week, moms and I were talking about the much discussed trampling death of a Walmart employee in Long Island, New York.

When I told her the details of this horrible incident, how folks were laughing at a dying man, and refusing to evacuate the ill fated store, she blurted out "Black Peter got 'em!"

"What?" I answered to my mother's observation. "Who the hell is Black Peter?" I replied. At the time, I thought she was just being silly.

Mom answered, "Black Peter is Santa's slave, and he makes black people act like damn fools."

Hmmmm, I thought to myself, me being the inquisitive type, and one always eager to add to my mental Rolodex of useless information, this could make for some interesting research.

It turns out that Black Peter exists...real in a manner akin to how Santa Claus is also "real."

Historically, Christmas is a pagan holiday, with little to do with Christ's birth. Accordingly, it incorporates many trappings taken from other belief systems, read: non-Christian, druid and animist traditions. These borrowed symbols and practices include the yule log, hanging Christmas stockings, the Christmas Tree, and December 25th itself (this date , originally a pagan high holiday, was chosen as Christ's "birthday" in order to improve the appeal of this "new" faith to converts). Santa Claus, or as the Dutch and Northern Europeans call him, Saint Nicholas, is also one of these borrowed traditions.

The original Saint Nicholas (as opposed to that red suit wearing character popularized by Coca-Cola in the 1930's) was a noble soul who hands out gifts and assorted goodies to children everywhere. And no, he wasn't like Bad Santa:

This tall, handsome, gentle, white man was an amalgamation of the original Saint Nicholas who was a Bishop in what is now the country of Turkey, as well as Germanic "gods" such as Odin. Black Peter appears in multiple configurations in these mythologies. For the "original" Saint Nicholas, Peter is a freed slave who is so grateful to the good Bishop for his manumission that he pledges his loyalty to Saint Nicholas for all times (think of Chewbacca's life debt to Han Solo). For the Northern European version of Saint Nicholas, and this is much more compelling and disturbing, Black Peter is a demon, or perhaps the devil himself. Saint Nicholas journeyed to the netherworld, and through the force of his goodness and belief in the Lord, beat and subdued the devil. Saint Nicholas then enslaved him. Fittingly, the devil's new duties would include carrying Nicholas's bag of toys, assisting in his workshop, and punishing boys and girls who were naughty as opposed to being nice.

As time progressed, the figure of Black Peter would take on new affects. Fittingly, as Europe encountered the Moors, Arabs, and Southern Europeans, the figure would morph into a "devious" Spanish pirate. Next, and one cannot forget the role of the Dutch in the Transatlantic/global institution of slavery and Imperialism, Black Peter would change again into either an "indian" or a black slave. In the latter depiction, Black Peter would don tattered rags, chains, and have a hunched over back from carrying Saint Nicholas's bag.

Black Peter is also tasked with punishing those children whom have not met Saint Nicholas's high standards of moral, upright behavior. Apparently, old Black Peter beats "naughty" children with a stick or throws coal at them. One more reason that I love classic children's fables: these stories speak to the often deeply violent, and punitive aspects of parent and child relationships, as well as to the perilous and unfair nature of life (read Humpty Dumpty again and tell me that there isn't something deeply disturbing about that story).

Of course, in these politically correct times some try to insist that Black Peter is just black and dark from all the soot he is inevitably covered with from going up and down the many chimneys on old Saint Nicholas's Chrismas Eve route. Others, predictably assail any comparison of Black Peter to race minstrelsy as the demonstrations and complaints of overly sensitive killjoys.

Maybe Black Peter doesn't literally make black people act like fools. Perhaps, he isn't even a slave. Hell, maybe Black Peter is just dirty from going up and down chimneys--but then again isn't chimney cleaning an example of the "nigger work" that White ethnics as "free labor" railed against on their way to earning whiteness? Black Peter and old Saint Nick are still with us because they can be fit and molded to the times; given the perilous economy which we are experiencing, and the callous behavior that inevitably accompanies the holidays, maybe Black Peter really did cause those black fools at Walmart to kill that poor man.

It would be both fitting and ironic if Black Peter in his 21st century incarnation is now tasked with making Americans trample and kill each other for an opportunity to buy discounted blu-ray DVD players and other imported crap made in Chinese factories and sold at Walmart. Black Peter may not need coal or a stick to punish little boys and girls because now he yields credit card debt, a devalued dollar, and evaporating 401ks while stoking our greed.

It seems that Black Peter doesn't want little boys and girls--he has moved up in the world, changed his game, and raised the stakes. Instead, Black Peter has decided to punish mommy and daddy because grown-up boys and girls make better sport.

Black Peter, old school slave with a bag of coal and a big stick whuppin' mom and dad's butts--quite a visual, and one that is actually quite fitting in these troubled times.

Respectable Negro bonus alert: the always incomparable Dallas Penn's post, "BLACK PETE IS THE O.G. CHRISTMAS NIGGA (Zwarte Piet ReMix)"


American Black Chick in Europe said...

I'd never heard of Black Peter before reading this post! I'm actually kind of offended at yet another negative depiction of black people, but it was interesting reading about how Black Peter morphed over the years based on the time period. Btw, I'm sort of a lurker on this blog, but it's easily one of my favorites!

Unknown said...

that 'movie' is shot in Brixton, London??? that Bodyshop is still opposite Brixton station...

thanks for the heads up on 'black peter'..

Dallas Penn said...

The story of Zwarte Piet is one of my favorite myths. Sinter Klaas is actually a slaver who uses naughty children to work in his factories. Zwarte Piet is his assistant who helps him spirit the children away. Kids leave sweets for Sinter Klaas and Zwarte Piet in the hopes of currying their favor.

When I wrote about Zwarte Piet a few years ago a reader mailed me this pic of his parents threatening to give him away to Zwarte Piet.

Peep his sister in the background. She is two seconds from jumping out the window to escape.

Invisible Man said...

First of all brilliant post, second of all OH NO YOU DIDN'T JUST CALL THE BLACK ISRAELITES POWER RANGERS!!!!