‘Roses wither and tulips wither, but our friendship has always remained’. Those were the sentences that Judith Allard-de Kom usually found in her poetry album when a friend had written them. The sentence was in stark contrast to what she was used to from her father, Anton de Kom, who read to her in the evenings and taught her the importance of stories early on.
Judith Allard-de Kom opened the exhibition last week Anton de Kom – Writer, Warrior, Pioneer at the Open Air Museum in Arnhem, reading a poem her father had written in the poetry album:
Suriname our homeland!
Land of blue sky and eternal sunshine
Waterfalls and springs that always splash
Ants and apples with the color of red wine
Blue mountains peeing in the waters
Billions of insects buzzing monotonously
Rivers, creeks full of golden streams
Birds dressed in brilliant down
Surinamese ebony, cedar, giant trees
Love for this country, people and nature
Judith, this makes your mind so big
Throughout your clean lifetime
For love is more sometimes than the daily bread.
Two years ago, De Kom was the first Surinamese to be included in the Dutch Canon. From that moment on, the Open Air Museum worked on an exhibition about the resistance fighter, in a room in which the various windows are explored in greater depth with varying collections. The aim of the museum was an accessible exhibition about De Kom for a wide audience.
With beautiful black-and-white photos, original manuscripts and historical backgrounds in texts, audio and video fragments, we succeeded; the biographical elements from De Kom’s life and the historical context in which he lived are thoroughly discussed. The accompanying texts in the room are in Dutch, Sranantongo and English. With quotes from his most famous work, the book We Slaves of Surinameexcerpts from his groundbreaking indictment against Dutch colonialism are reproduced.
It is striking that, apart from a few brief references to, for example, Black Lives Matters, the museum makes no explicit connections between contemporary racism and the bold vision with which De Kom exposed the systemic elements behind it.
The story in the exhibition is recorded from five different roles attributed to him; De Kom as a teacher, connector, accuser, trailblazer and warrior. He criticized the Tilburg Fathers who forbade him to speak Sranangtongo in Suriname. “No better means of cultivating the inferiority feeling in a race than this history teaching where only the sons of another nation are mentioned and praised.”
His work comes to life with a miniature of his birthplace in the Frimangron district and a projection of the Manjaboom under which he exchanged ideas and encouraged contract workers and the unemployed. “Under the tree, however, past my table, the parade of misery passes. Outcasts with deep hollow cheeks. starving people. People without sufficient resistance. Open books to read the painstakingly told story of oppression and hardship.”
We slaves of Suriname
The year 1933, in which De Kom was detained without trial by the colonial regime as a communist agitator and forcibly left for the Netherlands, is considered a key year in the exhibition. The following year appeared We Slaves of Suriname, the first published work that criticized Dutch colonialism in Suriname from a black perspective. In his criticisms, De Kom did not remain within the scope of the Creole community, he was known for his involvement in, for example, the fate of guest workers from Java and India.
“Whether we are blacks, yellows or browns or whites, we have only one task and that is the fight against fascism.” These words, spoken by De Kom during a lecture in August 1933, turned out to be prophetic when he joined the resistance in the Netherlands during the Second World War.
He was arrested and later imprisoned by the Germans in camp Sandbostel. He died a few days before the liberation, on April 24, 1945. His family was in uncertainty for fifteen years until his body was found in a mass grave in 1960. He was reburied in Loenen, Gelderland.
Descendants and other involved parties have been pleading for years for De Kom to be rehabilitated by the Dutch government. A motion by GroenLinks for a cavalier gesture will be honoured, the exact interpretation will be agreed in consultation with his relatives. A fund for Surinamese Students is being considered. In the lee of the Arnhem forests, it sounds like a complete story, but his condemnation of imbalanced power relations is still topical. In naming the exploitation of people of color and systemic racism, De Kom is very sharp and his work has not lost any of its strength.
This is also beautifully shown in a work by artist Ken Doorson, created especially for this exhibition Papa de Kom made. Doorson’s artwork – a hologram of De Kom and 280 red clay faces from the Para district – not only pays tribute to De Kom, but also shows how many people have been touched by De Kom’s struggle and his outspoken anti-colonial ideology.
It shows that the one-sided appreciation – and this is also apparent in this exhibition – of Anton de Kom as an isolated Surinamese hero is too simple. In a video fragment, a student of the Nola Hatterman Art Academy in Paramaribo, who, together with artist Doorson, gives the clay for the artwork. Papa de Kom edited, admitting to have learned the dates but to have missed the deeper meaning of his work in education.
Doorson says that De Kom has made him more aware of Surinamese history and the associated freedom fighters such as Louis Doedel, Boni, Baron and Jolie Coeur. “In my time, I mainly heard De Kom’s name when I listened to songs on the radio, for example. And of course I saw him on our banknotes. But it wasn’t just positive. Sometimes, if you just mentioned his name in Suriname, you heard the word rioter. I think we are at a crossroads with Suriname, between the old and the new generation. The new one cites De Kom as a fighter.”
Independent journalist Peter Sanches, also present at the press opening, adds. “There was even resistance when his face came on the Surinamese national currency. For example, they would mock the frizzy hair depicted on the note.”
Surinamese contemporaries of De Kom with a lighter skin color found easier access to the established order. Yet De Kom, who had to break free from prejudice on so many fronts and whose father was still born in slavery, made no concessions when it came to his ideals for a better future for everyone.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 31 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of March 31, 2022