As I stood in the crowded Black Lives Matter protest in Amsterdam’s Dam Square, I was flooded with memories of being a small girl in the Philadelphia of the 1960s, sitting in a starchy Sunday dress in the pews of the First African Baptist Church as I listened to my father, Reverend Charles Sumner Lee, preach about civil rights.
I now live abroad, dividing my life between Italy and the Netherlands, and I’ve long known that these gusts of nostalgia are part of the expatriate experience, proof of the paradoxical fact that distance from your native country only strengthens the attachment. I know, too, that being a black expatriate amps up this attachment, adding to thoughts of the place that is always home a burning, obsessive focus that relentlessly illuminates African-Americans’ peculiar historical intimacy with tragedy. This bitter legacy, a torturous mixture of love and rage, is almost impossible to explain to those who do not live with it.
Virus of Discrimination
When the coronavirus shut down Europe, I was finishing a novel in Amsterdam and closely following the situation in the United States, where the virus was spreading. Besides feeling the personal worries for family and friends that everyone experienced during the height of the pandemic, I was anguished to see the disproportionate number of deaths of American people of color.
When I learned of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, I felt appalled and helpless, emotions all the uglier because they were wearisomely familiar—the same American demons who’d crossed the Atlantic and settled in with me for a long stay at about the time that Michael Brown was shot down in Ferguson. As always, expressing outrage and sending contributions only seemed to scratch the surface, and so I responded to an invitation from an Amsterdam black-women’s group to protest in Dam Square.
Dam Square is the heart of Amsterdam, a paved expanse spreading in the forefront of the royal palace, and a traditional gathering place that in the past has witnessed tumultuous scenes ranging from hippie bacchanalia to housing riots to an atrocious mass shooting of Dutch civilians by Nazi officers. Entering the square, I was stunned to see not the modest crowd I’d expected but a sea of black, brown, and white Dutch people, old and young, inter-racial couples and mixed-race children—that bouillabaisse of ethnicities that makes Amsterdam a surprisingly well-integrated city.
It was Whit Monday, a national holiday in the Netherlands and an official public opening after months of lockdown: a sunny afternoon for people to celebrate the loosening of restrictions at parks, beaches, and outdoor cafés. Instead, nearly 5,000 residents, wearing masks and bearing banners, had come together to protest racism and police brutality in the U.S. I stood behind a young black woman with hip-length braids and her blond boyfriend who held up a banner reading Silence is Violence. On one side of me was a gray-haired white man displaying a Black Lives Matter sign, and on the other a young black man whose placard read: Am I Next? Around the edges of the square stood Dutch police in their sleek biking outfits, watchful but affable, some posing for photos with demonstrators. The huge crowd exuded an uncanny mixture of stillness and deep emotion.
This bitter legacy, a torturous mixture of love and rage, is almost impossible to explain to those who do not live with it.
This near-religious hush evoked my childhood Sundays at First African, back in the years of the upwelling of tragedy, hope, and inconceivable courage that was the midcentury civil-rights movement in the United States. The period when my father’s staid, middle-class black congregation was enlarged each Sunday by white Philadelphians of all ages, eager to listen as he—a community leader who organized citywide boycotts and marched in the South with Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr.—preached passionate sermons on Christian love, freedom, equal rights, and the need for action joined to prayer.
Each Sunday my father would welcome the visitors and observe what a blessing it was for us to be gathered together. But he’d also caution us that our gathering, like our prayers and ideals, could not exist solely in church: this was just the beginning of the work that had to be done, together, to change institutions and habits of mind. This work—registering voters, assisting minority communities, engaging in difficult confrontations—was often tedious and sometimes dangerous, but it was essential. With his usual dry humor, my father would say that before any of us saw true justice established in the U.S., we had a long dirt road to travel.
By the time he died, far too early, in the 1970s, my father had witnessed major triumphs but also catastrophic loss in the movement to which he had devoted his life. And he knew his country was still in the middle of that journey.
Reckoning with Their Own History
These thoughts hovered over me as I listened to Amsterdam’s black community leaders, speaking in English and Dutch, denounce the plague of racism in the U.S., and then address the legacy of hate-based violence in their own country.
Standing in Dam Square, we were 10 minutes away from the house that hid Anne Frank, in a country that saw 80 percent of its Jewish population annihilated in the Holocaust. The grand 17th-century palace looming behind us had been designed to celebrate a colonial empire built on the incalculable human misery of the spice trade and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The black and brown faces in the crowd reflected centuries of Dutch hegemony in Suriname, the West Indies, and Indonesia, former colonies with their own ugly variations of enslavement and genocide. Even today, the speakers reminded us, amid the famously tolerant atmosphere of the modern Netherlands, people of color face racism and brutality. It was just five years ago that Mitch Henriquez, an Aruban, notoriously died in the Hague after being restrained—like George Floyd—in a police choke hold.
In the days following the Dam Square protest, as hundreds of similar events flared across continents like the beacons in The Lord of the Rings, I reflected on the ways that my diverse experiences—my childhood and my adult life but also the past and present phases of the civil-rights movement, and the contrasting expressions of post-colonial racism in the U.S. and in Europe—shaped my perspective on the protests. In the end, I’d taken the typical expatriate’s stereoscopic point of view—caught up in anguish for my own country, I felt at the same time a deep connection to the Dutch crowd around me, an insight into another nation’s quest to work out redemption from inherited evil.
My father, the arch-communicator, would, I thought, have shared my dual viewpoint. He believed implicitly that the struggle of African-Americans was the struggle of poor and oppressed peoples around the globe. He would have been deeply moved by the international protests, but angered and full of sorrow to see that, over half a century after his own battles were fought, the world continues to witness black Americans murdered by racism. For a minute, I imagined him up on the podium in Amsterdam, addressing the crowd with his usual inspired mixture of prayer and pragmatism. After mourning the dead, I thought, he would inevitably have spoken of work for the living to do, the work that will remain after protests are finished. Adding, in that manner of his that never quite seemed to discourage hope, that we still have far to go on the long dirt road.
Andrea Lee is a writer and novelist based in Turin and Amsterdam