Cargo bikes and Santa’s helpers in blackface

In Amsterdam I fell in serious consumer lust with Dutch cargo bikes. You see the occasional cargo bike in Berlin too, but people rarely use them to transport kids, instead favoring bike trailers that look unwieldy and nervewracking to me. The bikes I saw in Amsterdam, almost all of them made by the bakfiets company, had this great space in front for kids and cargo, with enough seats and seat belts for several children, and space in front of the kids for hauling groceries.

When I got back to Berlin I went on the bakfiets website hoping against hope that I would be able to afford a Dutch cargo bike. Yeah. They start at about €1600, which may very well be a reasonable price for a vehicle that serves many of the same functions as a car but is nonetheless not an amount of money I have. I can, however, afford to look at pictures of Dutch cargo bikes, and as it was a slow day at work I not only checked out all the different models I couldn’t have in all the wonderful shiny colors I couldn’t have, but also browsed through a photo gallery of bakfiets products in action. These photos, apparently sent in by ordinary folks who own cargo bikes, were an interesting window onto life in the Netherlands.  Here’s a sampling:

In the Jordaan I saw many similar scenes of a woman in a nice dress cycling with several blond children in perfectly clean white clothing:

Cargo bikes are also handy for dogs:

And bales of hay:

And St. Nicholas flanked by two guys in pantaloons and blackface:

Yes, that’s Sinterklaas with two of his traditional “helpers” in 17th century garb and blackface. You may be familiar with the racial dynamics of the Dutch Santa Claus from David Sedaris’s brilliant essay “Six to Eight Black Men“:

…The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count. The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility…

One thing Sedaris’s essay doesn’t mention is that the six to eight black men who used to be Santa Claus’s slaves but are now just his friends  are often portrayed by white guys in blackface. Blackface is a thing in other European countries too — there was recently a big controversy about  its persistence in Berlin theater, for example. But I’d still venture to say that there’s something very specifically Dutch about this photo.

2 thoughts on “Cargo bikes and Santa’s helpers in blackface

  1. I like the name Bakfiets. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in Berlin, where it seems that a lot of cargo bikes are a lot more like chopper bikes that people have welded and tied together out of various stuff. My neighborhood even had a communal cargo bike that any non-profit could borrow, but I think it was stolen.

    When I was living in New Haven, Connecticut for a spell about four years ago, one of the families in my neighborhood (which, being full of professors, grad students, and aging hippies, aspired to be “European”) had a Bakfiets, which I often saw parked in front of “European” places Nica’s Italian Market. I assumed they were expensive imports there, but I never thought they’d be SO expensive right here in the EU.

    1. That’s so funny you mention this today, because this morning on the walk to the Kita I saw a bike I recognized as a Bakfiets for the first time ever in Berlin. Yeah, I was also surprised at how expensive they are here!

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