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Interview Jennifer Tosch: Black Heritage Tours on Dutch, African & Native American heritage of NY

From this spring onward, Black Heritage Tours will bring their authentic cultural heritage experiences from Amsterdam to New York State.

From this spring onward, Black Heritage Tours will bring their authentic cultural heritage experiences from Amsterdam to New York State. The full tour will launch in June, but there will be several pilot editions in March, April and May. Black Heritage Tours aim to go beyond what most tour products offer today, by connecting not only the ‘transnational history’ between the Netherlands and New York State (formerly New Netherland) but specifically the Native American, African and Dutch heritage from the seventeenth century forward. We sat down with Jennifer Tosch, founder of Black Heritage Tours, to discuss the origins of the project, and what we can expect from this “pilgrimage” to New Netherland.

Today, Jennifer resides in Amsterdam, but her background is actually as diverse as her tours. Her parents are from Suriname (a former colony of the Netherlands), but soon immigrated to the United States. Jennifer was born in New York, and grew up in Oakland, CA. After being out of school for almost twenty years, the story of Black Heritage Tours began at the University of California at Berkeley, where Jennifer went to finish her degree. “Jeroen Dewulf was my first professor in Dutch history, and he really opened my eyes to a lot of things that I did not know about Suriname and the Netherlands. My roots are Surinamese, my parents, my ancestors … But my parents didn’t really talk about their history, so I knew pieces from the puzzle, but not the whole story. I felt very connected to it all, and eager to learn more about the subject.”  

Initially, Jennifer came to Amsterdam for a precolonial history course, taught by the Black Europe Summer School (BESS), where she gained a lot of knowledge on the African diaspora in Europe. When she went to the Netherlands for an exchange program at Utrecht University in 2012, she felt a disconnect to her previous experience. “The studies were mostly focused on the Dutch Golden Age, talking about the VOC, trade, and expansion to the East Indies. There was very little attention for the Dutch West Indies, or slavery in general. I was very frustrated about that, and decided to do my final paper on the traces of black history that were still visible in Amsterdam.”

She came in contact with The National Institute of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee), where they helped her to locate those physical traces. This research eventually resulted in the first Black Heritage Tour. “At that point I had only about 15 locations, houses that had African elements on them, and the Van Loon family crest inside the Van Loon Museum. I was so excited about what I had discovered that I wanted to take some of my friends and colleagues, and show them what I had found. So one day, we did a beautiful tour of the Amsterdam canals, and my colleagues said: ‘This is amazing. We are from here, and we have never seen this, you should do this as a tour.’ And I was thinking: a tour? No, I am only here for six months, I am returning to California – I have a whole different life planned out. But I did a few more, and I realized this was something really special.”

Jennifer officially launched the tour in 2013, which also happened to be the year of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. What followed was a book, “The Amsterdam Slavery Guide,” co-authored by Dienke Hondius, Nancy Jouwe, Dineke Stam, Annemarie de Wildt and Jennifer herself, which contains over 150 locations in Amsterdam connected to colonial slavery. “Dienke Hondius has really been on the frontline, she has done a lot of projects to gain public attention. One of the things she did, which is in the book, is make a map which locates the Amsterdam homes of all the Dutch plantation owners, slave owners and shareholders in the West Indian Company. This resulted in a much larger project called ‘Mapping Slavery’ of VU University in Amsterdam, which has brought the whole extent of the tour to New York State.”  

In London – “of all places!”, she laughs – Jennifer met the Director of International Tours of New York State at I Love New York. “I said to him, you know, this history that we have is not just about the Netherlands or Europe, it is connected, it is global and I have this great idea of doing a tour that connects the Netherlands to the US and New York. Wouldn’t that be an interesting experience? He said, ‘sure,’ but I thought he was just being nice. When I came back to Amsterdam, I received an email of his assistant saying, ‘well whatever you said to my boss, he wants to develop a tour with you in New York.’ Two years later, here we are!”

The tour is about the whole state of New York; everything that used to be New Netherland. It starts in Albany, goes all the way down through the Hudson Valley, and eventually ends in New York City. The pilot tours are only one day, but the full tour will become a three-day experience. “‘I Love New York’ sponsored us to travel throughout the state, visit literally every site, and experience the narrative. They wanted us to discover the connection not only to African and Dutch, but also to Native American heritage.”

Jennifer refers to the tour as ‘a pilgrimage.’ ““What made the tours in Amsterdam very unique, is that every tour is not just a script that you read from a book, but an experience that is different to each person. Here, we go to cemeteries, landmarks, museums, historic sites and festivals. We visit an exact replica of Dutch trader Adriaen Block’s ship ‘Onrust, (the first yacht built in the United States, red.), go to one of the largest private Native American collections in Red Hook, but also swing by a winery in a Dutch barn. It’s very diverse.”

The Black Heritage Tour has many different partners. “It are not just the universities or institutions, but also the descendent communities on all sides: Dutch, Native American and African, because there are so many layers to this story. You cannot separate these parts from each other. What we found is that the whole state still really has a living history, and contains a lot of intangible traces that are very much alive to a broad range of people.”

One thing is certain; Jennifer is very passionate about her project. “A lot of people know very little about New York State history, at least not as far back as the period we are traveling to. We are taking the knowledge that has been produced by scholars, for example The New Netherland Institute, and make it accessible to a broader audience. I am excited to see how the people that are from New York will react to that experience.”

Jennifer and her colleagues are writing a new book, “Mapping Dutch New York,” which will be released at the end of 2016. The book will be complementary to the tour, and aims to encourage people to continue the historical journey at home. “A lot of people go from taking the tour we host, to go and look deeper into their own genealogy. The ultimate goal would be that this experience would allow us to talk more openly about the differences in our society: racism, sexism.. there are origins to these things, and we try to touch on them as well.”  

In an article of ‘Het Parool,’ a Dutch newspaper, Jennifer stated: “This not about demonizing the Dutch and not about victimizing the black.” What story does she want to tell instead? “I think what has made the tours successful is the way we frame the narrative. We try to tell another side of the story that you normally do not hear. There is a way to talk about colonial history, there is a way to talk about slavery, and there is a way to talk about institutionalized racism, without it becoming about who has done it. I found it really difficult: how do I bring this story into the public space without the shame? If you are of African descent, you often feel that you don’t want to be connected to slavery, because of that shame. And if you are Dutch, or British, or one of these descendants of slaveholders, you always feel like you are being blamed. It is all about balance. How do I tell a story and keep it inclusive?”

In the end, this is what it is all about to Jennifer: to start a conversation to which everyone is invited. “The magic that happens, in every tour that I have done, is that people always start sharing their own stories. And there you have something special. It doesn’t matter if you are Dutch, Native American or African. If you have something about your own history that you want to share, this tour serves as an opportunity to do it; to learn about ourselves and each other.”

DutchCulture USA