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A Juneteenth Haggadah for a new ritual meal

As Black Lives Matter demonstrations are being held across the globe with unusually large numbers of participants of different colors and ages, we are also witnessing an increasing awareness of the continuing impact of our shared histories of slavery and colonialism and their aftermaths. Ignited by the police brutality against persons of color, many people are now realizing how hard it is to honestly face this history, and the racism and discrimination that are its continuing heritages at all levels of our societies.

Overwhelming as this task is, many ask themselves: where should we start, how can we stop this history from continuing to produce violence and injustice? Our response has been the Keti Koti Table, an interracial reconciliation celebration similar to a Juneteenth Haggadah with which we have now reached around 14,000 people in the Netherlands, the US and Germany.

Sharing personal experiences at the Keti Koti Table in Muider church.

Sharing personal experiences at the Keti Koti Table in Muider church. Image by Keti Koti Foundation

A mixed Dutch couple of Jewish-Surinamese descent — his family being decimated during the Holocaust, and her great-great-grandparents being enslaved on a plantation in Surinam – we were inspired by the Seder table and ritual as a tool to remember, celebrate and discuss the histories and consequences of the Jews’ emancipation from slavery some 3000 years ago.

We decided to create something similarly profound and uplifting for celebrating and reflecting upon the abolition of slavery by the Dutch on July 1, 1863. Adjusting Passover’s rituals, songs, festive meal and conversations to serve the urgent needs of our multicultural societies, still haunted by their ugly pasts, we named our table after Keti Koti, meaning “cutting the chains” in Sranang Tongo, the creole language still familiar in Surinam.

Keti Koti Table at St. Mary’s college (St. Mary’s, VA), 2016.

Keti Koti Table at St. Mary’s college (St. Mary’s, VA), 2016. Image by Keti Koti Foundation

For example, instead of lighting the Yom Tov candles with a recitation and prayer, our table typically starts with a libation ceremony and an ancestral prayer in Sranang Tongo, connecting the participants with ancestral cultures and traditions from Africa and the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Tear-drawing maror has been replaced with Kwasi Bita, a bitter wood that physically evokes the bitter pain of the past. The four children’s questions are replaced with questions that invite participants to recount the unfamiliar history of slave trade, slavery and their aftermaths, such as: how did the triangular slave trade connect Europe, Africa and the Americas and how is that related to current relations? How were the enslaved dehumanized by the enslaving parties and can we find elements of this process still around us? Instead of Dayenu and other songs, we sing songs of lament or of freedom, like “Amazing Grace.” The cup for Elijah has been replaced with a table covering for the unexpected guest, symbolizing the hospitality which was common among enslaved persons on the plantations.

However, there are also some distinct characteristics of our table that indirectly shed an interesting light on the Passover Seder table and Haggadah. The most important distinctions are the interactions that the Keti Koti Table creates between participants:

  1. A dialogue between participants about their experiences, emotions and insights regarding a topic related to the shared history of slavery and its aftermath is central to the Keti Koti Table. The conversations are highly structured to divide speaking time equally among dialogue partners, attentive listening is made as important as speaking, and time is reserved for silent reflection.

  2. For each Keti Koti Table, we define an overlapping theme and triplet of dialogue questions that are tailored to the specific context, time and audience involved. Themes have been: exclusion and civil courage; every voice counts; personal emotions and family pasts; and personal identity and our shared past of slavery. Avoiding polarizing debate and discussion, these questions are such that participants exchange their personal experiences, emotions and insights to enhance mutual understanding and empathy. Indeed, research supports this essential function of personal dialogue, making it effective in mitigating racism and discrimination — a reason why the Keti Koti Table has been recommended as an effective intervention by Dutch semi-governmental think tank Movisie.

  3. The Keti Koti Table is explicitly meant to bring together mixed groups of Black and white (and those in between) participants. Although many people are hesitant about this arrangement, we are witnessing again and again how important it is to have such personal exchanges with a stranger who has significantly different experiences, emotions and insights. Such exposure leads not only to understanding and empathy for the other person, but also increases self-awareness. Indeed, many participants — both Black and white — told us that they shared a meaningful secret for the first time to another person, of another color, at our table.

  4. The efficacy of the dialogue is due to the safe and intimate environment created by the Keti Koti Table’s elements. One ritual in particular is powerful in creating the foundation upon which the personal dialogue can rest. Using a bit of coconut oil, two dialogue partners silently rub each other’s wrists, rubbing away the chains or pain of the past. This intimate, tactile interaction moves many participants to tears, especially Black participants experiencing the care and attentiveness of their white dialogue partner.

Rubbing each other’s wrists with coconut oil while chewing bitter wood.

Rubbing each other’s wrists with coconut oil while chewing bitter wood. Image by Keti Koti Foundation

This First of July is different from other years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of hosting large Keti Koti Tables in churches, libraries, universities and elsewhere, we are now preparing almost 1000 Keti Koti bags, bringing the dialogue to kitchen tables across the country. Having given special workshops to mixed groups of citizens last year, such Keti Koti collectives will distribute our bags and host special events locally. We will facilitate online from the National Theatre in The Hague, connecting to hundreds of participants in their homes. They are taking to heart the Dutch Emancipation Day, engaging personally to stop racism and discrimination in our communities, and taking their experiences of Keti Koti to their families, professional contexts and social worlds — Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for ‘healing the world’) at the Keti Koti Table.

The Keti Koti discussion flow.

The Keti Koti discussion flow. Image by Keti Koti Foundation

Resources in English can be found at the Keti Koti site, and on Facebook. Videos (partly Dutch spoken)are here.

A comparative analysis of the Passover Seder-table and the Keti Koti Table has been made in: Stoutjesdijk, M. (2019), “Judaism, slavery and commemorative ritual in the Netherlands” in NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion (73:2, pp. 65-85).

Dr. Machiel Keestra is philosopher and Diversity Officer at the University of Amsterdam and co-founder of the Keti Koti Table ([email protected] ). Mercedes Zandwijken is a psychotherapist, community activist and founding director of the Keti Koti Table foundation ([email protected] ).

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