My Story…

My name is Jennifer Tosch; I was born in Brooklyn, New York, the only child of my parents, Cecilia Martha Reid and James Andre Tosch. Shortly after they married they immigrated to the United States (US) in the mid 1960s filled with hope and anticipation of fulfilling the ‘American dream’; however, as it is for many immigrants, they would be severely tested when they came to the US in the middle of the American Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, neither of them would ever return to their homeland. I grew up an American girl with mysterious Suriname roots. My mother only provided short ‘oral stories’ about her childhood and early life of living and studying in the Netherlands after World War II. This was the backdrop of my early years.

My parents divorced when I was 5 years old and my mother and I moved to San Francisco, California where I spent most of my formative years. I would not see my father again for 20 years, thereafter. After high school I attended the University of California at Berkeley, but I dropped out after struggling academically for several years. Soon after I got married and had a beautiful daughter, Noel Shannon. In another twist of fate, within a year my mother passed away after a short battle with breast cancer. During her transition in a desperate search to find the Suriname family I never knew, I discovered secrets of her past that she had hidden and buried with her – two children who claimed that she was their mother also, who were raised by her mother! Instantly, everything I had grown up believing about my mother, identity and my ‘heritage’ were put into question: Why did she leave these two children to be raised by her mother in Suriname? What could have happened to her to explain this? Who were their fathers? How could she have kept this secret from me? Were these men really her children? There were far more questions than answers, even today.

Simultaneously, I would be reunited with my father, who as it turns out, lived in Southern California and had been searching for me during all those absent years. Subsequently, I learned from him I had three brothers he had fathered, one brother before he and my mother married and two after they divorced. Needless to say, it was a shock and a huge adjustment; and, early on wrought with many challenges. It has taken 20 years in my attempt to understand my family’s complicated dynamics, and in 2012 I came to the Netherlands to complete this journey and unravel the mysteries that had been withheld from me.

In 2008 the global financial crisis hit. Like many people, I was laid off even though I had had a successful fifteen-year global marketing and advertising career in ‘corporate America’. The financial and emotional impact was devastating: I lost my home, and my car. I almost lost my father who was battling two forms of cancer and kidney disease; and, my daughter to lures of the ‘the world’. Miraculously, my father pulled through and so did my daughter, now 22, and I. Today, I am blessed today to have them both fully present in my life. I decided at that time, I would take the opportunity to return to UCB to finish my Bachelor’s degree; and, in 2010 I was re-admitted.

The turning point was a course taught at UC Berkeley about the history of Suriname, the Dutch Antilles and the Netherlands that I took after being re-admitted in 2010 to complete my Bachelor’s degree. The knowledge I gained learning about the complex history of Suriname and the Netherlands opened the door and exploded my desire to learn more. I decided for my last semester before graduating to study abroad to further study Dutch colonial history, first at the Black Europe Summer School (BESS) in Amsterdam, followed by a semester at Utrecht University that concludes in February 2013. During my experience at BESS learning about the historical and colonial legacies of European countries to discuss the origins of Black Europe is when I became keenly aware of missing and hidden histories within the Dutch canon about the experiences of Africans, Surinamese and Dutch Antilleans, who had lived in the Netherlands during colonialism. But, It was when I attended a ‘Black history tour’ that deeply troubled me, because it didn’t honor the African Diaspora’s contribution to Dutch society, and that was the ‘tipping point’ for me to develop the BHAT. As they say, the rest is ‘Herstory’.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned has been articulated by the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, in what she calls, “the danger of a single story, it is often incomplete,” and ultimately can disposes a whole group of people; and, over time, if it goes ‘uncontested’ that one story becomes the only story. My vision is that through this tour and the tireless work being done by dedicated scholars and activists throughout the Netherlands we will move from silence, shame and blame to when we will speak about ‘Black history’ with pride, and to claim the heritage that is rightfully shared. I have already been confronted with some strong resistance to sharing a ‘different’ perspective about Dutch history, in one instance a ‘Dutch historian’ physically stood in front of me during a ‘pilot tour’ trying to deter me. However, it has been through that ‘rock of resistance’ that has motivated me to ‘sharpen my sword of knowledge’. Thanks to a powerhouse A-Team, my ‘narrative’ is based on sound research and scholarship. This is simply, a perspective whose time is long overdue.

I would be remiss if I say I did this alone. It has taken a ‘village’ of support, love and friendship to get to this point. Too many to list, but you know who you are; thank you all for every role you’ve played from the beginning. And, as I have said before, nothing of this magnitude happens without some tremendous minds coming together. I especially acknowledge my ‘Advisory Board’, which I have affectionately named, the “A-Team”: Dr. Artwell Cain, ‘soon to be’ Dr. Lianne Leonora, Dr. Dienke Hondius, Annemarie Dewildt, Egbert Alejandro Martin, and most recently, Dr. Valika Smeulders and Dr. Frank Dragtenstein, thank my for sharing so generously your time, expertise, research and friendship to help inform this narrative.  Ronald Davis of Davis Digital Design thank you for guiding me through every step of the ‘creative and technical way, your ‘business acumen and creative assistance from ‘across the Atlantic’ at crazy time-differences, day and night, has been immeasurable. Last but not least, Jeffrey Butler, my business partner, childhood friend, and the ‘big brain’ behind the scenes, never would have made it without you! To my Suriname and American family and friends, especially my ‘super-bad’ 22-year old daughter, Noel Shannon; thank you for your moral, emotional and financial support; this is my legacy to you!

Some of these incredible people I didn’t even ask, but nevertheless, they stepped in at just the right moment to serve this purpose.  Thank you again everyone. I look forward to taking this ‘fantastic voyage’ with you.

SuriAm Jennifer Tosch

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