A Black German Year: A Review Essay | Karina Griffith

Bergold-Caldwell, Denise, Laura Digoh, Hadija Haruna-Oelker, Christelle Nkwendja-Ngnoubamdjum, Camilla Ridha, and Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly, eds.  Spiegelblicke: Perspektiven Schwarzer Bewegung in Deutschland. Berlin: Orlanda, 2015.

Koepsell, Philipp Khabo, ed. Erste Indaba Schwarzer Kulturschaffender in Deutschland: Protokolle. Berlin: epubli, 2015.

Kraft, Marion, ed. Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration. Münster: Unrast, 2015.

The year 2015 marked several milestones for Black people in Germany. One hundred and thirty years ago, European powers orchestrated their colonial intentions at the Berlin Conference and redrew the map of Africa to facilitate imperial interests. Seventy years have passed since the end of the Second World War, a bloody pursuit that nonetheless provided opportunities and visibility to African-Americans that they were not offered at home. The Initiative of Blacks in Germany (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, ISD) celebrated thirty years of existence. In 1986, a year after the founding of ISD, Farbe bekennen (Showing Our Colors, 1992) was published. {1} This seminal book, edited by May (Opitz) Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, was inspired by Audre Lorde’s engagement with the community. It includes Ayim’s poetry and dissertation on the historical Black presence in Germany as well as writings by other Afro-Germans.

These turning points for Black lives in Germany are observed and addressed in three German books published in 2015. Marion Kraft’s edited volume, Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration (Children of the Liberation: Transatlantic experiences and perspectives of the Black German post-war generation) focusses on the stories of the children conceived by African-American soldiers and Germans during the war. Spiegelblicke: Perspektiven Schwarzer Bewegung in Deutschland (Reflections: Perspectives from the Black Movement in Germany) commemorates three decades of the ISD. The book details the organization’s beginnings, profiles active members of the community and identifies current and future areas of concern. Erste Indaba Schwarzer Kulturschaffender in Deutschland (First Indaba of Black Cultural workers in Germany) is the documentation of an event attended exclusively by self-identified Black and Afro German cultural practitioners in Germany held at Berlin’s post-migrant theatre Ballhaus Naunynstrasse (led by the venerable creative director Wagner Carvalho) during their 2014-2015 performance, literature, dance, lecture and music program We Are Tomorrow: Visions and Memories on Occasion of the 1884 Berlin Conference (We Are Tomorrow: Visionen und Erinnerung Anlasslich der Berliner Konferenz von 1884). This review essay starts with a summary of the salient points of each text, highlighting details for further research. It goes on to identify three aspects that the texts have in common. First, each book tips its hat to Farbe bekennen in an antiphonic relationship that echoes through the books’ form, content and reverence towards Audre Lorde and May Ayim. Second, each book demonstrates through its path to publication that the Black German community is still pushed to the margins. Thirdly, the books together cement the notion that the Afro German movement is grounded in a very diverse yet tight-knit community of engaged players for whom oral history is highly valued, and respect is demonstrated through language. According to Ann Cvetkovich, trauma requires unconventional affective archives because it is plagued with denial and forgetting. {2} The testimonies in these books register the affects of a community that shares institutional and interpersonal traumatic encounters with their Heimat: Germany.

Already with its title, Kinder der Befreiung sets out to change the perspective from which the story of Black Germans born to American soldiers and German mothers during and after the Second World War is told. By rejecting the term Besatzungskind (“children of the occupation”) and choosing instead “Children of the Liberation,” Kraft gives a positive connotation to the conditions of their conception. This, too, is a response to the “call” of Farbe bekennen: the title of the second section by May (Opitz) Ayim is “Afro-Germans after 1945: The So-Called Occupation Babies” (77). Kraft, scholar, literary critic, translator, {3} holds that “remembering our stories can change the present and shape the future,” a commitment that resonates through all three books. {4} Kraft uses Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s term “Talking Book” to describe her edited volume (18). She is careful to announce that “Life Writings” are not just popular stories of consternation (Betroffenheitsgeschichten) (12). The need to distance this book from the affect of consternation speaks to a particular desire of mitigating sorrow in the representation of certain histories.

The first section, “Black people in Germany,” is a thorough précis of the history, politics and social concerns of diverse Afro German populations from the 18th century to present day. Kraft weaves a readable story, starting with the critical observations of Kant, Hegel, and Marx that created an uneven concept of race in the minds of German intellectuals, to the present-day manifestations of racialized discrimination like Blackface and racial profiling. Each historical moment concludes with a connection to a contemporary event--for instance, photos of the 2011 protest against the insensitive handling of Herero remains stolen during Germany’s massacre in Namibia (housed until recently at the Berlin Charité) augments a discussion of Germany’s colonial past. Under the heading “Fascism and Black freedom fighters,” Kraft summarizes the situation that created the subjects of her book: children born to black GIs and white German women during and shortly after WWII. The experiences of those children in Germany, which included humiliating eugenic research, international adoption (facilitated through advertisements in Ebony and Jet magazines and the Amsterdam News) and discrimination, is told in their own words in Part 2: Life Writing. Lita Littles Wimbley who grew up with both parents in the USA, tells the story of how her father, a young farmer from Jackson, Mississippi became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen and fought a second battle to marry her mother, a widow from Essen. Roy Merz, a sociologist with a joke prepared for the inevitable questions about his heritage, remembers the “House of Outcasts” (“Das Haus der Verstoßenen”) in Northern Hessen. In the 1950s approximately 40 Black German children were put in the care of Irene Dilloo, a pastor’s wife who believed in isolating the children and preparing them for the one “respectable” job Germany could offer them: missionary work in Africa. The sanctioning of such “experiments” with the lives of Black Germans is a disturbing theme. Rita Cheatom uses the word “experiment” to describe her one experience with adoption, which ended a year and a half later with her German guardians dropping her off at a train station wearing a sign with instructions to return her to a Protestant orphanage. The stories are punctuated with recounts of emotional and verbal abuse; all of the asterisks and dashes after “N” and before the “R” do not dilute the pain on these pages. Also common among the stories is the memory of consciously deciding to identify as Black, articulated as a “Black Coming Out” (121), and the fallout this has with family, friends and co-workers who would prefer they remain silent on issues of race or discrimination. Part 3 focusses on changing perspectives. Tracy O. Patton’s auto-ethnographic research explores the boundaries of memory and post-memory in understanding race through the reunion of three generations (Patton, her Black German mother, and her white German grandmother). Rosemarie Pena discusses what is at stake when we consider the compulsory US adoption and immigration of Black Germans as a form of deportation. Two terms, “inclusion” and “African Diaspora,” are interrogated in essays by Judy Gummich and Marion Kraft respectively. In another contribution by Kraft, Audre Lorde is credited with creating a “new literary genre” (261), a special form of Life Writing. She points out that oral histories are often co-authored, which speaks not only to the form of this edited volume, but Spiegelblicke and Erste Indaba as well. Two such collectively-told stories are featured in the fourth chapter of Befreiung: “Remembering Beginnings and Endings,” Kraft’s interview with Black German boxer and community worker Charly Graf, and Ika Hügel-Marshall’s story of the founding of ADEFRA (Afro-Deutsch-Frauen) in conversation with Gummich and Jasmin Eding. The final section, “Powers of Speech” features poems written by some of the aforementioned authors in addition to works of Lorde and Ayim. Lorde’s “Litany for Survival” is an appropriate epilogue; a call to which the Black German writers, activists and community workers have responded through their tenacity in witnessing the Black German movement.

Poetry acts as a transition between the sections of Spiegelblicke. Similar to Befreiung, the creative content is more than a documentation of a movement and its players. The book recovers the negative emotions experienced through painful encounters with German racism while making space for the positive memories that flourish in self-created safe spaces. With over 40 contributors and six editors, Spiegelblicke is a veritable “who’s who” of the movement. The volume endeavours to create a space for the multiple perspectives on ISD’s place in agitating the singular story of German history and experience. The first of seven parts responds to the call of Farbe bekennen, the groundbreaking text that contributor Gabriela Willbold (who organized an ISD meeting in the former East Germany in the late 1980s) and others call their “Bible” (181). It features portraits of some original contributors and an essay by Kraft comparing and contrasting Lorde and Ayim’s work. Editor Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly reveals that one of the first organized meetings of Black Germans was documented in a 1985 ARD television documentary titled “A bit Black, a bit White or What it means to be a German N***r” (20). This story is also told as part of Hügel-Marshall’s piece on the beginnings of ADEFRA and ISD in Befreiung (“ADEFRA—Die Anfänge. Ein Gespräch mit Rita Cheatom, Jasmin Eding und Judy Gummich,” 322). Photos augment two articles expressing the need for and history of Black perspectives within Germany’s Black History Month celebrations. The second section, “Relationships” (“Beziehungen”) starts with touching portraits and testimonies of Black German youth. After reading about the painful name-calling, discrimination and teasing these young people endure, one starts to grasp the significance of segregated safe-spaces like the annual ISD national meeting, which two of the teenage girls have attended since birth. Katja Musafiri’s article on the perspectives of German children incorporates the research and experiences of sociologist Manuela Ritz and professor Maisha-Maureen Eggers with accounts of Black people growing up in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. The juxtaposition of Musafiri’s piece with the contemporary portraits highlights the parallels between historical experiences and those of the youth of today. One woman, Carmen, speaks about trying not to stand out growing up in Berlin-Zehlendorf in the 80s and 90s, a coping and security measure that comes up again in the next section, where Theodor Wonja Michael admits to doing the same during his own youth in Nazi Germany. Michael’s portrait starts the third section on “Self-discovery,” a collection of biographies of elders of the Black German community and texts on empowerment from trainers and community workers in the field. Editor Hadija Haruna-Oelker’s article reminds us that language itself is an affective archive, and racist terminology in children’s books has a pedagogical effect of teaching bigotry to new generations. Oelker also contributes to the fourth section on “Concealed stories,” with an article on the recurring theme of genocide in German encounters with Black people (starting with the Berlin Conference in 1884, continuing with the massacre of the Herero people in 1904 and followed by the forced sterilization of Black Germans in Rheinland in 1937). Joshua Kwesi Aikins’ article on the renaming of street signs that honour colonial generals continues the theme of “omission”; his use of the concept of “multidirectional memory” seems to be in conversation with Patton’s work on Memory and Post-memory in Befreiung. The renaming of “Gröbenufer” to “May-Ayim-Ufer” in 2010 and the creation of the travelling exhibition “Homestory Deutschland” (recounted in two articles in this section) are just some of the examples of much-needed Black perspectives on German history. Manuela Ritz’s reflections on the concept of “passing” and her East German heritage rounds out this section on things left unsaid.

Haruna-Oelker contributes two pieces to the fifth section “Media and Arts”: an interview with Grada Kilomba on racist messages in charity ads and an introduction to Black/German media organizations including AFROTAK TV, the lobby group New German Mediamakers (Neue Deutsche Medienmacher, NDM), and media watchdog der braune mob e.V. (the brown mob association). Simone Dede Ayivi and Lara-Sophie Milagro each provide perspectives on acting and theatre making by Blacks in Germany. The chapter starts with a series of portraits. Sculptor Stephen Lawson and playwright/performer Philipp Khabo Koepsell (creator of the Indaba and editor of the corresponding book) retell the significance of the ISD to their Black awareness and experience; Aicy Eisner (former owner of the Aicy+Mimi restaurant at Berlin’s Werkstatt der Kultur) makes the important connection between community-building and supporting Black businesses. Poet and doctor Gabriela Willbold’s account of how she was asked “Where are you from?” on a daily basis (as opposed to now, when she is “only” questioned monthly) mirrors Abyl’s story of racial profiling in the following section on Resistance (“Allianzen und Widerstand”). Constant checks and verifications of one’s identity and right to belong turn each encounter into a border crossing. The home of the Black body in Germany is permanently terrorized. Aikins confidently articulates how a threat to space and place is as a human rights violation in a strong article rounding out the final section on “Future.” Spiegelblicke ends with biographies and photos not only of the authors, but also of those interviewed who did not write in their own voice. One page features the names of other people who were mentioned in passing, a wonderful gift for German Studies scholars interested in biographical approaches.

This attention to voices stands out as special aspect of all three books. The most exciting part of reading them in tandem is the cast of recurring characters. Many contributors in Spiegelblicke come to the table in Erste Indaba. In addition to the cross-overs outlined earlier, journalist Anne Chebu sits on the first panel of the Indaba and contributes a short interview with young voices in Hamburg to Spiegelblicke. Joshua Kwesi Aikins (who contributed two essays to Spiegelblicke) moderates the second all-female panel at the Indaba. Michael Götting, author of Contrapunctus (a polyphonic novel about the collective consciousness of the Berlin Republic depicted through the experiences of four Black Germans) was on the first panel at the Indaba discussing his curatorial work at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse. Spiegelblicke lists him in a roll call of Black Germans present at some of the first ISD meetings in Wiesbaden. He contributes a piece on Each One Teach One (E.O.T.O., the Berlin library dedicated to Vera Heyer’s dream of a collection of Black-authored books), as well as the edited series of profiles of cultural producers in Germany. Included is a profile of Philipp Khabo Koepsell, curator of the first Indaba. Self-published by writer, editor, and curator Koepsell in cooperation with Ballhaus, Erste Indaba is the documentation of a closed event for self-identified Black cultural creators and facilitators that took place early in 2015. While most safe-spaces focus on processing and neutralizing the negative effects of racist encounters, the Indaba was more than a filter. The conversation starts where Spiegelblicke leaves off--a look towards the future. The book begins with a look back at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse’s three and a half-month program “We Are Tomorrow,” a ground-breaking cultural investigation of the Berliner Conference with a focus on decolonization. The first day of the Indaba invited a panel of curators and programmers to discuss their position as middle-men between their Black community and the financiers that make projects possible. The Indaba hosted another panel on the second day, called “Cultural and Artistic practice: Experiences and Visions” (“Kulturelle und künstlerische Praxis: Erfahrungen und Visionen”). The all-female group included author Chantal Sandjon (joined on the panel by her toddler), directors Julia Wissert and Simone Dede Ayivi, curator Sandrine Micossé-Aikins, and author/publisher Sharon Dodua Otoo (winner of the Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize in 2016). The handwritten surveys included in the back of the book are an intimate example of the multiplicity of voices included. Guests shared their priorities and ideas for working together to create opportunities in their vision of inclusive German cultural spaces. Where this book differs from Spiegelblicke and Befreiuung is its focus on establishing new initiatives. The book features two “Strategy boxes” and ends with a chapter called “Wishes, Visions and Requirements” (“Wünsche, Visionen und Forderungen”). In this way, Erste Indaba responds to the call of Farbe bekennen not just with responses but with further calls to action.

That Erste Indaba comes to us through a self-publishing platform underlines this self-determined approach. Koepsell’s first book, Die Akte James Knopf: Afrodeutsche Wort- und Streitkunst (The James Knopf Dossier: Afro German Prose and Polemics), was published by Unrast in 2010, however since then, all of his edited volumes—The Afropean Contemporary: Literatur- und Gesellschaftsmagazin (The Afropean Contemporary: Literature and Society magazine) (2015), Arriving in the Future: Stories of Home and Exile (co-edited with Asoka Esuruoso) (2014), and Afro Shop (2014)—have been self-published through the epubli platform. Orlanda, the original publisher of Farbe bekennen, also published and distributes Spiegelblicke. Their focus is female stories and storytelling; Orlanda has been an enduring record of where the Afro German womens’ movement and the feminist movement meet. Münster-based Unrast was founded on the principle of anti-fascism and is still one of the best-known leftist publishers in Germany. The path to publication for each of these three books signifies that “when and where” Black Germans enter is still through the back door; the concept and title of Paula Giddings’s text on situating African American women in US history is emblematic of questions of place and belonging for the Black body in white spaces. Spiegelblicke and Erste Indaba were born out of self-created, Black-only safe spaces. Creating a book without those parameters opens up these spaces to white audiences. This opening-up is conditional. For Erste Indaba, the demand is clear: opportunities for Black artists and cultural producers in Germany. Spiegelblicke is a celebration of many demands met and a chronicle of methods for community empowerment. Befreiung makes an eloquent appeal for more research into Afro-German culture, and for German universities to build upon the research of academics at North American institutions and find a place for Black History, Literature, and Culture on their own campuses. The mise-en-scène of the spaces the books create is its format and language. Two of the books, Erste Indaba and Spiegelblicke, start with a glossary of terms. While Befreiung includes many definitions and articles on terms (the terms “POC”, “White” and “black” are defined in the introduction), attention to how one speaks within the Black German movement is not as upfront. Perhaps because it assumes an academic audience, the reader is given the benefit of the doubt. The glossary in Erste Indaba consists of two terms, “Schwarze Menschen” and “POC,” with instructions to consult Susan Arndt’s 2012 article “Die 101 wichtigsten Fragen- Rassismus” for further information. Spiegelblicke’s glossary contains the same two words, but notably provides a definition for “white” (“weiß”), where it is explained that in this book, “white” will not appear in italics, because the focus of Spiegelblicke is Black perspectives (13). Its glossary features a collection of English terms (“Othering,” “Passing,” “Racial Profiling,” “Prison-Industrial Complex,” “Empowerment,” “Colorism”) that remain untranslated in the German discussion on racism. Another glossary starts the section on Black Queer perspectives, with a helpful list for terms used in the LGBTIQ community. Lessons in language facilitate oral history and protect safe spaces for testimony—respectful discussion is encouraged as a means for change. If we think of each text as a space for an affective archive, we can explore how one enters and exits that space. The glossary acts as a foyer or waiting room for the reader—learning and understanding the terms used by the Black German movement is a rite of passage before entering the space of the affective archive.

In reading these books, one has a sense of experiencing history in the making—a history protected by storytellers silenced through omission from Germany’s popular narrative. Befreiung is firmly planted in the past and passes the torch to Spiegelblicke, which documents the lives of those a generation later. Erste Indaba is a prototype for mobilizing the empowerment fostered in multi-generational, self-defined safe spaces. Together, the three texts represent three generations and the past, present, and future of the Black German movement.

Karina Griffith is a PhD student in her second year at the University of Toronto's Cinema Studies Institute in Canada. A moving image artist and practitioner, her films and installations explore the themes of fear and fantasy, often focusing on how they relate to identity. Her current research interests include Black authorship in German cinema, critical ethnography, affect theory and creolization.

Notes

1 Farbe bekennen was preceded by a lesser known, thinner volume: ...und wenn du dazu noch schwarz bist: Berichte schwarzer Frauen in der Bundesrepublik, edited by Gisela Fremgen. The book’s tone is less empowering, perhaps because only through their first names are used to identify the Black German contributors.

2 For more on this concept see Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings.

3 See Lorde.

4 Here the original German: Ein Erinnern der Geschichte kann Gegenwart verändern und Zukunft gestalten” (57).

Works Cited

Arndt, Susan. Die 101 wichtigsten Fragen- Rassismus. München: C.H. Beck Verlag, 2012.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003.

Esuruoso, Asoka and Koepsell, Philipp Khabo, ed. Arriving in the Future: Stories of Home and Exile. Berlin: epubli, 2014.

Fremgen, Gisela ed. …und wenn du dazu noch schwarz bist: Berichte schwarzer Frauen in der Bundesrepublik. Berlin: edition CON, 1984.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: W. Morrow, 1984.

Götting, Michael. Contrapunctus. Münster: Unrast, 2015.

Koepsell, Philipp Khabo. Die Akte James Knopf: Afrodeutsche Wort- und Streitkunst. Münster: Unrast, 2010.

---, ed. The Afropean Contemporary: Literatur- und Gesellschaftsmagazin. Berlin: epubli, 2015.

---. Afro Shop. Berlin: epubli, 2014.

Lorde, Andre. Die Quelle unserer Macht: Gedichte. Trans. Marion Kraft and Sigrid Markmann. Berlin: Orlanda, 1994.

Opitz (Ayim), May, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, eds. Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. Trans. Anne V. Adams, with a foreword by Audre Lorde. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.