A Bittersweet Respite

 

Afro German
Street Art, Berlin, Germany. Taken by Kimberly Alicia Singletary, PhD.

When I was 11, I read about a black girl, like me, who was from the Midwest and managed to escape a racial present that all but determined a racial future predicated on ideas from a racial past. I wondered if I, too, could be like Miss Josephine Baker and find the same kind of respite overseas. Was it possible, I wondered, to shrug off the straitjacket of racial certitude—where people thought they knew everything about you just by the color of your skin—and live outside of the confines of race? I’ve been testing that question since I was 15, relishing how my nationality often seems to cause more offense than my race in nearly every one of the 25 countries I’ve visited.

Like Ms. Baker and the scores of American blacks before and after her, I have found Europe to be a space where the twoness I feel at home as a Person of Color and an American weighs less heavily upon me. And yet, if I am honest, the problems of race and racism aren’t ameliorated overseas, rather, they have a different accent. While I have found a second home in Germany, I am protected by my Americanness and my ability to return at any time to the Midwest and my blue house with its pond in the backyard and the cat in the front window. For Germans of Color, however, the problems of racism and racial exclusion cannot be alleviated with a plane ticket and a passport.

When I took my first school trip to Germany as a 15 year old, I encountered two neo-Nazis on the train in Hamburg who looked at me with open hatred. My host brother quickly intervened and soon the two men were asking me about Chicago and wishing me a nice stay. “Why were they so nice?” I asked, shaken. “Oh. You’re not trying to stay here,” M responded, casually. “You bring tourist dollars.” That experience sums up the problems of inclusion that members of the global black diaspora often face: to visit is one thing, but to ask for rights, to seek power, to claimspace is another thing altogether.

It seems odd to talk about racial privilege as an American of Color, but in Germany, there remains a real and persistent threat of political and social disenfranchisement in addition to the threat of bodily harm.  It is impossible not to notice that the warm welcome I receive as a young(ish) woman (with class privilege) abroad is predicated upon a certain degree of hypervisible black American glamour prevalent in US film, music, TV, and other forms of pop culture in Germany.  The spotlight on non-German blackness opens the door for the simultaneous erasure of black Germanness in the German public sphere.  The many representations of blackness in Germany represent North American, Caribbean, or African cultures; it implicitly marks blackness as foreign, allowing the longstanding misconception that all Germans are white to fester. This ultimately creates the “impossibility” of claiming Black and German as a potential category of being.

The overabundance of U.S. American blackness in the German public sphere makes it seem as if the Afro-German population is smaller than it is, or less politically active than it is. Afro-Germans face a battle not only to gain more visibility as always already German citizens, but to also stake a claim in how Afro-German history and identity is relayed in realms where they have been historically disenfranchised. In a recent open letter to the University of Bremen, a long list of Afro-German political groups, academics, and activists condemned the university’s new Creative Unit on Black Studies.  In not offering any one of its graduate or faculty positions to a black person, German or otherwise, they argue, the unit reproduces the very inequality they purport to be committed to solving.   “Although Black German researchers pioneered this historiographical and conceptual work, they remain mostly at the margins of the white German academy or have had to leave the country to seek academic employment elsewhere,” they write. “The research of those Black German scholars, who have been working and publishing on this topic in Germany for many years are only mentioned within the context of a ‘grassroots activism of black diasporic writers’ which is why they – according to the proposal – ‘enjoy only a very precarious visibility on the fringes of academic scholarship or outside of academic disciplines.’ The reasons for this ‘precarious visibility,’ however, are neither discussed in the proposal nor does it lead the authors to consider changes in their own hiring and funding practices.”

The erasure of black Germanness from the German public sphere has long been an irritant for Germans of Color and it is something I take into account when I travel to Germany. I often ask myself if my inclusion is predicated upon the understanding that I don’t want to claim a German identity or foresee having (at least) half black German children who will want to lay ancestral (and economic) claim to the German Fatherland. I often wonder if I am not treated as a threat because even now, several years hence, I bring tourist dollars.

Kimberly Alecia Singletary is a PhD from Northwestern University’s Program in Rhetoric and Public Culture. She analyzes images of US blackness in the German public sphere and maintains a blog, “Melancholy and the Infinite Post-Blackness.” She currently is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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