The United Kingdom has a Black History Month in October of every year. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote in February 2006 that the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland ("Black People in Germany Initiative") has been organizing a Black History Month in Germany since 1990 but I have not found much information on their homepage. In order to shed more light on the history and contributions of black people in Germany, the Atlantic Review has teamed up with Jewels in the Jungle blogger Bill, an African-American who has been living in Germany for years, as well as two Afro-German friends of his: Patrick and Patricia.
"Black Germans? Are you serious?"
Answer: Definitely! About.com guide Hyde Flippo, a retired teacher of German language, history, and literature in the U.S.A. provides some statistics and some history:
Black Germans? Non-Germans may be understandably surprised to learn that there are Afro-Germans (Afrodeutsche), but many Germans themselves are unaware of the concept of a German who is also black (ein Schwarzer). While compared to other minorities, such as the 2 million Turks living in Germany, blacks are definitely a tiny minority among Germany's 82 million people. While EU countries do not keep track of ethnicity, there are an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Blacks living in Germany today.Mr. Flippo provides a lot more information about African Americans in Germany and lists some famous Afro-Germans which includes well-known entertainers like Roberto Blanco (very popular with older Germans) and singer Xavier Naidoo (a big star with younger Germans), as well as two members of the German National Soccer Team (Gerald Asamoah, David Odonkor), and ZDF-TV network morning news anchor Cherno Jobatey.
The history of black people in Germany goes back much further than most people think. One of the first Africans known to have lived in Germany was Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703-1759). Born in what is today's Ghana, Amo came under the protection of the Duke (Herzog) of Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) and grew up in the duke's castle. He was both the first African known to attend a German university (Halle) and the first to obtain a doctorate degree (in 1729). As a professor, under his preferred name of Antonius Guilelmus Amo Afer, he taught at two German universities and published several scholarly works, including a Latin treatise entitled De Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi (1736, "On the Art of Philosophizing Soberly and Accurately"). Knowing the level of his achievements, it is all the more surprising to learn that Amo returned to Africa in 1747. Most accounts claim the reason for his return to his native Africa was the racial discrimination he encountered in Germany.
While Germany does not have a series of big events labeled "Black History Month," there are nevertheless quite a few projects that highlight Afro-Germans.
Below the jump, this Atlantic Review post presents some quotes from articles about various Afro-German artists and their views on life in Germany, followed by a few thoughts on the concept of Black History Month:
• The Sueddeutsche Zeitung interviewed the Nigerian-German musician Adé Bantu about Afro-German identity issues. Adé Bantu also founded the anti-racism Hip-Hop music project Brothers Keepers e.V. a non-profit organization with over 90 Afro-German musicians and performers including top stars Xavier Naidoo, Mamadee, Afrob, Samy Deluxe, Eased (Seeed), Patrice und Gentleman et Al.
• The documentary "Yes I Am" describes the biographies of several Afro-German artists and "social acceptance of African-Germans offstage" ("gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz von Afrodeutschen abseits der Bühne"). The Hamburger Abendblatt writes that the documentary premiered in German cinemas on February 15, 2007. I imagine that this event could be considered part of a German Black History Month although no one has promoted the event as such.
• "African-German Filmmakers Hope to Open Up 'New Perspectives,'" writes David Gordon Smith in Spiegel International about a special series at the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale):
The African-German community has a long history, but the sizeable minority is often overlooked in a country where being German is often considered to mean being white. Now a group of black German filmmakers is trying to change that. (...)The article continues to discuss stereotypical roles in German films and points out "There is no Denzel here" and that "black filmmakers in Germany have a lot of catching up to do compared with the United States, where the Black Filmmaker Foundation is an integral part of the filmmaking scene."
The series features six short films that aim to represent the breadth of black filmmaking in Germany -- from Yohannes' coming-of-age story, to "You Are Welcome!," a documentary featuring interviews with German visitors to Ghana, to "Diver," a cartoon about a German superhero. However Yohannes emphasizes that black German filmmakers see themselves as complementing the mainstream. "We are not trying to segregate or differentiate ourselves," she says. "Rather, we're coming together in order to become visible."
They have a hard task ahead of them. Black Germans, who generally refer to themselves as Afrodeutsche or African-Germans, have to constantly fight to be accepted as German -- for many people within and outside Germany, being German is synonymous with being white.
It's not known exactly how many African-Germans live in Germany -- one legacy of the Holocaust is that census data in the country does not include ethnicity or religion -- but estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000. Many African-Germans are the offspring of Africans who came to Germany to work or study and married white Germans. A significant number grew up in East Germany, which had links to then-communist countries such as Mozambique. There is also a growing number of German citizens who immigrated as adults from sub-Saharan Africa.
The "New Perspectives" series at the Berlinale is organized by the association Schwarze Filmschaffende in Deutschland (SFD) ("Black Artists in German Film").
• "New Perspectives" also features the documentary, "And We Were Germans," about one of the best-known African-Germans, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, who grew up in Germany during the Third Reich. His memoir "Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany" was a bestseller in Germany and was made into a TV movie, as the above Spiegel article points out.
The British Black Information Link describes Black Germans as "Hitler’s invisible victims:"
Their story is largely untold, their battle for compensation mostly fruitless. Thousands of African descent perished in Nazis concentration camps, the New Nation reports today. Many survivors have since died of old age, their place in history forgotten.This reporter spoke exclusively to two Afro-Germans, both in their 80s, who revealed their extraordinary story of living under an ever-present fear of death.
• The Atlantic Review has previously written about the musical "Martin Luther King - The King of Love" which premiered in Berlin on February 2, 2007 and will be performed in churches all over Germany. The well known German TV personality Ron Williams has written the musical and stars as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He has also starred in "One Night of Ray Charles - The Genius of Soul."
Ron Williams was born in California, joined the US Army's military police and came as a GI to Germany in the 60s. He was the first African-American radio-DJ at the US military radio station AFN. He has appeared in countless German shows on stage and on TV. He is a singer, comedian, actor, entertainer, moderator etc. One of his latest projects Mr. Williams received the Federal Cross of Merit in 2004 from the President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Check out his homepage: RON WILLIAMS (mostly in German).
Bill, author of the Jewels in the Jungle blog, informed me that he once met Ron Williams in San Francisco back in the '90's while he was on a business trip in the Bay Area. Bill described a scene from that chance meeting with Ron Williams as follows:
I was having dinner with one of my German customers who was traveling with me at the time and we both spotted Ron having dinner a few tables over from us. After we finished eating I strode over to his table and struck up a conversation with him "auf Deutsch". You can imagine the look of shock on his face (and other guests) when these two black guys start up a conversation in perfect German in the middle of an elegant Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. It was a most pleasant experience for both of us and I'm certain that he hasn't forgotten about it. I certainly haven't.
Is Black History Month a good thing?
A Black History Month should not give the wrong impression of Afro-Germans trying to segregate or differentiate themselves, while in fact they just want to be more accepted and seen as ordinary Germans. See the above quote from the Spiegel International article or the above mentioned Sueddeutsche Zeitung interview with Adé Bantu, who says that the most shared common characteristic of black Germans is being German. Links to Africa are not very strong for most. (Perhaps someone could summarize the interview into English. That would be great.)
Should Germany celebrate such a month?
While an annual Black History Month is great to draw attention, it would be even better to focus on Afro-German contributions throughout the year rather than just during the annual Black History Month. The highschool curriculum for instance could include a bit about the first Africans in Europe and at least briefly mention Anton Wilhelm Amo, who was one of the first famous Afro-Germans. Germany’s genocide of the Herero in 1904 should be mandatory teaching in all high schools; in some it is. The news media and the entertainment programs could do more to change the common misperception of Afro-Germans as poor refugees from Africa, which is too often portrayed as the lost crisis continent without differentiation between individual countries. The profile of Afro-Germans seems to have improved significantly in the last twenty years or so, but more could be done.
A Black History Month in Germany could help create awareness and change some perceptions and attitudes.
Highlighting the contributions of black Germans or Afro-Germans (or whatever term you prefer) seems to be a good way to fight discrimination and stereotypes. It is probably more effective and appropriate than lecturing racists about "tolerance."
Ideally, a Black History Month would not be necessary in Germany after celebrating it for a decade or so. The attention created during such a month would ideally end most stereotypes and discrimination. Though even in the US, there still seems to be a need for Black History Month. Thus one should not expect too much from a Black History Month in Germany.
Christopher Borrelli writes in Ohio's Toledo Blade about "Rethinking Black History Month" in the United States:
Johnny Mickler looks over his dance card and exhales. It’s full, stuffed, overstuffed, and at the time, it’s not even February yet. Oh, there will be more to come, he says. More. Just... more. More appointments to keep. More invitations to talk. More speeches to make. This being February — this being Black History Month — and Mr. Mickler being the president of the Greater Toledo Urban League, the man is busy. Way busier than, say, April. There’s a speech at Lourdes College. A talk at Owens Community College. A speech at Flower Hospital. A talk at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. A talk at Pickett Elementary School. An appearance at Cherry Elementary School. With more to come. It’s still early. February has 28 days. Mr. Mickler isn’t complaining. He will accept nearly every one of those invitations; he’s grateful for the attention. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says.
“I think it’s great we have Black History Month. We need Black History Month.” He just wonders where black history and African-American studies disappears to the moment February becomes March.
“It’s wonderful we get Black History Month, but the truth is it can trivialize things,” Mr. Mickler said. “We are part of American history. African-American history is American history, and it should be better integrated with school curriculums, better mixed into everyday life. Instead it gets crammed into one month. It becomes Booker T. Washington and Washington Carver. It becomes firsts — the first black this, the first black that. I understand why. We still have firsts in 2007, which is unbelievable. The day I don’t have to hear about another first will be a great day.” Call it persistent ambivalence. Talk about Black History Month with enough people, particularly anyone associated with an African-American organization or ethnic studies department or black history museum — the typical front lines of Black History Month — and a few tempered, recurring feelings emerge. Nobody wants Black History Month eliminated; though it was created with the hope one day it wouldn’t be needed, nobody feels that day has arrived. But nobody’s entirely comfortable with Black History Month, either.
“Yeah, you’ve got to laugh,” said Ethel Morgan Smith. Like it or not, she finds herself a lightning rod every February. In 1997 she wrote a wry essay for the Seattle Times about being black and in demand during Black History Month, and every year since, the piece circulated among friends and black intellectuals, (including Ms. Dickerson, who cites it in her Salon essay). Ms. Smith, an associate professor of English at West Virginia University and a Fulbright scholar, says after 10 years she’s received hundreds of positive letters, and maybe two negative.
“It hits a nerve, I guess,” Ms. Smith said. “We’re a crazy culture. The politics of Black History Month demand people call me now. But the reality is that folks don’t have vision. It never occurs to them to call me other times. They’re not interested in changing. I get messages on voice mail: ‘Ethel, you’re black, right? If so, call me back.’ Funny thing is, they never tell me what to do if I’m not.”
What are your thoughts on Black History Month in the US and in Germany or in Europe in general or in other countries?
We appreciate anything you would like to share about Afro-Germans as well as African-Americans in Germany.
If you are a fellow blogger, please consider writing about the history and/or contributions of black people in your country of birth or residence. Thanks. The Atlantic Review will link to your posts.
We will not limit this project to February, but continue our coverage in March.
Bill has already kicked-off our German-American team project on Black History in Europe over at his place. Do stop by Jewels in the Jungle and read the opening post "Black History Month in Europe?? An introduction to the Invisible Ones" as well as his extensive first follow-up. Patricia and Patrick are working on posts for Jewels in the Jungle as well.
I admit it is a bit weird to write in English about black history in Germany. Well, the Atlantic Review is always in English since it is the lingua franca these days. Patrick has written a detailed post in German, which will be published shortly and we will try to encourage some German language bloggers to contribute to Black History as well.
More to come in the next few weeks. Stay tuned. Subscribe to our newsletter or bookmark the Atlantic Review homepage or our history subcategory.