by Vanessa D. Plumly (Lawrence University) and Tiffany N. Florvil (University of New Mexico)
Why does Black German Studies matter now? The question is an interesting one. But it should actually be framed differently: why has Black German Studies not seemingly mattered before? The word matter is of particular interest here. To matter is to signify something of importance. Indeed, what matters in diverse academic settings, which are often the bastions of white cis-heteropatriarchy, is not typically reflective of what is of value to the broader population. What matters is that which is deemed worthy in terms of cultural cache and warrants knowledge production and circulation. Moreover, whoever is in control of that matter subjects it to scrutiny, limits its scope, and circumscribes its meaning.
In many ways, matter is tied to orientation and space, and it dictates what types of representations can exist.
To quote cultural studies scholar Sara Ahmed, Women of Color in higher education/academia are viewed as “‘space invaders’, as invading the spaces reserved for others” (Ahmed, On Being Included, 13). The same conception of invading space could be argued for research conducted by, on, and in collaboration with the Black German community, as well as the growth of the field of Black German Studies within the discipline of German Studies. This research is often seen as an invasion of normative white spaces that are “not reserved” for People of Color (Ahmed 13). It is also rendered as insignificant and lacking in rigor in comparison to more established subfields in German Studies. This is due to the “myth of racelessness” that permeates discourses and practices within and beyond academia and Black German Studies’ minoritized orientation to German Studies that shapes the spaces it inhabits and how it is understood. In this way, Black German Studies is a radical act of emplacement, especially as it shifts its orientation and embeds itself within a predominately white field.
Matter also carries weight.
In German, the word matter has many affiliated words from material to body and from substance to content. Thus, Blackness as simultaneously matter and non-matter is inscribed into and onto the body and contributes to its ontological makeup. For those whom racism impacts daily, its matter manifests on and in the body in ways that become destructive and problematic. Yet, it also necessitates responses to take matters into one’s own hands in order to actively combat racial discrimination. Here, matter is compounded with the Black body as well as responses to that same othered body. Referring to the United States, Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor writes in From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, “[t]oday, we are told, that race does not matter” (Taylor 4). And yet, as we know, race is often a matter of life or death in the United States. In postwar Germany, similar claims were made that racism ceased to exist after the fall of the Third Reich. But the Rostock Riots (1992), Solingen (1993), and Oury Jalloh (2005) prove that it is also a matter of life or death in Germany. That is why changing the state of race and racism and advocating for a commitment to social justice and equality must be attended to in the here and now. And Black German Studies affords us an opportunity to do this by forcing us to recognize the persistence of everyday forms of racism in all levels of German society. By doing so, it will embolden us to think and act in a way that matters and incite critical change.
Matter has different properties.
Black German Studies certainly has different properties that contribute to its formation. It is capable of dispersal and bringing in complex interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives as well as new ways of seeing and viewing that have been ignored, or worse, erased, in a field where whiteness dominates. If we are to reconfigure German Studies—and Black German Studies is in this constant process of undoing and redoing—and comprehend it as a liquid or fluid, rather than as a solid or fully formed object, then, as scholars, we must bring in other ways of mattering beyond white cis-heteropatriarchal ones. The solid state of German Studies that is perpetually anchored in whiteness and Christianity must be turned into new matter. In this respect, German Studies should not be seen as an already accomplished fact, but as never complete and always in process–much like Black German Studies. In order to do so, we must change its properties and dominant ways of thinking in the field must experience a paradigm shift.
Black German Studies may not have mattered within the field of German Studies until the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries because that space was one that whiteness had and continues to occupy relentlessly, in which it has coopted, silenced, and exploited. The clasp of whiteness and Christianity on Germanness is also solid matter. Given this, it has made it quite difficult to decolonize the field and to bring new forms of mattering into the picture. It is not without a struggle for space (and place) that Black German Studies comes to matter. Black German Studies’ slow inclusion in German Studies has not come as a given on either side of the Atlantic. This is especially interesting despite the fact that everything that comprises the field is inherently imbricated in the histories of race and racism, colonization, and empire.
Moreover, it is Black Germans themselves who have made the subfield come to matter and solidified its existence. Equally, it is their work, labor, art, culture, activism, ideas, theories, futures, pasts, and presents that have engendered matter for Black German Studies. Their national and international grassroots efforts have often taken place outside the ivory tower of academia and have led to symbolic and social changes. But junior scholars in the United States have also helped to sustain and develop the subfield. As theorist Michelle Wright argues in Physics of Blackness (2015), what she theorizes as “Epiphenomenal time, or the ‘now’” that produces Blackness through a “when” and “where”, the now is not relegated to the present alone, but rather draws on the past and looks to the future (Wright 4). As scholars in the field of German Studies, we must fully assess the past, understand how it impacts the now, and look to a not yet manifested future to envision and produce a decolonized discipline.
Since molecules in solids are close together, much like whiteness and the desire to maintain proximity to it, they move and change state slowly. Thus, the decolonization of solid matter is an arduous and slow process, but certainly not an impossible one, especially if we look to other ways of being in matter. German Studies has the potential to take on a more fluid or malleable form that can extend through and beyond the field to bring in more nuanced ways of knowing/perception/cognition.
So Black German Studies matters. In fact, it has always mattered.