by Priscilla Layne (University of North Carolina)
In this response, I’d like to reflect on why Black German Studies is necessary both in the US and in Germany. Ironically, it seems less pressing to make a case for Black German Studies in the US. Many of the scholars who have done pioneering work in this field, including Black Germans like Fatima El-Tayeb and Peggy Piesche, and African Americans like Tina Campt and Michelle Wright, have taught or continue to teach in the US. And I have received less push back to Black German Studies’ relevance in the US, than in Germany, where unfortunately Black German scholars face even more hurdles trying to enter academia and conduct research on critical race studies once in academia. Nevertheless, I will start by considering the US context, since that is the context within which I was trained and in which I teach. And despite being seemingly open to Black German topics of study, there is still room for improvement both in US African Diaspora as well as in US German programs at the K-16 level and beyond.
Why the US Needs Black German Studies
In the American academy, Black German Studies has the potential to contribute to both German Studies and African Diaspora Studies more broadly. Within German Studies, I think the benefits of including Black German perspectives are that they help decolonize the discipline and dismantle certain assumptions people have about Germany, the German language and German culture. As someone who has no German heritage or family and became fluent from learning German in US schools, first in the Chicago Public Schools system and then in college as an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I know from being in those classrooms that most students felt German was a foreign language for people with some ethnic connection to German. However, I think the notion that the people interested in taking German are white Americans with German grandparents is very narrow. In the US, I meet all kinds of Black people who have some connection to Germany. My African American hairdresser spent several years there as a child, because her father was in the military. I recently met a Jamaican woman with a law degree who currently lives in the US, but is thinking of moving to Germany because her brother works for a German company. I have visited places in the US, from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, with African American high school students learning German. One of my best undergraduate students first started taking German at her high school in Atlanta. So when a student writes on an evaluation form that German is a “white language” and therefore the question of valuing diversity is irrelevant in a German classroom, this disturbs me, because, first, it is not true and, second, it invalidates the experience of hundreds of thousands of Black Germans, as well as many other German-speakers who are racialized and considered non-white, and the many Black people I have encountered in my life who speak German. It is time to stop perpetuating the myth that equates Germanness with whiteness and instead acknowledge Germany’s diverse past, present and future, as countless Black German scholars like El-Tayeb and Piesche have called on us to do. Teaching Black German Studies in the US can help us do that. And it can begin in K-12 and not just happen at the college level.
Secondly, I think Black German Studies can be useful for teaching students of Black Studies in the US about the diversity of the Diaspora. I am an African American of Caribbean descent. Growing up in the US with Caribbean parents familiarized me with what it’s like to be considered “not Black enough” for some people, but definitely “too Black” for the white majority. This is what resonated with me when I first discovered Black German texts. I could relate to how the construction of Blackness in different contexts can influence how people read you, and how frustrating it can feel when people try to fit you into a box instead of accepting you as an individual with a complicated history or identity that may not fit one narrative. Studying the Black diaspora in Germany opens American students of Black Studies up to the centuries-old history of African Americans traveling to Germany as scholars and artists and activists, from W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King Jr and Angela Davis. It was not until I had been studying German for some time that I learned of these previous cultural exchanges. And I remember how empowering it felt to know that I was not the only onewith an interest in Germany and that in fact I was part of a long tradition of intellectual and cultural curiosity that took African Americans across the Atlantic. Learning about the different ways African Americans were perceived in Germany, from DuBois’s positive experiences in the 1890s to Black GIs’ description of Germany as a “breath of freedom,” also helped me better understand the constructed nature of Blackness and that, despite being given a very limiting and denigrating image of Black people in the US, we were capable of a lot more than I was taught in school. Furthermore, with the right means we could also travel the world and step beyond the confines of US racism. Indeed, I have also encountered racism in Germany. And I find it important to prepare Black students for that reality if they, too, choose to visit or study there. Nevertheless, it is a powerful thing for students to imagine their world to be much larger than the confines of their neighborhood or their home state.
Why Germany Needs Black (German) Studies
I am going to frame these comments around the larger issue of why Germany needs Black Studies in general, with the assumption that establishing the discipline of Black Studies in Germany would necessarily include Black German Studies. Last fall, while in Berlin, I attended a symposium entitled Netzwerk Schwarze Perspektiven organized by Each One Teach One (EOTO), a Black cultural center located in the district of Wedding. The event took place at Humboldt University and was intended to address how and why Black Studies could be formally introduced into German academia. While there were several riveting panels of Black German scholars and activists of multiple generations who shared their challenges and experiences of studying and teaching in Germany and abroad, one panel in particular was a thorn in my side. It was a panel on how to integrate Black Studies in Germany. Two of the panelists were white, Rainer Stocker from Antidiskriminierungsstelle des Bundes and Editha von Colberg, Beauftragte für Forschungsmanagement, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). I point out their whiteness merely because they were also the only two individuals to question the legitimate need for Black Studies in Germany. Stocker’s comments seemed to suggest that one didn’t need a Black Studies department in Germany, because the Antidiskriminierungsstelle already addressed the issue of anti-Black discrimination.
But Black Studies isn’t just about studying racism and discrimination. You also cannot simply hang anti-Blackness onto some other extant research group about some other phenomenon, like neoliberalism, which was the suggestion put forward by von Colberg. Black Studies might be transdisciplinary, but it is also its own, separate thing. As Alexander Weheliye says in Habeas Visicus, Black Studies is the study of the human condition. Why? Because for a long time Black people weren’t even seen as human. Therefore, the battle around who or what is human has been carried out on the bodies of Black people for centuries; it is enmeshed in the history of Black people. And that’s why Black Studies is, in part, a struggle around Humanism; defining and redefining it, or even rejecting it for something else. So, if Humanism is such a valued part of German cultural history, then Germany needs Black Studies, and in particular Black German Studies.
Black Studies is also about valuing Black experience, history, creativity and intellectual labor. It’s about decolonizing the mind and challenging Eurocentric, white supremacist ideas that are simply passed on and glossed over whenever a Black student in Germany is asked to read Kant or Hegel without any conversation about race. It’s about challenging the alleged objectivity of white academics. It’s about representation not just of Black people more generally, but representation of Black German people as well. That’s why when von Colberg tried to defend her institution by highlighting its internationalism, suggesting they tried hard to bring in Black scholars from around the world, this was really just a cop out and an excuse to keep doing the same old thing: namely to deny the historical presence of Black Germans and maintain a homogenous view of German culture and history.
At the symposium Nana Adusei-Poku gave a presentation that addressed the fact that there is so much Black history that is buried; that people never learn about. And this is a systematic process. Black history is systematically erased and undervalued in both the US and in Germany. And in Germany, one of the challenges to solidifying Black knowledge is that Black academics tend to be spread out across disciplines and across universities, which makes it difficult to collaborate, like Maisha Maureen Eggers who teaches in the Department for Kindheit und Differenz at the Hochschule Magdeburg-Stendahl or Louis Henri Sekua who is faculty in the Department for Social Work at the HAW in Hamburg. But Black scholars have not yet infiltrated all fields. What kind of an impact would it make to have a cluster hire of people of color in a Germanistik program? And if that seems too daunting, one could begin by hiring a Black German professor in a Germanistik department who works on Black German history and culture specifically. But that would just be the beginning. The goal would be to establish a Black Studies department that allows scholars to acknowledge all of the breadth and depth of Black achievement, including Black German achievement. If they won’t teach students about Anton Wilhelm Amo in philosophy, then Germany needs Black (German) Studies to teach about him and break the cycle of silencing and repressing Black German history and culture.