What is the Black German Experience? A Review of the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey 2nd Annual ConventionPosted in Articles, Europe, Live Events, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, United States on 2014-08-18 00:35Z by Steven
What is the Black German Experience? A Review of the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey 2nd Annual Convention
All photographs ©2012, Steven F. Riley
I received more than a few raised eyebrows after describing the recent trip my wife and I took to attend the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey’s Second Annual Convention at Barnard College in New York. If you are tempted to believe that being both Black and German is an oxymoron; think again. African and German interactions go back as far as at least 1600. A fact that is unknown to most, Germany played a significant role during the American Civil Rights Movement as described in Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke’s book Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany. Although Black Germans, or rather Afro-Germans, consist of less than 1% of the German population (exact numbers are difficult to determine because German demographics do not track race), they are a growing and vocal segment within Germany and beyond.
|Panel Session I: Teaching the Black German Experience – Roundtable Discussion, (Professor Priscilla Layne, Professor Peggy Piesche, Noah Sow and Professor Sara Lennox.) (2012-08-10)|
I had the opportunity to experience a bit of this Afro-German experience at the screening of Mo Asumang’s autobiographical film Roots Germania at the BGCSNJ inaugural convention last year here in Washington, D.C. What I saw made me want to learn more.
|BGCSNJ President, Rosemarie Peña (2012-08-10)||Professor and BGCSNJ Trustee Leroy T. Hopkins (2012-08-11)|
This year’s convention ran from August 10 to August 11, 2012 in Barnard’s Diana Center with the exception of the spoken word performances held at the Geothe-Institut’s Wyoming Building in lower Manhattan. I attended most of the sessions which consisted of five panels; a keynote address by Yara Colette Lemke Muniz de Faria; live readings by authors Olumide Popoola and Philipp Kabo Köpsell; a movie screening of the films “Hope in My Heart: The May Ayim Story” and “Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984-1992;” a dinner banquet; and finally a live performance by author, artist, media personality, musician, playwright, actress, scholar and human rights activist Noah Sow’s band, Noiseaux at the Blue Note.
|Olumide Popoola and Professor Peggy Piesche pay close attention during Panel Session II: Historical and Popular Cultures of Blacks in Germany. (2012-08-11)|
It is very important to note that the term “Afro-German” is a socio-political term that includes all Germans (or German identified) individuals of African descent. Although most Afro-Germans are what we in the United States might refer to as, “of mixed-parentage” (usually a “white” mother and “black” father), no distinction is made within the Afro-German diaspora between individuals of so-called “mixed” and “non-mixed” parentage. I heard the term “biracial/multiracial” no more than five times during the entire conference. I theorize that this social taxonomy is derived from the desire not to fragment an already tiny group within German society and also create internalized marginalization within an already marginalized group. A further defining of this group identity was made by Noah Sow, near the end of the first panel, “Teaching the Black German Experience,” when she emphasized that the most appropriate terminology, should be the German term, Afrodeutsche, rather than Afro- or Black- German. During her introduction of the keynote speaker, BGCSNJ president Rosemarie Peña obliged, by referring to herself as Afrodeutsche. Time will tell if this label will stick.
|Witnessing Our Histories–Reclaiming the Black German Experience. From presentation by Professor Tina Campt. (2012-08-11)|
The highlight of the conference was Yara Colette Lemke Muniz de Faria’s keynote address, “In their Best Interest… Afro-German Children in Postwar German Children’s Homes” which explored the plight of so-called “War/Brown/Occupation Babies”—the children born of the union between white German women and Black American GIs after World War II. She described the systematic removal of Afro-German children from their birth families into substandard orphanages or foster homes, where many faced emotional and physical abuse. Her keynote touched on the story of Ika Hügel-Marshall, who describes her saga in her autobiography, Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany.
Also of note were the two touching presentations by Vera Ingrid Grant, “Ruby Road: An Excerpt from Paper Girl,” and Debra Abell, “Sauerkraut and Black-Eyed Peas” within the panel “Telling Our Stories – Black German Life Writing” which both explored the life experiences of growing up in the United States as children of a white German mother and black American soldier. Lastly, Jamele Watkins’s, “Performing Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park in Germany” within the panel “ Historical and Popular Cultures of Blacks in Germany” explored the representation of blacks within theatrical presentations in Germany and discussed the controversial continued use of blackface by white German actors to represent black people.
|Vera Ingrid Grant, “Ruby Road: An Excerpt from Paper Girl” (2012-08-11)||Debra Abell, “Sauerkraut and Black-Eyed Peas” (2012-08-11)|
One slight disappointment was the poor sound, poor ventilation, poor visibility and poor lighting of the Goethe Institut’s Wyoming Building that was used as a venue for the artist performances (who traveled all the way from Europe). Were they trying to recreate a German U-boat aesthetic? Barnard’s Diana Center Event Oval on Lower Level 1—which was used for all of the panels—would have sufficed nicely. If a smaller venue was needed, the Glicker-Milstein Black Box Theatre on Lower Level 2 would have fit the bill also. I looked forward to what appeared to be an excellent documentary, “Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984-1992,” on the life of American feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992), who allegedly was the inspiration encouraging Black-German women to “call themselves ‘Afro-German’ and to record ‘their-story’.” Like Lorde, who’s life was sadly cut short due to cancer, the film screening was also sadly cut short about a third of the way in due to a defective DVD.
|Philipp Kabo Köpsell ponders his forthcoming anthology while waiting for a turkey burger. (2012-08-11)|
Like any excellent conference, the personal interactions can be as fulfilling as the sessions. The BGCSNJ Second Annual Convention was no exception. My Friday and Saturday morning chats at our hotel with Millersville University Professor of German Literature, Leroy T. Hopkins provided me with an insight into the joys and challenges of teaching German literature as a person of color and to students of color. With a declining interest in the German language by students nationwide (largely due to an increased interest in Chinese and Arabic languages), Hopkins is hopeful that Afro-German authors like Köpsell, Popoola and others will publish their works in German to provide more contemporary reading materials for university classrooms.
On an ironic note, I had the pleasure of having a one-on-one conversation over lunch on Saturday with author and spoken word author Philipp Kabo Köpsell about the necessity to write about the Afro-German experience in English. He and others are working on a book project tentatively titled, “Witnessed.”
This conference would not have been possible without the dedicated work of BGCSNJ president Rosemarie Peña and her fellow staff. Rosemarie is a woman who found out—through documentation in 1994 that she “wasn’t who she thought she was” and discovered that her biological father was black, possibly an African American soldier, and her mother was white and a German national. On Wednesday, she reported to me by phone that they are planning for the third annual convention next August.
If you are the least bit interested in the Afrodeutsche experience, I would highly encourage anyone to make plans to attend next year.
©2012, Steven F. Riley