Speak, So I Might See You! Afro-German Literature

Speak, So I Might See You! Afro-German Literature

World Literature Today
Volume 69, Number 3, Multiculturalism in Contemporary German Literature (Summer, 1995)
pages 533-538

Leroy T. Hopkins, Professor of German
Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania

In  recent decades Germany has struggled with the reality of being a multicultural society. The influx of political and economic refugees from Asia and Africa as well as growing friction between resident aliens euphemistically termed “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) and the German population have created a political atmosphere conducive to neofascist and nationalistic elements expounding xenophobic policies. Simultaneously, the presence of diverse cultural, racial, and ethnic groups has created opportunities for literary perspectives that can diversify and enrich German culture. One such new perspective is that of race.

In and of itself, the German discussion of race is certainly no novelty. At least since the Age of Discovery and the first modem contacts with people of color, Europeans and Germans in particular have been so fascinated by exotic areas of the world that they collected flora and fauna from those regions to “adorn” their courts, museums, and universities and slake their hunger for the supposedly curious and bizarre. The growth of the slave trade and the resultant agitation to abolish it in the Atlantic world had a counterpart in the German states, where individuals such as Alexander von Humboldt and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach either spoke against the slave trade or extolled the numerous achievements of Africans.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the slave narratives, autobiographical statements from individuals who had removed themselves from bondage, played a central role in the international struggle against slavery: the victim served a double function. First, the acquisition of literacy demonstrated the ennobling impact of European education on the “primitive”; second, the inhumanity of slavery’ was verified in first-person narration. German receptivity for such accounts was not unproblematical. Although enthralled by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictionalized account of slave life, the German public was indifferent to the factual account presented by Frederick Douglass. The German translation of Douglass’s narrative of his life, published in 1860, appeared only in one edition and was not issued again until the GDR released a new translation in 1965. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on the other hand, met with phenomenal success and sold over two million copies worldwide in just a single decade. This discrepancy in the respective receptions accorded to fictional and historical personages presages expectations about the African character (docility versus self-assuredness, object of pity versus autonomous individual, et cetera) that, fossilized by the German colonial experience and the pervasiveness of scientific racism, created a mind-set that would hinder rather than promote cross-cultural communication.

To discuss the perspective of race in contemporary German literature, it is worthwhile to focus on those writers associated with the programmatic efforts of the Afro-Germans, a heterogeneous, biracial group of individuals usually of German and African or African American heritage and born since 1945. In 1984 the late feminist author and scholar Audre Lorde presented a lecture and workshop in Berlin that apparently struck a resonant chord among the biracial women present. Lorde’s topic was African American and feminist literature. Allegedly the confrontation with African American literature and history led those present to call themselves “Afro-German” and to record “their-story.” The result has been organizational and publishing initiatives as well as a series of texts that include such disparate genres as lyric, film, essay, and rap. Perhaps the most interesting aspect in the evolution of Afro-German literature is the reception of the African American experience.

As an early step in their search for cultural identity the Afro-Germans organized a women’s group, ADEFA (for “Afrodeutschc Frauen” or Afro-German Women), and the ISD (for “Initiative Schwarze Deutsche” or Black German Initiative), with affiliated branches in major urban centers such as Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart. Perhaps recognizing the necessity of a major public campaign to attract the attention of a populace faded by over a generation of self-recrimination because of war crimes, the Afro-Germans turned to the mass media. Two provocative television broadcasts aired in 1986 and the energies released by Audre Lorde in Berlin culminated in the publication of Farbe bekennen: Afrodeutschc Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichie (Acknowledging Color Afro-German Women on the Trail of Their History). Part essay, pan oral history, this fascinating cross section of the Afro-German experience from the Wilhelminian empire up to the very recent past allowed bicultural women of color to reflect on the daily racism and sexism that have stalked them since childhood. As such, the selections are reminiscent of…

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