What is the Black German Experience? A Review of the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey 2nd Annual Convention

Posted 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


Steven F. Riley

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

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Rutgers Student, a German ‘Brown Baby,’ Helps Others Search for their Identities and Creates Community

Posted in Articles, Biography, Europe, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United States on 2013-04-02 02:43Z by Steven

Rutgers Student, a German ‘Brown Baby,’ Helps Others Search for their Identities and Creates Community

Focus: News for and about Rutgers faculty, students, and staff
Rutgers University

Carrie Stetler

She grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, as Wanda Lynn Haymon, the only child of an African-American mother and father who made her feel special and loved.
But when relatives whispered at family gatherings, she knew they were talking about her. One day she asked her parents if she was adopted.
 “Do you feel adopted?’’ they answered.
She did, but had no proof until 1994 when Wanda Lynn discovered that she was born Rosemarie Larey in Viernheim, Germany, the daughter of a black soldier and German mother. Although she was born in 1956, just 11 years earlier, Nazis, who regarded blacks as racially inferior, sent some of the estimated 25,000 Afro-Germans to concentration camps. Many were subject to medical experiments or were forcibly sterilized. Others simply disappeared.
After the war, the stigma of bearing a bi-racial child was so great that many mothers brought their children to orphanages, which often placed them with African-American families in the United States.
Today, Rosemarie Pena  (her married name) is completing her master’s degree at the Rutgers-Camden, in the Department of Childhood Studies, researching the history of “brown babies,’’ as they were known at the time of their birth, as well as people who identify as Afro-German around the world.
Pena also heads the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey, an academic organization that connects Afro-Germans internationally. Its mission is to document and inform others about black Germans and their history. For post-war adoptees like Pena, the society helps them find closure and connects them with others who share their experience…

Read the entire article here.

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Bringing together our collective stories

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Biography, Europe, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2012-11-26 18:17Z by Steven

Bringing together our collective stories

The African Courier: The International Magazine Published in Germany
October/November 2012

Gyavira Lasana

The second annual convention of the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey took place at Barnard College in New York City recently. Our New York-based contributing editor Gyavira Lasana reports on the convention, which focused on the theme of “What Is the Black German Experience?

“Black German studies did not come from academia,” insisted Peggy Piesche, “but from young people who wanted to know their own history.” Professor Piesche, who was born and raised in the former East Germany and who now teaches at Hamilton College in New York, asserted her observation during an early-morning panel discussion on “Teaching the Black German Experience” at the second conference of the Black German Cultural Society (BGCS) held recently at Barnard College in New York City.

Piesche’s words echoed a decided difference between Black Americans and Black Germans on the study and teaching of the Black German experience, a difference that would reverberate throughout the conference. The panel also included Noah Sow, the German poet/writer and music performer who was the keynote speaker at the first BGCS conference last year in Washington DC. Sow suggested that the term Afro-German be replaced by Afro-Deutsch, which is surely more German. All in all, the panel noted that Afro-Deutsch studies continue to fascinate students in the US, and are thriving and growing. That is questionable.

Here in America, Black professors of German are reaching retirement age, and they are not being replaced. Black American students are following the global trend and pursuing Asian studies – Chinese, Japanese and Korean. German lies quite low on the list of options for study. Still, the Black professors of German maintain a high degree of enthusiasm, fuelled mostly by the emerging focus on the history and culture of Blacks in Germany…

…These highly personal stories reflect the heartache, confusion and repeated dysfunction of many (but not all) biracial children growing up in the American milieu. Their quest is often identity: Am I Black or White (in this case German)? Or something in between? Is a mixed-race identity desirable/acceptable?

There is a growing discourse and body of literature on these topics in the US, but they tend to be marginalised by the journey of Blacks born and raised in Germany who more often cite systemic and day-to-day racism. For example, during an earlier panel discussion on “Claiming the Black German Experience”, Lara-Sophie Milagro, a Black German actress and founder of Label Noir, a Berlin-based Black theatre company, stated that “what I had considered to be my personal struggle is really the struggle of all people of colour in Germany, and what I had regarded as my personal problem and failure – not to be a real German and full-value human being – was really the problem and failure of a privileged and ignorant White majority.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Discovering the life of Afro-Germans

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, United States on 2012-07-01 22:29Z by Steven

Discovering the life of Afro-Germans

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer

When she was growing up in Willingboro as the only child of Walter and Perrie Haymon, she felt like “a little princess.” She was the center of her parents’ lives, attended private school, and took piano and ballet lessons.

But Wanda Lynn Haymon “always had something gnawing” at her, she said. Relatives whispered about her at family gatherings and cousins told her that she was not really part of the family.

She had recurrent nightmares, too, of being an infant abandoned on a snowy doorstep with uniformed men – possibly soldiers – standing around her.

“I really had doubts,” she said. “I’d go to my parents and ask if I was adopted and they’d say, ‘Do you feel adopted?’ I would say ‘No’ because I was treated so well.”

She found out—through documentation in 1994—that “I wasn’t who I thought I was.”

Wanda Lynn Haymon was actually Rosemarie Larey, a native of Germany who had been adopted. Her biological father was black, possibly an African American soldier, and her mother was white and a German national.

She was born in 1956, only 11 years after the Nazis, who regarded blacks as racially inferior, sent 25,000 Afro-Germans to concentration camps, where many were subjected to medical experiments and sterilization.

Even after the war, the stigma of having a biracial child caused many mothers – including Rosemarie’s – to give up their children for possible placement with African American families.

Now, as Rosemarie Peña, she heads the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey ( http://blackgermans.us/), an organization whose name belies its reach: It connects Afro-Germans internationally and seeks to document their experience.

About 200 people attended the group’s convention last year in Washington and a greater number is expected for the second convention, Aug. 10-11 at Barnard College in New York City…

Read the entire article here.

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Germany’s ‘Brown Babies’: The Difficult Identities of Post-War Black Children of GIs

Posted in Articles, Europe, History, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2011-09-26 00:25Z by Steven

Germany’s ‘Brown Babies’: The Difficult Identities of Post-War Black Children of GIs

Speigel Online International

Stephanie Siek

Rosemarie Pena’s identity document after her adoption. “Many of us never knew we were adopted, and many of us thought we were the only one,” Pena said. Her adoptive parents changed her name to Wanda Lynn Haymon. After discovering she was adopted, she reclaimed her birth name.

For many of the now-adult children of white German women and African-American GIs, adopted by families in the United States after World War II, the search for the truth has been difficult. Online communities are helping.

Rudi Richardson knew something about what it meant to be a black man in the United States. But after being deported to Germany, the country where he was born, shortly before his 47th birthday, he had to start figuring out what it meant to be black and German—in a land he barely remembered and whose language he didn’t speak.

He started life as Udo Ackermann, born in a Bavarian women’s prison in 1955. His mother, a Jewish woman named Liesolette, was serving a prison term for prostitution. His father, whom he never met, was an African-American serviceman named George. Rudi was given up for adoption.

Like thousands of other postwar children with black GI fathers and white German mothers, Richardson was raised by an African-American military family in the US. He has spent his life trying to find where he fits in.

Born in an era when Germany was still grappling with its responsibility for the Holocaust and when the US Army had a policy of not acknowledging paternity claims brought against its soldiers stationed abroad, some of these children were put up for adoption in the United States. At the time, Germany judged itself incapable of absorbing these “brown babies”—as they have come to call themselves. In the late 1940s and 1950s, efforts were made to match them with African-American military families, many of whom were stationed around Germany at the time…

…But Cardwell, who is writing a book about his experiences, has learned that his own story is not that simple. Brought to the United States as a four-year-old and adopted by an African-American couple in Washington D.C., he was raised believing that he was a very light-skinned black man. It was not until he began trying to find his biological parents as an adult that he discovered his mother was a half-German refugee from Poland, and his father was native Hawaiian who was classified as “colored” by the military because of his skin color.

“I’ve been run out of white people’s houses: ‘Who’s this black person you’re bringing in here?’ I’ve been run out of black people’s houses: ‘Who’s this white person you’re bringing in here?'” Cardwell said of his adolescence and early adulthood. “There is no belonging, which is what brown babies sought most.”…

Read the entire article here.

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