Decolonising white Berlin

Theodor Michael reading from his book "Being German and also Black: Memories of an Afro-German." Image: Yoel Diaz Vazquez

The myth of an all-white, Christian German society largely persists. So does the idea that anyone who is black only arrived here in the late 20th century or the 21st as refugees, or for economic reasons. Though many Germans actually remain unaware or do not acknowledge it, German colonialism did exist—and no, it was not a “benign” form of colonialism, either; German forces were responsible for the genocide of indigenous Herero populations in Namibia (to find out more: see here and here). These are facts that are difficult for Germans to bear, especially since they also bear the responsibility for the trauma and genocides during World War II So colonial atrocities – and the fact that the nation was involved in slave trade and exploitation of Africans – are, for the most part, happily forgotten. And since German society represents itself as racially white, black lives and bodies are invisible and voices of resistance against this dominant narrative of Germany – those that question Germany as a “white space” without a colonial history in Africa – are hardly ever heard.

This is why the recent “Black Diaspora Arts and Activism” symposium in Berlin is so significant. To American or British readers, a symposium like this might not seem like a big a deal. There is plenty around for them. But I have hardly ever attended such an insightful event in Germany on the black diaspora; for a white German like me who has spent the last ten years traveling to and living in South Africa, engaging with Germany’s silent footprint in places like Namibia, the importance of interdisciplinary and creative spaces like this cannot be over-emphasized.

The Black Diaspora–Decolonial Narratives (see here for a list of contributors and the full programme) also places Berlin at the forefront of creating a space of struggle and negotiation, forcing Germans to look at their blind spots and compelling Germany to decolonise existing power structures in the country. Alanna Lockward, Founding Director of ArtLabourArchive author, and curator (see the amazing BE.BOP events and a review about it here) and Julia Roth organised the symposium, bringing artists, academics, educators and activists together at the Volksbühne in Berlin. Their aim: to resituate the legacy of black and African diaspora in the German cultural imaginary, and to emphasise the presence of the black diaspora in the city of Berlin.

The symposium began with a Theodor Michael reading from his book ‘Being German and also Black: Memories of an Afro-German’, followed by a screening of the documentary ‘Audre Lorde. The Berlin years 1984- 1992’ by Dagmar Schulz. The film gave insight into a collective of young, black women in Berlin as they negotiated for space in German society. We get to see how the term “Afro-German” slowly replaced deeply racist descriptions such as Mulatte, Mohren or Neger – which was once the only exiting vocabulary to refer to a black person in Germany.

Adding to the political and cultural invisibility of black bodies is a hypervisibility: hardly any white German seems to look at young, black men in Berlin without prejudice. If you have been to Berlin, you know that the possibility of ‘getting drugs at Görlitzer Park’ in Kreuzberg is not only common knowledge, but associated with blackness; for many Germans, “A Black man in the park equals a drug dealer with no rights”, as the Haitian artist Jean-Ulrick Désert pointed out in his presentation. Based in Berlin, his work explores notions of Germanness in a playful yet poignant way. Take a look at his projects ‘Negerhosen’ or ‘Voices from the heart’ and you know what I am talking about.

The Savvy Contemporary Gallery was represented by Ismael Ogando, 
Archive Manager & Curator. The gallery, based in Berlin Neukölln, is currently showing “Wir sind Alle Berliner: 1884-2014” curated by Simon Njami; Ismael Ogando stresses the importance of a art gallery in Berlin that creates a space for black artists’ work: “It is a question of memory and remembrance, to write history and interpret it, to decolonise and create archives”. In addition, artist and activist Yoel Diaz Vazquez spoke about the project Tumbenlo (Tear it down) run by Cuban hip-hop artists. The collective is resisting against the memorial of former Cuban president José Miguel Gómez who ordered the massacre of members of the first black political party in 1912. (for more information click here and here). Danish artist Jeanette Ehlers shared her performance piece Whip It Good! and reflected on the way she addresses the hidden history of slavery in Denmark in her work. Quinsy Gario, spoken word artist and activist (you probably heard of the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign? If not, you should find out), and Patricia Kaersenhout made their way from Amsterdam to take part in the discussion and to perform. Kaersenhout’s Stiches of Power was a part of the evening programme of this one-day symposium.

Jamie Schearer, Activist and Board Member of Initiative Black People in Germany talked about the history, political work and commitment to international solidarity such as their contribution to the #FergusonisEverywhere campaign. The actor, theatre pedagogue and founder of the initiative ART VAGABONDS, Christel Gbaguidi, asked for one minute of silence of in remembrance of all the deaths at the borders of Europe. It was a moving moment of mourning and silent reflection of the suffering endured by those who attempt to escape one set of unliveable conditions, only to meet the horrific conditions of their journeys and the impenetrability of privileged nations’ borders. Gbaguidi’s project “Die flüchtige Republik” at the protest camp Oranienplatz in Berlin, is a theatre play created by refugees who employ art and theatre as a way of coping with their daily struggles. Refugees wanted to speak at the event, but it was too dangerous to do so without papers as their status as undocumented persons in Germany makes it impossible for them to partake in public events of this nature. Even for an organisation to invite them would may legally incriminate them, to support undocumented people renders Germans complicit, thus criminal. So it was up to Gbaguidi to declare that Germany’s approach to refugees – by criminalising their bodies – is inhuman. He concluded, simply, ‘I want to speak to every single one of these politicians to convince them that this is not right. To make this stop.’

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.