Friday, June 21, 2024

Black History is Being Celebrated in This Unlikely Country As February Comes to An End

Josephine Apraku - Instagram
Josephine Apraku – Instagram

*Berlin (CNN) — As I move around my hometown of Berlin, I’m frequently complimented on my excellent command of German — sometimes, even after I’ve explained to the person I’m speaking to that I was born and raised here. All too often, the follow-up question I get is, “But tell me, where are you really from?”

It’s as if cognitive dissonance won’t allow some people to believe that one can be both Black and German at the same time.

If it’s not more widely known that Germany has a Black population said to number a million people, it is perhaps because there’s not a central Black town or city or neighborhood. Most of us grew up isolated, strewn throughout the country as one of the few Black people — sometimes the only Black person — in our schools or communities.

At the elementary school I attended for example, I had the alienating experience of being the lone Black child. That, despite living in a bustling metropolis — Germany’s largest city, in fact.

It is hard to group Black Germans — sometimes also referred to as Afro-Germans — under one umbrella; there is no one description that encompasses the diversity of Black people here.

Apple Celebrates Black History Month on Apple TV+
Apple Celebrates Black History Month on Apple TV+

Among us are people who came to then-East Germany as contract workers from former socialist brother states such as Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Some fled war and poverty and are familiar with the dangerous escape routes across the Mediterranean, not from having seen it on the news but having lived it.

There are also those among us whose family histories go back to the German colonial era. Some have Black American fathers who were stationed here during World War II. And there are those whose stories I don’t yet know, but which I would very much like to someday.

In my own case, I was born in 1986 to a White German mother and a Black father from Ghana. My parents met at a nightclub popular with Black American GIs in Berlin. To hear my mother tell it, if you wanted to hear some really good dance music and do more than stand all evening with your back against the wall, the clubs frequented by the Black soldiers were where you had to go.

The same year I was born, a seminal work about Black Germans, “Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out,” was published. My mother read it that same year, knowing that my experience in Germany would be different from hers. She understood that I would experience racism that she never had encountered and that she would be my only protection from it for a long time. The book has become something of a Bible to Black people in this country trying to understand what it means to be part of a broader diasporic community.

Many people in this country have no idea to what degree Black people play a role in German history, and our pasts have been woven together for centuries. The historical circumstances under which Black people came to Germany were marked by the violence of enslavement, colonization, and war. The plight of Black people in Germany and throughout Europe was shaped by the “Berlin-Africa Conference,” held between November 1884 and February 1885, when 14 mostly European nations discussed the division of the African continent, and Germany was catapulted into the ranks of global colonial powers. Territories occupied by Germany in whole or in part included the present-day African states of Namibia, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, and Ghana.

Black History Month - Depositphotos
Black History Month – Depositphotos

Germany lost control of its African colonies in the early days of WWI. That means that for much of the 20th century, there was relatively little German contact with people from African countries — in comparison to countries like France, Belgium, and Great Britain which held onto their colonies — until the arrival of those aforementioned GIs and the African migrants who came to Germany to work and to study and who ultimately settled down here.

Over the decades, Black Germans have faced the difficult work of figuring out where we fit into the African diaspora. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the American poet Audre Lorde in supporting Black Germans as they forge their sense of identity and community. Lorde taught African American literature and creative writing at the Free University of Berlin beginning in the mid-1980s.

In her seminars, Lorde created a much-needed permission structure for Black women who for the first time were able to share with other people like them the racism they had experienced. In doing so, she helped Black activists in Germany organize and network with each other. Lorde’s own intersectional experience as a queer Black woman provided a template for many of us, allowing us to widen the aperture of possibilities for people of African descent and helping many of us construct our own evolving identities.

What about today? In Germany, as in the United States, some studies reveal the many forms racism takes in everyday life: Black students receive lower grades for similar academic performance.  Black patients are taken less seriously in the healthcare system and they are considered to be less sensitive to pain. Racism here also leads to reduced access to housing and jobs in the labor market, and less political representation and participation.

And the current political climate in Germany, frankly, is not encouraging. It was just a few weeks ago that an expose by Correctiv magazine revealed that members of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, and members of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party held a secret meeting  at which they discussed deporting people living here who are “not really German.”

Of course, Germany has a dark past when it comes to deporting and killing people who are deemed not to “belong.” Most people know about the six million Jewish souls who perished during the Holocaust after being imprisoned in concentration camps. They might be less aware that a similar fate befell Roma and Sinti, homosexual people, people with cognitive and physical disabilities, and some Black people as well. This is a piece of Black History that we must also elevate.

That brings me back to Black History Month. I’ve been doing educational work on German colonial history and racism for 17 years — that’s almost half my life. I think that these are precisely the times when the Black community, Black alliances and Black spaces are so important. New partnerships and initiatives are happening all the time. In 2020, the Black Student Union at the University of Bremen renamed February “Black Our Story Month,” and has been holding Black History Month events every year since, creating visibility for the complexity of Black experiences.

Also hugely important are two organizations of Black Germans, the ISD (Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland — the Initiative of Black People in Germany) and ADEFRA ( Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland — Black Women in Germany), which were founded during the time that Audre Lorde was teaching in Berlin and continue to be vibrant and active.

The ISD, which has chapters across Germany, holds an annual weekend-long retreat of Black Germans from across the country, with several social and cultural events held. ISD is also involved in organizing protests, as it did during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations after the death of George Floyd.

My own relationship to being Black has changed over time. My point of reference and, in a way, my place of longing is no longer just my father’s home country of Ghana. Being Black in itself has become my place of belonging. Because no matter where I am in the world and despite all our differences, there is an invisible thread that connects us. And that brings me to Black History Month.

The Black community in Germany celebrated its first Black History Month in 1990. Black History Month has the potential, for those who have access to the events, to help strengthen ties within our community. And it raises awareness among White Germans that there are many ways to look German and that Black history is indeed German history.

As February wraps up, marking its 35th such celebration, the country has seen another month of lectures and poetry readings to celebrate the Black community which many people outside of this country — and even many Germans — don’t know exists. That could be the role played by Black History Month in a country like mine, where there is a growing Black population, but not yet the broad public awareness that Germany is becoming a more diverse country. What gives me hope here, is the emerging sense of community, the knowledge that — unlike my early years as the only Black child in my school — I am not alone and never will be.

I also take heart in the example of my younger sister, 15 years my junior and practically a Gen-Z version of myself. She embodies the hope, promise, and potential that Black people have to offer this country.

As she and I walked home one recent evening from a “Black Our Story Month” event in Berlin, she exuded unrepressed joy, flush with excitement from the community and connection with people who looked like us, and the chance to share more about our collective journey in Germany. Her eyes sparkle when she turns to me and says: “We exist, and we slay.” She is effervescent, and her exhilaration is infectious.

Josephine Apraku - Instagram
Josephine Apraku – Instagram

Editor’s note: Josephine Apraku is an author and scholar of African Studies, as well as a diversity consultant. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.

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