I write today to present thoughts on a recent film series held in London, organized by Charmaine Simpson at Black History Studies. The film festival focused on “Black Europe on Film: Europe and the Black Diaspora,” and was held in May and June. For Germany, two films were screened, each followed by lively audience discussion led by Simpson.
The first was Afro.Germany, produced and hosted by Deutsche Welle journalist Jana Pareigis. The film features interviews with celebrities like Samy Deluxe and Gerald Asamoah, and activists like Theodor Michael, who talks about his family history and his experiences growing up under Weimar and Nazi Germany, and Esther Donkor, who talks the politics of hair and her project Krause Locke. The film addresses resistance to the very idea of Black Germanness on an everyday level, the complications of being Black in Germany, and a range of responses among Black Germans. The overarching point is to normalize a Black German presence, and it seems to have struck a chord. DW reports that Michael’s testimony went viral, drawing especial praise from African Americans on social media.
The second film, German Town: The Lost Story of Seaford Town Jamaica, certainly presented material I’d never seen before. It profiled the descendants of a small number of white German settlers to Jamaica in the 1830s. The original settlers, mostly devastated by disease and impoverished, established a small community in Seaford Town, in the western hills of the island. Brought as indentured servants to serve as a sort of buffer between white-owned plantations and recently emancipated black communities, the Germans built a distinctive little place that has remained isolated until very recently. The film features interview with residents who express their sense of longing for a lost German heritage and their sense of being outsiders in Jamaica, not accepted as native because of their skin color. They define their place within Jamaica’s history through the origin story of indentured servitude, in a very real sense oppressed laborers if not actually slaves, and a lasting legacy of material and cultural impoverishment. They see traces of their German heritage in the styles of their buildings, the names of foods and the like, but otherwise feel entirely cut off and look ahead to the disappearance of their distinctive community.
The film also addresses some less noble aspects of their culture, including a strain of outright racism against black Jamaicans that helps explain how the town has remained so isolated and so white–to the point that inbreeding has become a serious concern–for almost two hundred years. I wonder if the unusual preference for country and western music–otherwise uncommented upon–is a legacy of this. In general, the connection of this desire for a German heritage and whiteness is left unaddressed. For example, as the town sheds it taboos and black and white families intermarry and their children attend school together, does that German heritage remain relevant, or is it presumed that it only attaches to white skin? There are no black voices from Seaford Town in the film (strikingly, given that there were two black residents of Seaford Town in the audience in London), and there is an implicit assumption throughout that the culture is dying out as the older white townsfolk pass away and their children move off to greener pastures, whether in Kingston or to join a sort of Seaford Town diaspora in Sarnia, Ontario. The film was produced to draw attention to this ethnic minority and puts itself directly in the service of helping the town survive (a portion of sales of the film are donated), and its nostalgic mode is clearly meant to support this project.
So, all in all, it was a fascinating night of film, and Charmain Simpson is to be commended for putting it together. It is great to see projects like these exploring Black Europe and also to see the great appetite among the audience for more.