Something old, something new

Hello loyal followers,

Let me draw your attention to some of the materials I’ve updated or completed in the past week as well as some of our older materials that you might find interesting.

I’m particularly intrigued by the story of Daniel Botefeur, who represents a largely untold story of Germans who took an active role in the slave trade in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The document (in English) shows us both his notoriety in West Africa as well as the fortunate escape of some of his potential victims. I must give special thanks to the Cologne-based historian Michael Zeuske, whose fascinating work on slave traders I drew from for Botefeur’s activities, as well as my friend Suzanne Schwarz at the University of Worcester, who knew of the document and brought it to my attention.

Staying on the topic of objectionable people, my helpful assistant Julia Alcamo has helped me transcribe excerpts from an article (auf deutsch) by Christoph Meiners, perhaps the most notorious racist of the Enlightenment era. In the article he defends slavery on the grounds of natural law and what he insists is the essentially subhuman nature of Africans. This isn’t a pleasant read, but it is a useful reminder of the roots of contemporary racism. Only one of his arguments surprised me: he insists at one point that the proponents of equality between blacks and whites did not really want to put them on the same plane but rather to privilege blacks over whites. Le plus çe change….

It is also worth remembering that there were forceful critiques of slavery going on as well. Meiners argued in particular against Kant, whose views (English/deutsch) on race shifted over his career toward an outright rejection of slavery and colonial conquest. Of course, the Afro-German philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo’s critique (English/deutsch) of the legality of slavery pre-dated Kant’s moral case by decades. If you don’t already know the story of Anton Wilhelm Amo, then by all means go and check it out right now.

I’ve also added some material on experiences in the 20th century, including the military service of African-American soldiers in the First and Second World Wars (English) and the experiences of Marie Nejar in the Nazi era and afterward, from an interview by Jermaine Raffington (English/deutsch). She’s a sparky and delightful woman with fascinating stories to tell.

That’s all for now. I’ll provide more updates as new material goes up, but feel free to keep checking in on us. And do let us know what you think!

Best,

Jeff

Advertisements

Welcome! Here’s what we’re up to.

Hello loyal followers and wide world!

This is just a brief note to let you know what has been happening with Black Central Europe and what you might expect in the coming months. As you’ll see on our homepage, our overarching goal is to produce a resource that will be useful for teachers, students, researchers, activists, and just anyone in the wider public who wants new perspectives on German, European, and Black histories. Our long-term goal is to build a collection of primary sources and integrate them with a broader collection of lesson plans, syllabi,  reading lists, and forum discussions (earlier posts are a start in this direction). Providing these materials in English and in German will allow us to speak to a range of audiences.

As you’ll see if you work your way through the site, we are still in “stage 1,” so to speak. We’re working on gathering, organizing, and formatting our historical sources, translating them where we can do so easily, and this means that some of the site is still incomplete and a bit messy. We hope to have it fully cleaned up by the summer, but we thought that the value of getting this material out in the world outweighed our mild embarrassment at showing it under construction. Hopefully you’ll agree!

I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of outstanding features of the site. You’ll probably have noticed the map on our homepage, which locates various known and lesser known experiences across the German lands. This is the product of students in Kira Thurman’s class at the University of Michigan, and she plans to have them expand on this in the future. Zoom in and out to see what interested them, and we hope that you’re surprised and intrigued by what you find.

We also have an ever-growing collection of videos to watch as well as links to interesting commentators and artists you can find online. We hope that you’ll lose track of time following these.

And of course we have our collection of historical sources, organized by rough time periods. We are working our way from the Middle Ages toward the present, so the more distant eras are the most complete, but new things will pop up all over. I’ll be sure to use blog posts to let you know when new material is available so please follow us to stay up-to-date.

So what have I been working on recently? Lots, but why not check out check out “The Tale of the Friendly Moor and the Suspicious Peasant (1912),” with a new translation of the poem into English? You also might be curious about the life of J. Elmer Spyglass, an African American who lived through the Weimar and Nazi eras and then became an important interlocutor for the American occupiers after 1945. A slideshow of elaborate costumes worn by visitors to the court of the Duke of Saxony give a sense of fantastical imaginings as well as a long history of blackface. Or maybe you would like to read a discussion between Grada Kilomba and René Aguigah over how to deal with “difference” in today’s Germany–can white Germans ask a Person of Color “where do you come from” without being racist, and to what extent are terms like “Afro-German” open for public debate? I’m particularly intrigued by the story of a teenager named Bernhard Epassi, and we have an interview with him that gives a fascinating insight into the experience of migration in the colonial era, how to maintain connections to family back home and how to deal with everyday racism in Germany.

Finally let me make an appeal to anyone who stops by for a while. We’d love to hear how you came to find us, what you find interesting or troubling, and how you are making use of the resource. Not only are we committed to making this useful, but we also want to learn from you how we might expand, improve, or even re-shape what we’re doing. We encourage comments below or to our Twitter account (@bcesn) or direct emails to us (blackcentraleurope@gmail.com).

In the meantime, happy exploring,

Jeff

Hangouts

Let me also say a word about the hangouts this past week. I haven’t looked at my students’ write-ups yet, so maybe this will change, but from talking with the students who were here today it seems like they were a great success. In particular there was a lot of discussion about terminology, naming in the various locations. My students were particularly intrigued with how to use the word “black,” and more than one said that they had really interesting conversations with the Americans (especially the African American students) about what sorts of terms are appropriate and what are not, and who counts as “black” and who doesn’t. Because I have German students as well as students who have all spent time in Germany, I think they felt they had something to contribute in return about how “schwarz” gets used (or not) and the discomfort that white Germans/Europeans feel even wrapping their tongue around the word.

It seems to me that if part of our purpose in this was to get students to know one another and share experiences in a constructive and friendly way, then this has worked for my students. And I’m pleased to see further that their conversations helped them think about ideas that I didn’t feel we’d really gotten into enough in class.

How did yours go?

Jeff

Teaching the Enlightenment and race

Hello all,

This is just a quick post to talk about my experiences teaching the Enlightenment today. We actually had some carryover from last week on the early modern era, since we only got through life in courtly society but not to Anton Wilhelm Amo, a story that I really think is worth getting into in detail because we have an uncommonly large source base on him. And since today was going to be about philosophy, I thought that having the students think about the meaning of “blackness” (in which I was consciously eliding 1) physical appearance, 2) African origin, 3) a sense of assumed identity) for Amo’s life and experiences would be a good way to lead into “what’s new” with the Enlightenment.

So we opened today with Amo, and it’s a shame really that more students hadn’t really done the readings on him, since there’s so much to talk about if you can get into details. What significance does his legal status play in his opportunities, his choice to go into education rather than courtly service, his relationship with his patron, and so on? Was his status as a “Moor” significant in his opportunities and advancement within the academy? Jumping ahead, it’s useful to ask why he went back to West Africa in the end. You can look ahead to Enlightenment commentary on him and argue that his blackness made him a target, but challenging this idea means examining the testimonials that praised Amo as one in a long line of great African philosophers. But this also requires engaging with the fact of his failed romantic relationship with a white German woman, and an amazing poem mocking the two for the impossibility of their relationship, he a Mohr and she a woman of high status. Was this about the impossibility of an interracial marriage (“modern racial prejudice is here”) or was this about Mohr as merely a descriptive category containing individuals who were no more likely to be high-born than a knight (“not yet, not yet, give it time…”)?

Another angle worth exploring is the meaning of Amo’s blackness for himself. After all, his dissertation was an attack on the legality of enslaving Africans, and he did sign his work with the appellation “An African.” To me this suggests a consciousness of himself as having a particular relationship defined by his African heritage and the experience of slavery that we might consider more modern.

From here we continued into the Enlightenment. I broke them into two groups and assigned them opposing propositions: The Enlightenment was/wasn’t responsible for inventing modern ideas of race. Then I had them do one-on-one debates for 5-10 minutes, and once that was completed I put them back in their groups and asked them to formulate, as a group, the opposite proposition to the one they had just been arguing for. Then the two groups had a general debate.

In this they seemed relatively unable to articulate a clear idea of why the Enlightenment was not simply racist, period. This despite the fact that they had Smith’s NYT article as well as Kenan Malik’s really engaging and thought-provoking (I find, anyway) response. Even those trying to take Malik’s side found they couldn’t make a case. Partly they may not have read very closely–it’s longer than Smith’s and much more nuanced and also full of miscellaneous names. But because they couldn’t really articulate the case, I spent the last quarter of an hour or so trying to get them to understand what Malik is saying.

I think this debate is important because it gets at what, to my mind, is the fundamental question about the Enlightenment and race. Is the aspiration to universality, however nobly intended, inherently oppressive because it must necessarily depend on some standard that can be infused with contemporary prejudices/hierarchies? Or is it rather that we need to take seriously Enlightenment thinkers’ insistence on the unity and equality of the human race–even in the face of their clear eurocentrism–precisely because it led them to effort to understand distant peoples on their own terms and even a forceful critique of the oppression of their day?

For my own part I lean toward the latter, not because it absolves the Enlightenment thinkers for their racist prejudice (it doesn’t–Kant et al. had lots of really offensive ideas). But what it does do is put the “blame” squarely on thinkers of the 19th century and also preserves the possibility of talking about human unity/difference in ways that can challenge existing systems of oppression. Anyway, that’s what I was trying to get my students to think about, whether or not they interpret Kant’s “On the different Human Races” or “On Perpetual Peace” or Herder’s “Neger-Idyllen” along these lines.

Jeff