Protest, Playmobil, and Prosecution

Hello all,

I just wanted to write a quick update on some recent additions and also draw your attention to one of our earliest pages (ok, it was the one I could most easily summarize with a word starting with the letter “P”).

  • Working backwards from the present, a new page addresses the beloved toy company Playmobil and its depiction of the Three Wise Men (Heilige Drei Könige). Since the first set in 2000, they have produced a Black Magus (and also usually an orange one)–take a look and see how they channel particular historical depictions.
  • Robbie Aitken has also written a fascinating entry on a man named Karl Atiogbe. Lest we think that everyday racism is a recent phenomenon or that Black Germans did not do much about it, Atiogbe’s letter published in the Berliner Tageblatt in 1908 proves otherwise. He writes “to his Black brothers” about the problem of racism and its roots in a flawed underestimation of the intellectual abilities of Africans, which he proceeds to rebut point by point. In a closing statement that still resonates today, Atiogbe notes that Black people must have the right to respect but also that emancipation from prejudices is a long process.
  • Finally, jumping back to the Middle Ages, it is worth taking a look at Hermann von Sachsenheim’s tale The Lady Moor (Die Mörin), especially if you’re familiar with Wolfram’s Belakane. Unlike the latter, who is noble and sensitive and pure, the Lady Moor is a cutting, clever, cynical prosecuting attorney, whose job it is to prove that an old Crusader had broken the rules of love in his youth. While she is certainly used to channel a certain fear of aggressive women, Hermann does not turn her into a demeaning caricature but rather creates a strong character unintimidated by men. She reminds me of nothing more than the protagonist in modern dramas like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder.

And again, if you have any feedback or have any topics that you’d like us to address, do feel free to let me know at blackcentraleurope@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

Jeff

Black Germany in film: Afro.Germany and German Jamaica

Hello all,

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.

Best,

Jeff

Medicine, music, Maurice, mountains

Hi all,

Although we haven’t updated you on our work in a while, we’ve nevertheless been moving along. Here are some recent additions that we’re particularly proud of.

  • Why are there pharmacies named “moor pharmacies” (Mohren-Apotheken) in Germany and Austria, and why do they use troubling racist caricatures? The issue has recently become a topic of debate thanks to protests raised in Frankfurt in January of this year. Check out our new pages mapping the Mohren-Apotheken in Germany and Austria (and add some if we’ve missed any!) and profiling the Frankfurt protests and their outcome.
  • If you don’t know the story of virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower, then check out our page on his friendship (and falling out) with Beethoven. If you’re familiar with classical music, you may know the “Kreutzer Sonata,” which was actually written for Bridgetower until  Beethoven spitefully re-named it.
  • Written by none other than Julia Alcamo, who has made this site look as great as it does, we have a new piece on saintly figures, this time exploring how a cardinal had himself painted as Saint Erasmus in an imagined meeting with Saint Maurice.
  • And finally, we are very excited to be able to profile the work of Swiss-Haitian artist Sasha Huber. Her work explores the legacies of Swiss-American scientist and notorious race theorist Louis Aggasiz, in this case through an art installation renaming the mountain Aggasizhorn after Renty, one of the black men demeaned through Aggasiz’s studies.

Check these out, and I’ll be back with more updates soon. And please send us feedback at blackcentraleurope@gmail.com. If you have any praise of complaints or would just like to see something addressed that we have not yet covered, we’d love to hear from you.

Best,

Jeff

Thank you visitors! Tell us what you think.

Hello all,

A more detailed post about what we’ve been up to since I last posted will follow, but I just wanted to give a quick thank you to all of you who have been visiting and making use of the materials here. Not only have we found our way into various media sources, but our materials have been used at universities across the US, from Washington State to Southern New Hampshire University and from Michigan to Texas State. We’ve also had visitors from Dalhousie University in Canada; from  UCL, SOAS, and Leicester in the UK; and the University of Erfurt in Germany.

We really appreciate your visits, and if you have any feedback you’d like to leave for us, please email us at blackcentraleurope@gmail.com. We’re in the process of making the historical sources fully bilingual, and we are also experimenting with different formatting styles. If something is easy or frustrating to use, please let us know, and if you have particular topics you’d like us to cover, by all means send suggestions our way.

Happy surfing,

Jeff

What’s happening in Black British history?

Hello loyal followers and casual visitors alike,

I will write more soon with an update on recent activity as well as a glimpse at new items we have coming up. But first I wanted to let you know about some exciting work being done in Black British history showcased at a conference this past weekend at Goldsmiths College. While I can’t summarize all the papers there, let me draw your attention to a few I thought particularly exciting.

  • Laura Hampden from the Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service (GLAAS) opened the conference with a brief survey of UK archaeological sites relevant to Black British history that could be used in schools–as you’ll know a particular interest of this site. She pointed to some that may be familiar, like Ivory Bangle Lady (York) and Beachy Head Lady (Eastbourne), as well as two that I had not heard of before: Roman Southwark Burials and Fairford Woman (Gloucestershire). Check ’em out, and if you’re a teacher, it’s worth thinking about these as ways to start conversations with your students, especially given the recent controversies over the BBC Roman history cartoon.
  • Emma Craddock from and Carole Pierre from New Cross focused our attention on 1981, the blind spots of the Scarman Report and the New Cross fire respectively. Craddock gave us an insight into Scarman’s assumptions about whose accounts were valid, e.g. the police versus members of the local community, despite contradictions and inconsistencies that might have been resolved by paying attention to the fuller range of available testimony. Pierre showed the lack of official interest in the fire and the necessary efforts by locals to comfort those affected, to ask pressing questions, and to pressure officials to pursue an inquiry. In doing so, she illustrated the importance of local history.
  • Finally, current PhD students Kesewa John (who also ran the conference) from Chichester and Molly Corlett from King’s College London showed that we have a lot to look forward to in coming years. John spoke on Caribbean radicals based in London, like George Padmore,  who made the case against joining the war against Nazi Germany on the grounds that they were being used by an empire that had no interest in their liberty. Corlett focused in particular on the case of an Antiguan servant caught up in a marital dispute that reached the House of Lords, and she used it to highlight the interconnections between the racial regimes of Britain and its Caribbean colonies.

And for those who want to know more, be sure to check out a conference organized by Miranda Kaufmann and Michael Ohajuru this coming Thursday (26 October 2017). Miranda and Michael will talk about sixteenth-century Britain along with American historians Cassander L. Smith (Alabama) and Imtiaz Habib (Old Dominion). Historian Catherine Fletcher (Swansea) and BBC producers James Van Der Pool and Colin Grant will talk about the challenges of broadcasting Black History. Renowned historian and broadcaster David Olusoga will give the keynote, and, best of all, students from the BRIT School in Croydon will give their perspectives Black History and the curriculum. Further details can be found here. Don’t miss it!

Happy exploring,

Jeff

Black Germans and music in past and present

Hello all,

And a warm welcome to first-time visitors, especially those of you I met in Finland (looking forward to the next conference!).

As promised in my last post, let me give you a quick update on what we’ve been up to with the website.The earlier timer periods are nearing a version of completion for the time being, and the more recent periods remain far less complete. But frequent visitors will notice that I’ve given more order to all of the source pages with more precise themes. Do let me know what you think of these, and if you have suggestions for topics that should be included or even particular sources then by all means send them my way.

Here are some of the new pages that I’ve added since I last posted, as well as some oldies that I’d like to draw your attention to.The loose theme here is music, which is one medium through which Black people have been able to secure a place for themselves even as they have sometimes found themselves confined by preconceptions of their abilities

  • One of the challenges of studying Black Germans in the distant past is the lack of detailed records. But one seventeenth-century figure we know a little bit about thanks to the research of Rashid-S. Pegah, is Christian Ferdinand. He was a timpanist who served the margraves of Brandenburg-Culmbach-Bayreuth. In their service he enjoyed a relatively ocmfortable life, married and had four children.
  • We know much less about the musicians at the courts of the Hohenstaufen emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, but we do know that they had a special place for black trumpeters, as this portrait demonstrates.
  • After the Nazis came to power in 1933, it quickly became difficult for Black Germans to find regular employment. The German Africa Show, a project set up by Kwassi Bruce and Adolph Hillerkus, was one innovative response. They performed in a sort of updated “people show,” but they could not maintain their autonomy from Nazi officials for long. Incidentally, if you want to know more about the ideas behind Nazi policy toward Blacks, then check out this order from Heinrich Himmler requiring the registration of all “Neger” in 1942. It shows that there were overarching principles pointing to the ultimate aim of Nazi policy.
  • In The Magic Flute, Mozart dipped deep into prejudicial stereotypes against “Moors” with his character Monostatos. Even today, companies struggle to figure out how to depict this character.
  • In the spirit of drawing attention to famous figures who have slipped from historical consciousness, here is the tale of Vicente Lusitano, who was a well-known composer and musical theorist in sixteenth century Italy who ended up converting to Protestantism and seeking refuge in Württemberg before disappearing from the historical record.
  • One of the striking features of the later nineteenth century was the spread of African-American musical forms and entertainers around the globe, and Germany was no exception to this. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the best known touring groups, and their combination of folk songs, spirituals, and concert pieces made them very popular if also somewhat confusing to German audiences, who were not always able to reconcile their racialized preconceptions with the skilled performances they enjoyed.
  • Finally, if you haven’t seen this Deutsche Welle documentary hosted by Jana Pareigis, by all means put down what you’re doing and watch it! It’s a poignant look at the wide variety of experiences of being black in Germany, featuring interviews with, among others, the rapper Samy Deluxe, as well as activists, artists, academics, and recent arrivals to Germany.

I also have some exciting things in store for you, including a number of pages providing more detail on the black members of Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s medieval court–I’m just awaiting a Latin translator! I will also have a fascinating page on depictions of Parsival‘s Feirefiz in the Age of Empire, which is being written by a student of mine named Isobel Sanders. So keep an eye out for those.

As always, you can get in touch with us at blackcentraleurope@gmail.com or on Twitter @bcesn.

Happy surfing,

Jeff

Black Central Europe in the Afroreuropean world

Hello all,

I write having just returned from the sixth biennial Afroeuropeans conference, held this year in Tampere, Finland. This was my first time attending this conference series, and I am already looking forward to attending the next, whenever and wherever it takes place. The range of material presented, the diversity of national contexts and theoretical concepts, are still making my head spin a bit–but in a good way! While I would normally focus a post on what we’ve done on the site, I feel it important to draw your attention to some of the projects that I was fortunate enough to encounter there.

Check out Sasha Huber’s important work drawing attention to the Swiss-American anthropologist Louis Aggasiz, whose contribution to nineteenth-century racist thought is not widely known today, even in those streets and landmarks named after him. Her Shooting series consists of portraits done with staples in wood, engaging with the legacies of historical trauma.

And check out Here and Black (auf deutsch), a Freiburg-based series of events and installations working to illuminate black experiences locally as well as across Germany and Europe.

If you’re in Amsterdam, take some time to visit The Black Archives, a local archive and library that has a wealth of materials revealing the history of black people in the Netherlands as well as their connections to broader diasporic politics.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t draw your attention to Breaking Ground, a project of the Speaking Volumes agency working to promote the work of artists of colour in the UK. They brought Roger Robinson, Zena Edwards, Vanessa Kisuule, Yomi Sode, and Solomon OB to take part in the conference and also to show us their work as part of Tampere’s Fest Afrika. These are writers you need to know about.

That’s just a sample of the work that was on display at the conference. Stay tuned for more posts on what we’ve been doing on the website, and, as always, let us know what you think about our work at blackcentraleurope@gmail.com.

Happy surfing,

Jeff

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

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