Karl Atiogbe, ‘A Word for My Black Brothers’, 1908

On the 15th of March 1908 the Berliner Tageblatt published a remarkable open letter entitled ‘A Word for My Black Brothers’. The letter, written by Kuaku Karl Atiogbe from Aneho Togo, was in part a response to an incident of racial discrimination he had suffered in a Berlin wine bar some weeks earlier. In the letter Atiogbe eloquently challenged prevailing stereotypes about the inferiority of Africans and sought to demonstrate through considerable detail the intellectual and educational abilities of his compatriots in Togo. While elements of Atiogbe’s views can be interpreted as supporting aspects of the European civilising mission, his closing comments are critical of Europe’s (Germany’s) impact on Africa.

Born into an influential Togolese coastal family in 1880, Atiogbe was sent to Germany to be educated in the early 1890s. In 1895 he entered the Realgymnasium school in Kassel and news of his academic abilities, including his considerable language skills, were even reported on in the press. After leaving school instead of returning to Togo, he eventually settled in Dresden. There he married the German Margarethe Schütze and he established himself as a merchant. During World War One Atiogbe served in the army as a soldier in the Landsturm with the Replacement Horse Depot XII. He died in Dresden in March 1917 aged 36, survived by his wife and their daughter, the future performer Dolly Anany.

‘A Word for My Black Brothers’ by Karl Atiogbe – Aneho (Togo), Berliner Tageblatt. 2 Beiblatt 15th March 1908

One of the main requirements for a true feeling of freedom is respect for the individual – regardless of their particular religious or racial background. Presuming that the readers of these words hold such a view, for once I will risk showing from the point of view of a Black  person, that the N**** is not the uncultured, philistine-like creature, for which he is always held to be in Europe.  And; I hope that my wishes and concerns will find the appropriate resonance here.

In this attempt it is entirely clear to me that I represent a one-sided point of view. However, I really believe that such a demonstration also from an objective viewpoint has a certain value for those who want to help the so despised and yet so eager to learn and capable Black person in their endeavours to culturally progress. Perhaps these words will help to overcome prejudices and help to remove from my tribal compatriots a little of the contempt under which the more educated of them unspeakably suffer.

Several weeks ago, I myself was the victim of crude verbal racial attack in a public bar (at the time the Berliner Tageblatt gallantly took up my case). The fact that I am coloured was enough for me to subjected to hatred and derisory abuse on the part of several gentlemen, who otherwise are certainly proud of their ‘education’.

I do not want to sound banal and say: “We ‘savages’ are certainly better people.” At the very least, however, I am certain that a N**** in his homeland would never without reason have behaved so discourteously towards a polite white person. Not because of slavish fear of the higher cultivated race, but because of innate politeness.

On first reading it certainly sounds exaggerated when I claim that the N**** of my homeland are not one of the races inferior to the whites. Contradicting this claim is the fact that up until now they have not generated anything specific of their own culture. And yet, taking into consideration the natural intelligence of the Black person, one has to admit that there is much fruit to hope for from the development of African culture because the Black person has a strong desire for education and has a certain ability to assimilate. From the last ‘Yearly Report of the Protectorates in Africa and the South Seas’ it was reported that out of 2029 Black men in Lome 213 were clerks, 173 craftsmen and 15 teachers. According to the official report with real zeal the natives endeavour to achieve cultural improvement through their learning of the German language. The desire of the natives is indeed so concentrated on the learning of German that “Missions which too keenly emphasise education in the local language run the risk of suffering losses.”

The development of the protectorate Togo has led to an ever increasing demand for coloured, German-speaking clerks. They find paid positions with the government, the post, in the service of the railways, with trading firms, shipping agencies and building companies.

The number of school children in government schools in Lome, for example, has increased from 100 to 125 in recent years. More and more educated youngsters could graduate into the service of the Imperial Government.

The handwork school in Lome has 30 trainees: 13 trainee joiners and carpenters, 11 metal worker apprentices and 6 trainee tailors. Of these 30 trainees 8 were able to be discharged.

[…]

It is absolutely clear from this official report that the coloured youngsters desire to learn and that they are capable of learning. Frequently, I myself receive numerous letters from young people from home in which they ask for instructions as to how they can emulate the whites and earn their respect.

[…]

The N**** is also not without musical ability. The first German teacher in Togo, who I also have to thank for teaching me the basics of the German language, developed during my time singing lessons for the bottom class. After only two months 17 out of 20 school children were able to sing a simple melody from a sheet of music.

According to the criminal statistics unfortunately the level of criminality amongst the natives in Togo remains considerable. From the statistics, however, it is clear that crimes against morality (II. Group) make up the lowest number. In terms of morality my fellow countrymen are no less morally upstanding than the Europeans. Europe has exported unnatural vices to the colonies. State Secretary Dernburg similarly declared after his return from East Africa that the natives there are virtuous.

Perhaps the currently still despised N**** race in virtue of its unspoilt nature will one day become the emergency reserves out of which fresh blood for Europe’s tired culture will come. In any case I believe that even the N**** has a right to claim respect or at the very least to be tolerated with patience, even if I also know that the efforts to emancipate a race or a class cannot suddenly be achieved and that old, die-hard prejudices are not to be overcome overnight.

 

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