The Alexanderplatz protest — and the police’s reaction to it — shone an unforgiving light on Germans’ troubled, one might say hypocritical, engagement with race and racism. In a press release condemning the violence, the Initiative of Black Germans (ISD) inveighed against the “grotesque” irony that “news of racist police violence in the United States reaches us [and yet] the racist violence of German police is not thematized, or is even doubted.”
White Germans today (and more than a few foreigners) prefer to think of their country as a post-racial paradise. All too often I have heard them speak of racism as a problem “over there” — something that only affects us Americans. According to a recent poll, over 50 percent of Germans do not think racism is a problem in the German police. At the same time, white Germans like to conceive of their nation as racially homogeneous. I recall my shock as a student at the University of Heidelberg in 2010 upon hearing a white German describe himself as “bio-Deutsch” — a portmanteau meant to connote both racial and ecological purity (in Germany, “bio” is the equivalent of “organic”).
The Black Lives Matter demonstration at Alexanderplatz helped expose the lie inherent in both these assertions. In spite of decades-long reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust, Germans have hardly left racism in the past. Moreover, Germany is not a homogeneous country — nor has it ever been. Although the country does not collect racial information about its residents, demographers estimate there are some three million Germans of Turkish descent, around one hundred thousand Vietnamese Germans, over one million Syrians, and around one million Black Germans.
Black people have lived in Central Europe for hundreds of years and, over the course of the 20th century, the number of Black Germans steadily grew. Some came from Germany’s colonies, which the country acquired in the 1880s during the imperialist scramble for Africa. Others were the children of troops occupying Germany’s westernmost provinces after World War I. These soldiers, referred to at the time as the “Black Horror on the Rhine,” and their children became a staple in the racist propaganda of Weimar Germany’s nationalist right. Under Nazism, many of these Black Germans were forcibly sterilized or sent to concentration camps. The Allied occupation of Germany after World War II, which brought tens of thousands of Black soldiers to Europe, engendered a new generation of Black Germans.
In the 1980s, Black Germans began to organize, founding political and cultural groups, including ISD and the Black women’s group ADEFRA. Among other things, these organizations pushed for greater social and cultural recognition, established new publications, and worked to make Germany’s citizenship laws less restrictive. This movement, and the place of women in it, is the focus of Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement, a new book by University of New Mexico historian Tiffany Florvil. Contributing to a Black German studies scholarship that has developed rapidly in the last decade, Florvil’s book seeks to center Black women in contemporary German history and to reveal the initiative of activists who challenged racism in German society.
The diverse origins of Germany’s Black populations constitute Florvil’s point of departure. Their diversity is significant because “they did not possess the common narratives of home, belonging, or community that provided other Black communities with foundational resources that they could use as sources of belonging and identity.” How Black Germans created such belonging and identity is the core question of Mobilizing Black Germany. That is, Florvil asks, quoting historian Frank Guridy, how Black Germans, and Black German women in particular, were able to “forge diaspora” in the late 20th century. To answer this question, Florvil turns to Black German intellectuals, highlighting both their centrality to contemporary German culture and the ways in which they identified with an international, Black community. Building on the work of scholars of diaspora, such as Michelle Wright, Florvil thus frames her book as a corrective to both diasporic histories that exclude Germany and studies of Central Europe that disregard Black Germans.
Florvil contends that to understand the Black German movement, we must start not only with social histories or histories of everyday life, but also with the contributions of activists, whom she terms “quotidian intellectuals.” Although it might seem obvious that the writers, students, poets, and editors who populated the movement ought to be considered intellectuals, Florvil’s determination that her readers take their work seriously is significant. It wrests intellectual history away from the white, straight men who still dominate it (especially in Germany), while also highlighting the significance of Black women writers to Germany’s contemporary culture.
Writing was the lifeblood of the movement from its inception. It got its start in 1984 when American poet Audre Lorde took up a visiting professorship at the Free University, the Berlin school founded as the West’s response to Humboldt University in the East. Born on February 18, 1934, in Harlem, Lorde published her first volume of poetry in 1968. The same year, she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which allowed her to embark on a teaching career. She also met Frances Clayton that year, her first long-term female partner. In subsequent years, as her fame grew, Lorde “reaffirmed her African diasporic roots” with trips to Africa and to the Caribbean.
In 1980, the United Nations’s Second World Conference on Women met in Copenhagen. Lorde, who was asked to recite her poetry at the conference, met German feminist scholar Dagmar Schultz there. The two struck up a correspondence, and Schultz soon arranged for Lorde’s Berlin professorship.
That summer semester, when Lorde taught at the University’s JFK Institute, was nothing short of revolutionary for Black German women. “Lorde’s classes,” Florvil argues, “enabled them to acknowledge that they constituted a part of the transnational Black diaspora.” Lorde gave them a language with which to elucidate community and an impetus to do so. She was, in Florvil’s words, a “diasporic resource” for Berlin’s Black women, enabling “them to refashion their racial identity, rework notions of belonging, and form a community.” Inspired by her work and her vision of “global sisterhood,” these women began to organize in the mid-1980s. They founded new organizations and published works such as Showing Our Colours (Farbe bekennen), a 1986 collection of writings by Black German women that has long been regarded as the start of the movement.
They organized, in part, in opposition to the myriad forms of everyday racism they experienced. While Florvil’s book is ultimately an uplifting history of self-preservation and activism, it also offers a catalog of ways in which Black people face harassment, discrimination, and disdain in modern Germany. These racist expressions were (and are) often echoes of Nazi-era thought, such as use of the term Mischling (mongrel), which is intimately connected with the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws that defined racial citizenship under National Socialism. They were also intimately linked to Germany’s mounting xenophobia in the late 20th century.
In the face of widespread racism, these activists harkened to a common African past. ISD, founded in the mid-1980s, organized Germany’s first Black History Month in February 1990. The group used the month to highlight “Black internationalist themes” and promote diasporic identity. ADEFRA and ISD also published magazines, organized regional meetings, and lobbied cultural institutions. Florvil characterizes their efforts as a “Black coming out,” which produced “spaces for activism and solidarity.” The comparison to queer politics is apt, for both the Black German and the gay movements relied on novel forms of self-recognition to build imagined communities.
Activists’ efforts to generate an imagined, international kinship Florvil thus describes as “an important antiracist and queer strategy.” The intellectuals and activists who built the movement were, of course, not literally related to one another. But they “produced a genealogy of Black women in their poetry and prose” that allowed them to imagine a global sisterhood to which they belonged. In the Black feminist magazine Afrekete, which ADEFRA published, for example, writers mourned the deaths of Black women. Through their mourning, they generated a new “affective community” that crossed borders of time and space.
Florvil’s argument here builds on the work of literary scholar Fatima El-Tayeb, who contends that such communities “could be called ‘queer,’ in part because a sense of community and family beyond blood ties is most pronounced in the LGBT community, but more so because this strategy denaturalizes ideas of kinship, nation, and linear genealogies.” By emphasizing that Black Germans had to construct their own identities and communities, Florvil not only destabilizes the idea of Blackness, but also highlights the ingenuity and tenacity of activists who understood such affective bonds as a precondition of activism.
At the center of these institutional and intellectual efforts was the Black German writer May Ayim, whom Wright has characterized as one of the movement’s “most inspiring leaders and organizers.” The daughter of a white German woman and a Ghanaian medical student, Ayim was raised in the 1960s by adoptive parents who called her a “pure-blooded Mischling,” echoing Nazi language. Florvil recounts how Ayim’s identity was a constant source of pain for her as a child, that she even went so far as to eat “soap to become white like her brother.” After studying at the University of Regensburg and traveling in Egypt, Ghana, and Kenya, Ayim moved to West Berlin in 1984, the same year Lorde took up a visiting professorship in the city.
Inspired by Lorde, Ayim was one of the women who began work on Showing Our Colors, which was published two years later. She and her co-editors compiled texts by Black German women, “bolster[ing] Black knowledge” and carving out a space in German letters for Black voices. Ayim’s intellectual contributions far exceeded Showing Our Colors, though, and Mobilizing Black Germany recounts her many publications, lectures, and readings in the 1980s and 1990s. One of Florvil’s “quotidian intellectuals,” Ayim not only built Black kinship on the basis of African and African American literary themes, but also “placed the Black subject within the German nation.” In so doing, she challenged a particularly German intellectual tradition dating back to the early 19th-century works of philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who notoriously argued that Africa lacked history.
Ayim’s work thus illustrates the dialectic of diasporic community-building at the heart of Florvil’s enterprise. Intellectuals like Ayim had to reach outward for themes, metaphors, and histories that could allow them to imagine themselves belonging to a common community with a shared identity. They networked with activists around the world, organizing, for example, a Black Women’s Studies Summer Institute in reunified Germany in 1991. The Institute — in which delegates from numerous countries, from Brazil to South Africa, participated — wed local kinship building to transnational Black activism. It also, Florvil contends, “marked Germany as a vibrant Black space.”
At the same time, hoping to overcome the racism of German society, Black German activists used their newfound identity as members of a global Black diaspora to insert themselves with ever more vigor into German political, cultural, and intellectual dialogue. They insisted, in short, that white Germans acknowledge that they too were German.
Ayim’s life and Florvil’s textured description of it encapsulates the many things this book does. Indeed, it is rare that a work makes such compelling interventions in so many directions. Mobilizing Black Germany looks to disrupt how white Germans see themselves and also how foreigners, Americans in particular, see Germany. At the same time, it reveals how a global Black diaspora was forged from within Germany looking out and from outside Germany looking in.
Mobilizing Black Germany also joins a larger reassessment of West German history. For years, the so-called Bonn Republic was seen as a success story: a liberal, capitalist democracy risen from the ruins of National Socialism. Over the past few decades, however, scholars of race, gender, and sexuality have chipped away at that narrative, showing — as Florvil does — that the county retained fascist tendencies long into the Cold War. As it claimed membership in the club of Western democracies, West Germany persecuted queer people, women, and racial outsiders.
Yet, Florvil’s account highlights not only the racism that Black Germans suffered, but also the modes of activism they mobilized to combat it. In so doing, there is something recuperative in her project. These activists, rather than locate themselves beyond the German nation, aspired to reimagine German language, culture, and history in such ways that would include them. And in chronicling their efforts, Florvil implicitly positions herself as one of their heirs. Mobilizing Black Germany, that is, endeavors to do the same thing as its subjects: to make out a German history and a German culture in which Black Germans are integral.
This undertaking has significant ramifications in Germany and abroad. Scholars who study Europe have begun ringing alarm bells about the ways in which white nationalists appropriate European culture and history. Anecdotally, I have heard of colleagues teaching German language classes, in which students express enthusiasm for the Alternative for Germany, the far-right party that has sat in the German parliament since 2017. Of course, such appropriation is nothing new: the very concept of Western civilization has been used for hundreds of years to justify racist institutions and policies. Across a range of fields, though, a growing number of scholars are challenging the equation of Europe with whiteness, seeking to highlight both the continent’s diversity and its long history of racism. Mobilizing Black Germany is thus a powerful work not only because it exposes how German society is shot through with racism, but also because it recognizes German culture as a site of Black literary and artistic expression.
This recuperative effort is perhaps most evident in Florvil’s reading of the work of May Ayim, who continued to publish and gain international acclaim until her suicide in 1996. Ayim, she contends, “showed the German language’s elasticity and melodious sound, pushing its affective reach.” Even as they confronted a racist society, the Black women at the heart of Mobilizing Black Germany expanded the possibilities of German literature and culture. In a previously unpublished poem, Ayim wrote,
i am the part of history
that you need to recognize
Thanks to Florvil, and other scholars doing the work of Black German history, we are starting to.
Samuel Clowes Huneke is a historian of modern Germany at George Mason University. He is currently at work on a book that examines homosexuality and politics in Germany during the Cold War.