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Role of the African Diaspora in the formulation (and potential destabilization) of European identities

Nancy P. Nenno





My research focuses on one of the central questions of Black European Studies, namely the role of the African Diaspora in the formulation (and potential destabilization) of European identities. I am currently completing a book-length manuscript that examines the representations of, and self-fashionings by, African Americans in German culture during the tumultuous Weimar Republic, a period that represents a pivotal paradigm shift in German encounters with and perceptions of people of African descent. In effect, what I have discovered is that I am dealing with a double diaspora across the Atlantic—an African American community in the United States as the result of the slave trade, and the relocation of some African Americans to Europe for personal, political and economic reasons.

Because the nascent field of Black European Studies seeks to free itself from the representational strategies of colonialist discourses and at the same time articulate its own unique position in relationship to transatlantic research methodologies, it is imperative that we not ignore the numerous sources of Black European identities. Indeed, I argue that we need to conceptualize not one, but rather multiple African diasporas that are geographically, historically, linguistically and culturally distinct and that allow for the investigation of the roles of class, gender and religion as factors in assimilation and identification as European. By maintaining a kind of double vision, we become able to distinguish differences and commonalities among Black Africans, Black Europeans and African Americans in Europe, as well as chart the ways in which different diasporic groups interact with and inflect each other.

In the face of the early twentieth-century conventions that perceived all members of the African Diaspora as belonging to a homogeneous group, I have had develop an alternative approach to investigating the differences among members of multiple African Diasporas, particularly in historical texts and contexts. Because of the pervasiveness of racial paradigms in the texts and socio-cultural contexts of the Weimar Republic, it was nearly impossible to discern distinctions among these groups across popular, political and scientific discourses during the interwar period using the representational paradigm of “images”. My own work formulates a conceptual structure I call a racial imaginary that circumvents the tendency to homogenize and essentialize identities around the concept of race; instead it provides tools for recognizing and appreciating contradictions and multiplicities. I deploy the concept of the racial imaginary to describe the contingency and flexibility of images and stories, and to resist the urge to understand “Blackness” as a static and singular category that exists only to be discovered, named and categorized. Rather, the racial imaginary invites the relational quality of the category “Black”, indeed, the dynamism of the term, by following stories, rather than images, in fiction, the visual arts, political discourse, personal and historical narratives.

The racial imaginary offers a strategic, rather than a prescriptive, tool for exploring the heterogeneous and contradictory web of stories about race and identity that emerges at a particular moment. I see these stories as conducting a kind of “identity work” in relation to concepts of racial, national and cultural subject positions. This network of narratives is not restricted to fictional texts or visual images; nor are these stories merely rhetorical strategies. Autobiographical texts such as Hans J. Massaquoi’s Destined to Witness, in which German, African and American identities are intimately interwined as a result of historical forces and discourses, illustrate how the stories we appropriate as our own fundamentally inform and shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world. As such, identifying and examining these storylines may also aid us in our investigations of Black European identities by asking us to extend our understanding of national, cultural, racial and geographical identifications as narrative strategies.

Although my current research focuses on the representations of African Americans in German culture during the interwar years, my future projects will investigate the presence and legacy of members of the Black African Diaspora in German cinema. I am particularly interested in the ways that, in the self-consciously visual medium of film, members of the African Diaspora have been called upon to perform multiple diasporic identities, from German to African to American. The films and historical contexts under investigation will include Louis Brody’s participation in both Weimar and National Socialist cinemas, as well as the postwar Toxi films to New German Cinema, East German cinema and recent films, such as Nirgendwo in Afrika. This research aims to investigate how members of various African Diasporas have partly defined and contributed to the (in)visibility, of a Black European identity. As our world becomes more polarized along ideological lines and partitioned into increasingly rigid identity categories, the formulation of the nascent field of Black European Studies is an encouraging indicator that cultural, geographical and national identities need not be essentialist and reductive. I would welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas with scholars in other disciplines and area studies about the ways in which the multiple African Diasporas in Europe have been (mis)represented, foregrounded and erased.
Potential Questions for Workshop on Representing Black History

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of borrowing from current disciplinary categories that relate to Black European Studies? In particular, how can Black European Studies distinguish itself from the formulations of African American Studies?
  • To what extent is it useful to foreground issues of national and international dialogue and perspectives in formulating approaches to Black European Studies?

  • What problems (and benefits) are inherent in the move from one national framework to another, or from a local study to a national, or even continental, focus?

  • How do we define “Europe,” and indeed, European history, as it relates to Black European Studies? Within what historical and geographical frameworks are we working when we talk about Black European identities?

  • How useful is the racially-inflected term “Black”? Who uses it? Is it a term that needs to be reconsidered?

  • Is the attempt to find connections and intersections between European Black history and the histories of other European minorities a valid line of questioning? What evidence do we have for such connections, and to what extent does it preclude acknowledging the uniqueness of each group’s individual experience?


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