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Hans J. Massaquoi’s Autobiographies and Transatlantic Identities

Alexandra E. Schmitt

The emerging field of research called Black European Studies also raises the question of black Germans. Especially at this moment, exactly sixty years after the end of World War II, it is due time to raise public and scientific awareness about the fate of black Germans during the Nazi regime. Not only were they humiliated, ostracized, or even sterilized and killed, but they also suffered from an isolation that barred their way to a black diaspora community and to each individual’s identity formation. However, Afro-German identities already include multiple identities that need to be uncovered in order to come to terms with one’s ethnic identities.

Hans Jürgen Massaquoi can be regarded as a prominent example of a hyphenated Afro-German identity who succeeded in discovering his inherent identities and even establishing transatlantic identities (or one transatlantic identity). Multiple, transnational, or even transatlantic identity formation is an integral part of the black European and American diaspora. For Black European Studies, Massaquoi serves as an example of how black Europeans have to struggle without a black community network and how the life of Afro-Germans constituted itself under Hitler. For the new transnational or transatlantic American Studies, Massaquoi’s autobiographies provide an insight in the extraordinary life of a black European and an American immigrant. He can be seen as a link between Black European Studies and transatlantic (Black) American Studies.

The thesis statement of my master thesis therefore is that Hans J. Massaquoi developed transatlantic identities. I will investigate this statement by analyzing his two autobiographies. Questions which will help me in this study are the following:

How did (and how do) racisms in Germany, Africa (Liberia), and in the United States of America affect the identity formation of Massaquoi’s geneological status as an Afro-German and an American immigrant? How did (and do) group-memberships, communities, and national citizenship on the three continents influence Massaquoi’s identity or identities? What kinds of identities did Massaquoi develop? How do Massaquoi’s autobiographies help him to establish his identities?

In the course of analyzing the autobiographies I will argue that to establish transatlantic identities or rather one transatlantic identity (that consists of an African, German, and an American identity), a fourth identity needs to be affirmed. The fourth identity is the black identity one can develop through “nigrescence,” by really “becoming black.” Therefore, one can say that there are two levels of identity formation: one on a national and biological/geneological level and one on an ethnic level.

Massaquoi, to “become black,” had to leave his German and African roots behind and become an American citizen. There, for the first time, he felt that he truly belonged to a nation and chose to gain a national identity. What was even more important for his “nigrescence” was that he found a black community (the African-American community) in the USA that he became part of and could identify with. This stability led him to develop transatlantic identities by the (re-)claiming of his Afro-German identities that were withheld from him during his time in Nazi-Germany and also in Africa. Massaquoi regains his Afro-German identities through the self-therapeutic discourse in the form of his first autobiography.

American citizenship provides Massaquoi with a feeling of belonging, being inside not outside, a “we-” feeling, a national identity which gives him a stable and continuous encompassment. To underline this fact, he writes his second autobiography which supports his status as an American citizen and sovereign self. This autobiography helps Massaquoi to locate his American identity as part of his transatlantic identity (i.e. all transatlantic identities now form a whole: Massaquoi’s transatlantic identity). Nevertheless, as identities are always dynamic, Massaquoi is still negotiating his transatlantic identity.

Although this research is limited to the analysis of the personal life-writing of one representative of (emigrated) Afro-Germans, I think that the results of this thesis will bear important implications for further research in the field of Black European Studies, especially of the black European diaspora and black identity formation. It will underline the importance of a black community for the personal development of black European individuals and for the resistance of xenophobia in Europe. In addition, it will illuminate the significance of black identity formation in order to accept one’s hybrid roots and inherent transnational and sometimes transatlantic identities.

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