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"Black Europeans or Blacks in Europe? Colonial Performers in Germany, 1896-1914"

Jeff Bowersox





This paper examines the colonial subjects who came to Germany to perform in the so-called "First German Colonial Exhibition," a part of the much larger Berlin Trade Exhibition of 1896. In particular I intend to use their encounters with German administrators and officials before, during, and after the exhibition to consider the extent to which the concept of "Black Europeans" is helpful for understanding the ways in which they secured (or failed to secure) a legitimate place within the Imperial metropole in the period before the First World War.

A number of scholars have examined this exhibition for how it presented Germany's colonial territories and subjects, particularly with regard to the one hundred or so colonial subjects who came to Berlin to perform for visitors.

Some scholars have also looked into the everyday experiences of performing in this and other exhibitions, experiences that were not always benign. Many of these analyses intend to restore "agency" to these historical actors by revealing the hardships that performers endured at the hands of exhibition impresarios, organizers, and audiences or by exposing the contradictions inherent in German colonial discourses and administrative structures. But such a "reveal and condemn" approach is problematic. As Walter Johnson, American historian of slavery, argues in his important article "On Agency," such studies tend to reproduce the simplified object they are trying to "liberate," when what is needed is a much more complex analysis of the convoluted ways that race functioned and continues to function in European and North American societies.

Methodologically, such analyses tell us very little about the daily interactions of colonial subjects with other individuals in the metropole or with each other, nor do they tell us much about the way that these subjects saw themselves within the wider world.

In contrast, I seek a more nuanced methodology, one that focuses on how individual actors confronted and manipulated abstract discourses in their everyday lives. Such an approach does more than simply illustrate the existence of impersonal structures that force conformity. By examining how successfully historical actors could employ or adapt discursive structures, I can illustrate the instability and flexibility, as well as the strength, of those structures. More specifically, to use the case of the Berlin performers, such an approach offers fertile ground for considering the extent to which colonial subjects assumed a "European" identification in order to pursue their own particular ends. Of particular relevance to the BEST workshops, this analysis allows for a more complicated understanding of "Black Europeans" in an era when the fundamental premises of colonial governance, namely the racial/cultural hierarchies that underpinned it, went largely unquestioned in Europe.

To consider the utility of the concept of "Black Europeans" for the period before the First World War, I focus on a body of unused sources, namely the records of an apprenticeship program established for performers who wanted to remain in Germany after the exhibition closed. Although officials intended their stays to be temporary, many performers soon decided that they wanted to remain in Germany on a more permanent basis. Their negotiations with authorities left behind rare case studies of a few colonial subjects as they tried to secure places for themselves in Imperial German society.

This analysis raises a number of methodological and political questions relating to the concept of "Black Europeans." Particularly when considering notions of "play" and "performance," it is extraordinarily difficult to determine the extent to which historical actors actually considered themselves as either Black or European. To what extent, then, can scholars infer the actual attitudes and understandings of such individuals? In other words, how do we tell if such individuals were simply "Blacks in Europe" or actually "Black Europeans," and what sorts of sources facilitate/hinder this task? In what ways can we ascribe the term "Black European" to individuals who may not have conceived of themselves as such?

Also, how do different historical contexts complicate our use of the concept of "Black Europeans"? In the context of my analysis for example, the position of Black colonial subjects in Germany before the First World War differed fundamentally from the Weimar, National Socialist, and postwar eras, as new global and local developments promoted new ways of understanding empire and Blackness. Finally, what are the present-day political implications of such analyses? How do we make a very complicated concept such as "Black Europe" usable for school curricula and for political debates and organization -- without sacrificing the necessary complexity? I would suggest that the approach I pursue in this project, exploring how individuals encounter abstract discourses, offers one usable way to integrate analyses of social structures with those of everyday praxis. Importantly, it does so without reducing these processes to simple models of absolute exploitation and oppression but also without hiding the very real difficulties that Black Europeans have faced in different social and temporal contexts.

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