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“Wir sind ein Volk?”: Immigration, Reunification, and their Impact on Black German Identity from 1984 to1996

Sonya Donaldson





Who is a German? What constitutes Germanness? These questions have been at the center of the debate of German identity for much of the twentieth century, for German identity, far from being fixed, has been quite fluid, at times with devastating consequences for those considered “other.” “Legal and cultural definitions of who was supposed to be German have varied more drastically than for any other European nationality,” (221) write Konrad H. Jarausch and Michael Geyer in Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories.

And this continued to be the case at the end of the twentieth century. But while the first half of that century was primarily concerned with Germany identity as it came into opposition with European “others,” discourse on the topic in the mid-1980s through the early 1990s was framed by two distinct yet interconnected issues: immigration and reunification. Much of the discussion was centered on the presence of foreign workers, asylum seekers, and, leading up to reunification, East Germans. Missing from the equation was a small but visible part of the German population: black Germans, who, though German citizens were considered foreigners in their own country.

Unlike the United States, Germany is rarely, if at all, viewed as a multiracial, multiethnic society, although Turkish Germans, Jews, blacks, and other ethnic groups constitute a visible and increasingly vocal part of that society. Black Germans are not a new phenomenon, nor are they simply either products of German immigration policies in the 1950s and 1960s or “war babies,” remnants of a past the nation would rather hold in deep pockets of German memory. Rather, Afro-Germans have a history that extends well beyond the discourse on immigration that began in earnest in the 1970s. Black Germans’ move toward self-definition, political involvement, and community building in the 1980s thus marks a turning point in their history; for the first time, rather than be defined by fellow German citizens as “foreigners,” beginning in 1984, they chose how they would be viewed in the discussions on German identity and began to insist, rather loudly, that their voices be heard amid the clamor. Yet Nicola Piper writes that reunification between east and west “triggered rising nationalism and redefinition of national identity with stronger ethnic connotations” (102) that left Germany’s black minorities again, on the outside.

This paper seeks to enter the discourse by examining the ways in which the emergence of an Afro-German/black German identity in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s (1984-1996) has contributed to the redefinition of German identity, causing a shift in the way that Germanness was conceptualized and indeed, discussed up to and following the east-west reunification. Afro-Germans began asserting their right to a German identity by placing their presence in that country in a historical context (with the 1986 publication of the ground-breaking text, Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutschen Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte, translated, problematically, in 1992 as Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), affirming their link to Germanness by virtue of blood, and by claiming a German cultural identity. By placing the black presence in Germany in a historical context, the women’s narratives that appear in Showing Our Colors assert black German identity not as an aberration but as a natural part of the fabric of German identity and present Afro-Germans as integral to the ongoing discourse on Germanness, rather than as 20th century post-war impositions.

In examining the issue, what is clear is that much of the scholarship on black German identity and the Afro-German experience has viewed black Germans through the filter of the African American experience (the obvious reason being the post-WWII baby boom of bi-racial children fathered by American soldiers in Germany). Tina Campt has argued that some texts view the Afro-German experience through the lens of “African American history and community formation,” rendering Afro-Germans “in an almost patronizing manner.”

Although I would not quarrel with her assertions, one could argue that the nascent “re-birth” of a black German identity lent itself, at times, to a simple reading of that history, and lacking a historical frame of reference at the time (or, indeed, adequate information), almost begged comparison with the African American identity formation and community building process. It must also be noted that the term “Afro-German,” was coined in 1984 with the help of Caribbean American poet Audre Lorde while she taught at in Berlin, so the connections between Afro-Germans and African Americans are by no means fragile ones.

Nevertheless, Campt’s assertions and re-evaluations represent a key and welcome shift in the way the topic of black Germans has been engaged in academic discourse; they can no longer be viewed simply as an accident of Germany’s checkered history or as “African Americans lite”; black Germans are distinct yet also German and part of the African Diaspora. As Anne V. Adams writes, “The ironic paradox of being viewed and therefore treated as foreigners but having, in most cases, no personal Black reference—conscious or unconscious, individual or collective—within their lives as Germans creates a limbo-life with no analog among Black populations in ex-colonial Europe or in North America” (Ayim 236).

This paper is part of a larger exploration of the cross-cultural exchanges between the African Diaspora and Germans; my particular aim is to examine the ways in which German colonial power and the loss of that power helped shape Germans conceptions of self. Although Germany’s colonial enterprise was brief and largely unsuccessful, it brought the issue of biology and race to the concept of identity. How did Germans think of themselves and “others” after the loss? And how did the entrance of “others” and the continual shifts in population help shape German ideas of identity and Germanness? What does this shifting concept of Germanness do to the black German conception of self?

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