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Destined to Witness: Afro-European Identity as a Locus for Research in the Diaspora

Steve James

One of the first questions that I ask in my African American literature class is “How long does it take for a contemporary African immigrant (a Ghanaian, for example) to become an African American?” The answers usually cover several possibilities, ranging from “immediately” to “never.” African American students will almost universally agree that a Ghanaian, for example, will discover that he is African American as soon as he tries to hail a cab in midtown Manhattan. Though the Ghanaian students might agree with the problem, they will often emphasize that they are not African Americans. The ensuing debates about African American identity will inform our readings for the remainder of the semester. It will begin with the arguments and demonstrations made to counter the claims that Africans were inferior, at best, and possibly subhuman.

We will then proceed to the writers who, in addition to demanding the same liberty that the signers of the Declaration of Independence imagined for themselves, asserted that they were entirely American in terms of their political beliefs, religion, and culture. At this point, the discussions will become more heated. Wanting to be free is one thing; wanting to be American is something totally different. To many of the African American students, the desire to be American is equivalent to a desire to be White. To do so is to break an unwritten rule and is seen as a denial of Africa, the African ancestors and Blackness. Unlike the Ghanaian students, however, the African American students, generally, will have very little specific knowledge of African society, language, or culture. Their ultimate agreement, if it comes, will be that what really have in common, and their real subject, is Black identity, not African or African American identity. The question of American identity remains unanswered.

At this point in the conversation, if not before, another group of Americans reminds us that blackness is not an essential requirement for a person to relate to Africa and the African ancestors. These particular Americans come from the Southern Hemisphere and the Caribbean. They are often quick to point out that their cultures contain as many, and sometimes more, Africanisms than the cultures of their northern neighbors. Moreover, they acknowledge their African origins without reference to race. In general, they are proud of their Caribbean country of origin, and are unambivalent about their nationalities. Trinidadians of every hue acknowledge the debt of Africans to their national culture, as do Jamaicans, Cubans, Haitians, and others. This is not to suggest a lack of institutional and individual racism in the Caribbean or that blackness is or ever has been insignificant factor in the social, political, and economic life of the islands and America below the equator. The point is that it does not seem to affect Jamaican, Haitian, Brazilian or Colombian sense of national identity or of a specific homeland. There may certainly be the perception of being Black and Jamaican, but there is no contradiction. Thus, after the first generation of emigrants to the United States, they consider themselves Trinidadian-Americans and Jamericans. However, they do not consider themselves African Americans. Those of them who could be considered White become American.

One wonders what the same discussion would be like any European glass from. Or, more specifically, what would be the difference among conversations of this sort held in England, France, Spain or Germany. Would there be, as in the United States, some black people in England who would claim England as their homeland? Would there also be those who would argue that the “Black English patriot” could never legitimately claim English identity? He might have been more in England, have working papers, and even a passport. These facts and documents would certainly obtain for him certain rights, but in none of them would entitle him to the privilege of being considered English. There would certainly be members of his own group who would ridicule the black person who would be silly enough to think it would ever be possible for him to be accepted as an English men. Some others would deride that black person for being disloyal, s traitor to his race. They would say that this person had committed the unpardonable sin of denying his ancestors in Africa and desiring to be white.

By the point in the course, we will and gotten to Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The concept of “passing” will raise some new issues that reveal an almost moral imperative for a Black person to acknowledge his Blackness and relation to Africa. Novels of passing, however, always challenge the concept of racial identity, and are always auto-reflexive. They inevitably call attention to themselves and to the ability of the character who is “passing” to transgress the identity boundaries created by those being tricked. On another level, these novels reassure the readers that such transgressions, though striking, are rare and always have severe social and psychological repercussions on the person doing the passing. The absence of the novel of passing in European literatures is glaring. Inter-marriage between Africans and European have not been unique to North America. The famous marriage of Olaudah Equiano, the African who gained fame for writing his “Interesting Narrative” (1790), with “Susannah Cullen, Spinster of the Parish of Soham at St. Andrew's Church” required a special license. However, the couple had two children: Anna Maria, in 1793, and Joanna, in1795. Records show that Anna Maria died in 1797. What happened to her younger sister, Johanna, after the death of her parents, remains a mystery. Did we lose track of her because she left England or succumbed to some illness? Or, did she resemble her mother and ultimately blend into the English countryside, passing into English society silently? Does she represent an entire class of English people who are not recognized in any literary genre because they do not subscribe to the conventional guidelines for determining racial identity? Is this because they prefer not to call attention to their identities and social situations, or because, according to the conventional racial guidelines, they can not –or do not-- recognize any racial difference?

This brings us the title of this essay “Destined to Witness”, which refers to the English title of Hans Jurgen Massaquoi’s autobiographical account life as the child of a German mother and a Liberian father, who lived in Hamburg during the Second World War. The accounts of experiences of Afro-Germans, from the First World War onward, complete with their policies of sterilization, discrimination and alienation, are well documented. What was surprising, to this reader, was that Massaquoi describes a Germany where it was possible for him to feel no essential problem being both Black and German:

“In the upscale, cosmopolitan environment I had left behind, and environment in which black people of my grandfathers stature were treated with the utmost respect, I had learned to look upon my racial traits as enviable assets. All at once I was forced to regard them as liabilities, as I noticed a drastic change in the way people related to me. Instead of the friendly glances and flattering comments I had been used to, I suddenly drew curious, at times even hostile stares, and insulting remarks. Most offensive to me with two words that I had never heard before and I soon discovered were used by people for the sole purpose of describing the way I looked. One word was Mischling, which, after pressing Mutti for an explanation, she defined as someone who, like me, was of racially mixed parentage. The other word was Neger—according to Mutti, a misnomer as far as I was concerned, since she insisted that I was definitely not a Neger, a term that she said applied only to black people in America. But street urchins, who were my worst tormentors, apparently did not know, or care, about such fine distinctions. As soon as they spotted me, they would start chant, Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger (Negro, Negro, chimney sweep)! And they would keep it up with a sadistic insistence until I was out of this sight. Luckily, after a short time, the stairs and torrents became fewer as the novelty of my exotic appearance began to wear off. Soon some of the kids who had shouted the loudest became a closest pals. To my great relief, it seemed as if all of a sudden they have become oblivious to the visual differences that set us apart” (18).

The chant, Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger becomes the German title for Massaquoi’s autobiography. We can read many things into his account. Massaquoi undergoes a sudden moment of “recognition” when he discovers that his color has negative connotations to some members of his society. Yet, he also notes another sudden moment when, to him, it seems as if his color is ignored or considered insignificant. In relatively quick succession, he exhibits his first glimpse of negritude and a sense of acceptance in his new neighborhood. We might also point to his mother’s belief that the term Neger only applied to American blacks. Later on in his story, we will learn this association will allow him to retain some self-esteem in Germany during the Third Reich and will enable him to escape Germany after the war. His life in Germany will not remain as pleasant as his early experiences suggest. Eventually, he will find that his loyalty to his community will conflict with his pride in and loyalty to his color. Massaquoi’s experiences will then conform to the usual conceptions of Afro-German identity, that which is expected of a Black person in Germany. In that sense, Massaquoi will be assigned the identity of an African American regardless of his or his mother’s wishes.

Massaquoi’s perception of his own identity, however, defied the conventional assignments, impositions, and expected obligations for a Black person. Until he learned otherwise, Massaquoi perceived himself to be a German, perhaps darker than others he knew, but German nevertheless. It is also more than naivete that allowed a “a kinky-haired, brown-skinned eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blond and blue-eyed kids [to be] filled with childlike patriotism” (2). The analogy to DuBois’s conception of African American’s “double-consciousness” is sharp, and raises the question of whether double-consciousness is a universal feature of the Black experience across the Diaspora. Is there the same split in self-perception and lack of “true self-consciousness” for Blacks worldwide? This position seems to deny the possibility of nuance in Afro-European identity. It means that it is not interesting or significant to differentiate between the experience of an Afro-French and an Afro-German. Besides resulting in an analysis based on the false premises of essential racial difference and the inevitability that mixed race children will inevitably be forced to identify with their darker parent. This sort of prescriptivism de-identifies the individual from whatever European national or cultural identity because it begins with a set of presumptions that will not permit him to recognize or acknowledge his identity with his lighter parent or the place where he was actually born.

Many have noted and argued that Black racial identity implies or obliges in the individual a sense of duty to his or her race. Charles Taylor calls this an aspect of the “politics of recognition.” Yet, this concept of moral obligation is a crucial component of Cesaire’s negritude, the concept considered by most to be the catalyst for modern notions of the African Diaspora, Afrocentricity, and other ideas that emphasize Blackness and the ultimate relation of all Black people to Africa. The three key features of negritude are an awareness and acknowledgment of difference, loyalty, and solidarity. The individual becomes or is made aware of the collective historical circumstances of peoples of color, and that awareness should imbue him with a sense of obligation, loyalty, to those with whom he shares a collective experience. Anthony Appiah, in “Color Conscious” points out the conflict that emerges between the individual’s desire for acknowledgment and recognition as a unique individual and the obligation he feels to be recognized as a member of a specific historical community. Members of that community often also feel the right to appropriate individuals, regardless of the individual’s preference or sense of a unique identity.

The difference between the various interpretations of negritude and Cesaire’s that his own construction implies, but does not require Blackness. In an essay that explains his position, he accepts that the term refers to “a visible reality.” However, he would call that reality “ethnic”, rather than racial:

“In fact, negritude is not essentially of a biological nature. Beyond immediate biology, it obviously refers to something deeper; more precisely to a sum of lived experiences which have defined and characterized one of the forms of human condition made by history. Its common denominator is not skin color as such but the fact that we all belong in one way of another to a people who has suffered and continues to suffer, a people who is marginalized and oppressed” (What is Negritude to Me?).

Cesaire immediately goes on to recall his surprise upon seeing a book entitled We the White Negroes of America (Nous Autres Négres Blancs D’Amerique) in a Quebec bookstore. He describes smiling at what he called the author’s “exaggeration.” However, he also noted that “Well, this author may be exaggerating, but at least he has understood negritude.” For Cesaire, the Martinican, the White Negro can satisfy all the requirements for ascribing to the idea of negritude. Though, to say that a blonde, blue-eyed Negro would have had the same life experiences as a Black Negro would be an exaggeration. But, that individual’s life would certainly have been affected by and a part of the collective history of people of African descent in America. By acknowledging that effect and “witnessing,” proclaiming publicly that he feels in solidarity with and loyal to an oppressed group, and is willing to join in their struggle, is sufficient in Cesaire’s view.

Perhaps the ability to conceive of “negritude” as a category that can legitimately include individuals who are not visibly Black was only possible for someone from the Caribbean. Cesaire’s conception of negritude does not view race or color as the ultimate arbiters of an individual’s belonging to a community or ascribing to a certain national, ethnic or group identity. In the Caribbean, there is no contradiction nor sense of surprise when someone who is appears Chinese or Irish says he is Trinidad or Jamaican. It may appear to be an exaggeration when the White Barbadian club member claims that he is “just as African as the Black people.” In any case, his claim to being Barbadian is no less than any Black Bajan’s. This is not to argue that there are no class, race, economic, political or social differences between Blacks and non-Blacks in the Caribbean. What is obviously different is that national identity not defined according to the racial categories that exist in Europe (and North America). Negritude, itself, Cesaire argued was “a form of revolt against … European reductionism”

. . . “the instinctive inclination of an eminent and prestigious civilization to abuse even to its own prestige in order to make a void around itself by abusively reducing the notion of universal to its own dimensions; that is, to think of universality from the point of view of its own assumptions and categories” (15).

It seems that, despite many ongoing problems, the Caribbean and much of South and Central America are among the only places where national identity and racial identity are not synonymous. This is not to suggest that the Caribbean is a model example of race, ethnic or cultural relations. What is interesting is the apparent absence of DuBoisian double-consciousness. Had Massaquoi been born in Jamaica or Brazil, his nationality would never have been questioned. Yet, had he been born in the United States, the result would have been similar to his experience in Germany. It is almost ironic that Cesaire claims that “the first negritude was the American negritude”, by which he meant that African Americans were the first to create the unifying ideas of negritude and an African Diaspora in response to their common oppression. The question for students of Black or Afro-Europeans will be whether the context of that study will allow the subjects to create their own identities. Black writers should be able to express a sense of identity with their European countries of birth. It should not be considered an act of disloyalty for an individual to feel attached to his family and place of birth.

Discussing the effects of Africans who have been born in Europe, and Africans in Europe, throughout history will also have an effect on the unacknowledged concept of Whiteness, which has recently gained interest in the United States. It may also affect the concepts of Blackness and the African Diaspora that are promoted from that same society. European history has obviously had a much longer association with Africans than is popularly acknowledged in the United States. The erasure of Africa from world history by the colonizing nations and the United States, in particular, provided a important rationale for Black people worldwide to acknowledge Africa and be recognized as Africans. Europeans are in a better position to confirm these influences. Yet, it may require the adoption of a new ways of perceiving European identity. In the United States, the relative homogeneity of culture, to which both Black and White Americans subscribe, allows “race” to be a primary means of categorizing groups within the nation. In Europe, the diversity of cultures permits “culture” and “ethnicity” to be as significant. Only in Europe may we discover those who consider themselves Euro-Africans, who identify primarily, if not solely, with Europe. It is probably only in Europe that they will be considered worthy of serious study.

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