Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

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Research on History and Present of Black People in Europe

Within Anglophone Postcolonial Studies, the African Diaspora has been long recognized as an important concept. The history and culture of African populations, violently transported to the “new world„ via the slave trade, as well as their commonalities and different trajectories, are the subjects of vigorous scholarly debates. However, the history of Black Europeans, whose current number is estimated at eighteen million, still remains mostly unknown. This is a consequence both of the reluctance of many European nations to deal with their colonial history and of the widespread notion that Europe indeed consists of many different ethnicities who however all belong to the same „white race“. Black Europeans are thus often consigned to the role of „foreigner“ instead of being conceived as part of the plurality of a new united Europe.

The century-long history of black Europeans stands in sharp contrast to this political and academic negligence. A few individuals have achieved some renown, for instance Wilhelm Anton Amo, 18th century professor of philosophy at the University of Halle or the writers Alexander Puschkin und Alexandre Dumas, but the history of the majority of Black Europeans, like the Afro-Germans sterilized under National Socialism, is completely forgotten. Since the 1980s scholars have begun to rediscover this forgotten history of Black Europe, inspired in some part by the constitution of Black movements in countries like Great Britain, Germany, or the Netherlands. As most European countries lack knowledge about their own indigenous Black minorities, academic exchange has been possible to date mainly in connection with U.S. studies of the African Diaspora. But Americans still regard the European experience as a divergence from the question central for their own research, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet if one considers the history of Black Europe in its totality, along with differences that derive from the specificities of national history it is possible to discern important commonalities which on the one hand contradict the thesis of divergent experiences and on the other define colonialism as central also for history inside of Europe.

As a consequence of colonialism, the strategic maneuverings of the superpowers during the Cold War, and new migrations in the wake of increasing globalization, more Black people than ever are at home in Europe. But these new populations are neither taken into account, nor are the political and social consequences of their presence analyzed (for instance, their role as targets of the new xenophobia). Since the various Black populations of Europe are increasingly subjected to the same conditions (and confront an ever more homogeneous image of a Europe which up to now has excluded its non-white residents), a comparative study of these populations is of crucial scholarly importance and urgently demands a transnational approach.

The Black European Studies Program (BEST) at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, aims at offering such an approach, adequate to the history, the present-day experience, and the future perspectives of the Black populations of Europe. The program focuses mainly on three areas:

  • In early October 2004, the Study Center “Black Europe” was inaugurated at the Gutenberg University Mainz. The Center will conduct empirical studies focused on the often neglected history and present of black people in Europe, and remains in close contact with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where another Center for Black European Studies is planned.

  • Regional working conferences in Northwest, East, and South Europe will offer a forum of exchange for scholars and activists, establish regional networks and offer an inventory of existing scholarship.

  • An archive will for the first time bundle sources on black Europe, up to now scattered in archives and private collections. The material will also be digitized and made available through an online portal, offering the greatest possible accessibility. The portal will include a digital archive, a searchable data base; comprehensive bibliography; abstracts of working conference papers, calls for papers, etc.

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