Black German Literature
Home, Identity and Racism
Black German literature has a long history and embraces a broad spectrum – it ranges from poetry and autobiographies to academic and activist writings. Yet even today, black German authors are still less visible, especially when it comes to fiction.
By Philipp Khabo Koepsell
Black people have been producing literature in Germany for centuries. Some authors are immigrants themselves, others come from an immigrant background, they write in German or they are resident in Germany – but all of them have focused on similar subject areas. They deal with such issues as identity and home, their experiences of racism and how they have been treated individually.
The philosopher, Anton Wilhelm Amo, who published his writings as early as the 18th century at the time of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, is known as the first black author in German history. Shipped to Europe as a slave from today’s Ghana, the scientist taught and researched at several German universities. Over a century later, at the beginning of the 20th century, the beginnings of black writings of non-academic origin started to appear on the scene – with political journals such as Elolombe ya Cameroon from 1908 and the communist journal, The Negro Worker, which was published in Hamburg in the early 1930s. The production of the theatre play, Sonnenaufgang im Morgenland (Sunrise in the Orient), in 1930 is attributed to the black actor, Louis Brody, who wanted to draw attention to stereotypical images of Africa in his production.
GIVING A VOICE TO BLACK GERMANSThe early literary works of black German authors were characterised by the desire to be accepted and respected as being equal members of Germany’s majority society. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Dualla Misipo, who was born in Cameroon, grew up in the Weimar Republic and was persecuted during the Nazi era, published his epic tale Korongo: Das Lied der Waganna (Korongo: The Song of the Waganna) and his autobiographical narrative Der Junge aus Duala (The Boy from Duala). The poetry collections of some African and Afro-American participants in the artist-in-residence programs of the Berlin Literary Colloquium also date from the same period and have so far been largely ignored academically.
The publication of Farbe bekennen: Afrodeutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Show Your Colour – Afro-German Women Retrace Their History) in 1986 represented a milestone in activist literature. The authors researched black German history, exposed the social context of racism and drew attention to the special situation of black women. National associations such as ADEFRA and the initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative for Black People in Germany / ISD) have also contributed to giving black Germans a voice in the white majority society over the past 30 years.
A CHANGE IN THE WAY THEY PERCEIVE THEMSELVESMore recent black literature testifies to a change in the way they perceive themselves. The authors no longer necessarily strive to be considered as equal to Germans. They are aware - yes, we can be German – but we don’t have to be.
In the 1980s to 2000s, poets such as May Ayim, Raja Lubinetzki and Olumide Popoola focused on and tried to come to terms with the multi-layered aspects of Afro-German identity. They broached the issue of the supposed incompatibility of being black and being German and the resulting dilemma of coming to terms with one’s identity. The poet Raja Lubinetzki writes, “Seltsam, daß gerade ich in der deutschen Sprache / stehe, grad ich, die alles andre als deutsch / zu sein sich bekennt. / So kranke ich als deutsche Existenz vor meinem Recht / undeutsch sein zu müssen.” Roughly translated as, “It is strange that I, of all people, exist and work in the German language, me of all people, who professes to be anything but German. / This makes me despair as a German when it comes to my right / to have to be non-German.”
In her work from 2006, i dream revolutionary our revolutionary dream, the poet, Chantal Sandjon, wrote: “Tonight I dreamed of the revolution in red black & green, not black’n’white”. Red, black and green, the colours of the Pan-African flag, symbolize a contextual realignment – they position black German history as part of an international, diasporic experience.
SPACES TO DEVELOPEven today, black German authors are much less visible in German literary production, especially when it comes to fiction. Prominent exceptions include British based Sharon Dodua Otoo, who won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016 with her short story Herr Gröttrupp setzt sich hin (Mr. Gröttrupp sits down), the Nigerian-German author, Olumide Popoola, whose English-language books are published internationally, and the author, Melanie Raabe, whose books have been translated into many languages and who has already sold the film rights for her first novel Die Falle (The Trap).
With the awarding of the May Ayim Award in 2004 and the young authors competition Prophets of Wakanda, launched in 2018 by the Berlin association Each One Teach One (EOTO), spaces have been created in recent years in which the literary development of black authors has also been symbolically rewarded. Stage readings and poetry events such as the Parallelgesellschaft, the One-World-Poetry-Night and Poetry meets Hip Hop should not be underestimated either. These are spaces where young black writers can hone their literary skills.