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Goethe Annual Lecture 2020
The End of the White Gaze

Sharon Dodua Otoo at the Goethe Annual Lecture 2020
© Goethe-Institut

In 2020 publicist, author and activist Sharon Dodua Otoo opened the Goethe Annual Lecture series. In her talk Some Kind of Tomorrow, the British writer honours her literary ancestors and mentors Toni Morrison, May Ayim, Bernardine Evaristo and Buchi Emecheta. At the same time Otoo condemns the structural deficits and racism responsible for the fact that these very same women writers did not receive the praise they actually deserved during their lifetimes. Otoo’s lecture comes at an important time: the year 2020 was characterised by the Black Lives Matter movement. All over the world, black people took to the streets to fight for their rights and against the discrimination they continue to endure. A discrimination that’s also reflected on the literature scene and in the way Black authors are treated.

By Celia Parbey

Sharon Dodua Otoo delivers her talk from the comfort of her home in Berlin. The events of this bizarre year of COVID-19 meant that the 2020 lecture was shifted into the digital space too. Otoo has lived in the German capital since 2006. As well as her own publications, such as The Things I Am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Otoo has been awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and has also published her own English language book series, Witnessed. She has been campaigning against racism for years, and one of her involvements is the Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland initiative.

The enormous significance of our ears

“I would like you all to consider the size of your outer ears,” Otoo asks her virtual audience at the start. Ears typically come in a range of shapes, colours and dimensions, she continues. And now imagine how unjust it would be if your life chances were limited by the apparent size of your ears. A clever thought experiment with which she reminds her audience that arbitrarily chosen factors determine the perception and status of many people in our society. The British national is a gifted speaker. She uses simple concepts to communicate complex situations.

“I identify as Black, and I write this with a capital B,” says Otoo. What does that mean? She identifies with other members of the African diaspora who have resisted against racist oppression. With this statement she refers to a community and a solidarity that extends beyond language barriers and national borders: ‘Black’ as a political and cultural identity –not a presumed biological reality. This self-same solidarity was apparent from the worldwide reactions to the murder of US American George Floyd. From Berlin, via Lagos to the small Afro-Turkish community, Black people protested for him and for their own liberation.
Otoo knows that skin colour isn’t the problem. She’s discriminated against because people make assumptions about her character and abilities based on her skin colour. This highlights an important problem in the anti-racism debate. The blame for discrimination lies not with racialised people, but with people who force them into the limiting compartments of a presumed “race”.

“Why should we as a society focus on these themes”?

The British speaker refers to the USA, where social injustices had been ignored for a long time and flared up dangerously in the past four years. The USA as a cautionary example, where decades of failure were now taking revenge. But it isn’t enough to point the finger at the USA, which is popular in Germany. The problem is always the others. But as Otoo correctly describes, right-leaning popularism is on the rise in the centre of German society, too. Black people are dying at the borders of Europe. On top of that the climate crisis, not to mention COVID-19 – a world in chaos.

Otoo speaks in a calm voice. Her words are insistent. For the author it’s clear: we need a system change. Desperately. And Otoo knows what needs to be done to achieve that: “It is my firm belief that if the focus is placed on ensuring that the situation is improved for those of us who are suffering most, ultimately society will be more humane for us all.”

A huge knowledge gap

It is Black women, particularly queer Black women, who have always been the backbone of anti-racist movements and initiatives worldwide. That also applies to Germany. The Black German movement was founded by queer activists such as Katharina Oguntoye, Peggy Piesche and Audre Lorde. Despite their vital input for the benefit of society as a whole, even today there is a tendency to downplay their contributions in academia, as well as publishing and other sectors – if they are acknowledged at all.

This deficit affects many knowledge areas and the entire culture throughout African or African diaspora countries. The narratives typically begin and end with colonialism and times of slavery. The fact that Otoo explicitly mentions African literature here as well is not self-evident. All too often it is forgotten in the general discourse surrounding Black literature.

In this context the literature for Black communities can be a crucial medium through which they can write their own histories and regain lost narratives. Nigerian author Chinua Achebeis considered a pioneer in this respect. His novel Things Fall Apart opened up an insight into the pre-colonial history of West African societies to Otoo and many others. For a long time, books that white people wrote about Africa focused on the assumed savagery of this supposedly dark continent.

Toni Morrison, May Ayim, Bernardine Evaristo and Buchi Emecheta

Just like her literary role models, Sharon Dodua Otoo describes Black lived experiences for Black people. With works like The Things I Am Thinking While Smiling Politely, and the novel Adas Raum (Ada’s Room), she has made an impact on the history of Black German literature. She gives young Black people a representation of their own. She allows them to be seen. The truth is, there’s a global lack of knowledge about Black culture even amongst Black people. Otoo writes for Black people to correct this imbalance. Like Toni Morrison, she realises that the white imagination, referred to as the White Gaze, has been characterising culture products of all kinds for centuries, and continues to do so today. She breaks with this tradition in her works. The German literature scene needs people like her. People who dare to write outside the prescribed norm so that true structural change doesn’t remain as wishful thinking. 

The same goes for Afro-German poet, educator and activist May Ayim, who also strongly influenced Otoo in her writing. In 1984 Ayimco-edited the book Showing Our Colours as part of a collective with other Black women. With this anthology they bear witness to Black lived experiences in Germany through academic texts, poetry and autobiographical stories.

Pioneering yet invisible

Just like almost all sectors in Germany, the publishing industry has a structural racism problem. There are barely any Black people working in German-language publishing houses. Regardless which way Black authors turn –to literature houses or literary agents – the sector is white and doesn’t let them forget that. Authors report repeatedly being asked to downplay the "Blackness" of their protagonists. They said that they were often urged to at least introduce a white best friend alongside their Black protagonist, so that a white readership can identify with the work.

Otoo pays tribute to British publicist Bernardine Evaristo as her mentor. She challenged Otoo not only to think about what she was doing with her creative writing, but also to consider its impact in greater society. Literature as a kind of cultural contract and maybe also a promise to future Black generations.

A contract also fulfilled by author Buchi Emecheta, who came from Nigeria to Britain in 1962. The activist views Emecheta as a feminist author, even if she would not have described herself that way. One thing Otoo’s literary idols have in common is their “Haltung”, or stance. They all strove to change the societies they lived in. This is what Sharon Dodua Otoo stands for too. At the end, she explains that as a writer she sometimes feels powerless. She cannot end structural racism single-handedly, but maybe she doesn’t even have to do that. The thing is, she inspires young Black authors to write down their perspective on the world and share it with others. Just like her literary icons, she’s a pioneer who bears witness to the myriad ways in which racism affects us all. “I can use my literature in the service of Black lives so that we can have some kind of tomorrow.”