Anton Wilhelm Amo
A Transnational Memory

Latitude – Street in Berlin-Mitte renamed as Anton Wilhelm-Amo-Straße
In March 2021, after more than twenty years of struggle, the local Black community succeeded in having M*Straße in Berlin-Mitte renamed as Anton Wilhelm-Amo-Straße. | © Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago

Initiatives and researchers in Germany, the USA, the Netherlands and Ghana have joined forces to form the digital platform known as the “Anton Wilhelm Amo Legacy” to honour Anton Wilhelm Amo. Amo gained his doctorate in the 18th century as the first African philosopher in Europe, and was the first non-white professor to lecture at German universities.

While during the so-called Enlightenment the violence fantasies of “human races” allowed racism to come into being and enabled the European superpowers to legitimise slavery, Anton Wilhelm Amo – a Ghana-born Black philosophy professor (approx. 1703–1759) – was one of a few prominent academics to value all people. With his dissertation On the Rights of Moors in Europe not only did he argue the validity of citizens’ rights for Black people, but also the right to voluntary autonomous migration and transformation processes.
 
Although Anton Wilhelm Amo himself is the proof that there were non-white voices among the ranks of European philosophers as well, he had fallen from favour by the end of his time in Germany. Amo was questioning white supremacy. The upshot of that was that his work “disappeared”. He was no longer welcome and returned – probably not of his own volition – to what is today Ghana. That more or less put an end to the German (pre-)national culture of memory: out of sight, out of mind – and therefore forgotten? Legally speaking, crimes nowadays are judged with retrospective effect against a transnational moral yardstick: human rights. This was not defined until the end of the Second World War. Before that, no rights existed anywhere in the world for Africans to protect or defend themselves from the numerous acts of violence committed by Europeans. An obvious interpretation of Amo’s work today would be as a symbolic outcry “Black Lives Matter” – in Europe too.

What Is the True History of Amo?

Amo didn’t just document the history of rights for us. He said himself: “It is not enough to tell the truth, if the cause of untruth is not also determined.” What is the true history of Amo? In Lower Saxony, where Amo spent the majority of his childhood and youth, there were a few Africans at that time who had been trafficked like he had. They were “objects” under constant observation. Amo was given his forenames “Anton Wilhelm” by his “owner” Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig zu Lüneburg‑Wolfenbüttel and his son Wilhelm. Regarding his surname Amo, we cannot be sure whether it was his real family name or whether he was simply baptised with it. Amo was at the mercy of White Saviourism and had to suffer the consequences for tokenism.

Barely a Trace of Amo the “Adoptive Son”

Herzog August Wilhelm is still omnipresent today: he is commemorated in Wolfenbüttel and Braunschweig in the library, with a museum and statues. Barely a trace of his “adoptive son” Amo exists on the other hand – not even a picture. Unlike in Jena (Thuringia) there is no plaque on his house referring to his existence. The initiative Amo Braunschweig Postkolonial is the only organisation in Germany offering tours on a postcolonial theme that is named after an African and creates a memorial to Amo in this way.

“An obvious interpretation of Amo’s work today would be as a symbolic outcry “Black Lives Matter” – in Europe too.”

In 2020, the Kunstverein Braunschweig hosted a multidimensional, multilingual exhibition for the first time, a temporary memorial for Amo under the leadership of co-curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung: The Faculty of Sensing – Thinking With, Through and by Anton Wilhelm Amo. The fictional theatre symposium of the Sahba theatre production Every Active Entity, which is performed in Germany and Ghana, follows a similar theme. “I’m fascinated by transnational perspectives,” says theatre director Felix Zeppenfeld. “The encounter between Germany and Ghana is an intersection of thinking spaces. And yet there isn’t just one history and thus just one memory of Amo, there are several. This divergence is a good thing as well. As is the case with Shakespeare.” Artistic director Sahba Sahebi adds: “It’s all about hearing the voices of the oppressed. Amo is one of many. His works were not able to achieve the full impact they potentially could have. From a political perspective it’s important that he is allowed to deliver his own narrative.”

A Special Kind of Commemoration

At the location of Amo’s career peak, in Halle (Saale), the culture of memory is linked with the university, something that’s unique in Europe. The Rectorate Commission of the University of Halle‑Wittenberg is dedicated to the commemoration of Anton Wilhelm Amo. Raja‑Léon Hamann is active there, as well as in the Amo Alliance Halle. Jan Schubert, another member of the Amo Alliance, agrees with him when Hamann says: “Memory always has a political significance as well. The story of the bronze sculpture on University Square entitled Free Africa by Gerhard Geyer, a sculptor from Halle, which nowadays is linked with the memory of Amo, was actually intended to commemorate Ghana’s anti-colonial path. Why the sculpture then ended up staying here and wasn’t sent to Ghana is not exactly clear.”

“While during the so-called Enlightenment the violence fantasies of “human races” allowed racism to come into being and enabled the European superpowers to legitimise slavery, Anton Wilhelm Amo – a Ghana-born Black philosophy professor (approx. 1703–1759) – was one of a few prominent academics to value all people.”

In Halle they had the idea of naming a street after Amo back in the sixties. Berlin has now successfully done this after a battle with the Black community dating back to the 1990s. During the course of that, the Neighbourhood Initiative Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße was founded. Member and researcher Adela Taleb says: “If we imagine walking through Berlin’s city centre with Anton Wilhelm Amo, we might see different things through his eyes. We’re also planning to open an Amo Salon with a documentation centre. The idea is for it to be a physical space that’s accessible to the public, in which people can reflect together on themes such as (...) racism and colonialism and the impact they have on the present.

“The encounter between Germany and Ghana is an intersection of thinking spaces. And yet there isn’t just one history and thus just one memory of Amo, there are several. This divergence is a good thing as well.”

theatre director Felix Zeppenfeld

The news about Anton‑Wilhelm‑Amo‑Straße in Berlin even reached Ghana: Amo lectures are planned there for the first time, at the University of Ghana. The transnational and dialogical remembrance in relation to Amo’s legacy is finally being carried on.
  • Latitude – First digital conference “Black Lives History Matters – also in Lower Saxony”, focussing on the culture of remembrance on Anton Wilhelm Amo in Lower Saxony. © Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago
    First digital conference “Black Lives History Matters – also in Lower Saxony”, focussing on the culture of remembrance on Anton Wilhelm Amo in Lower Saxony.
  • Street in Berlin-Mitte renamed as Anton Wilhelm-Amo-Straße © Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago
    In March 2021, after more than twenty years of struggle, the local Black community succeeded in having M*Straße in Berlin-Mitte renamed as Anton Wilhelm-Amo-Straße.
  • Latitude – The city of Jena has placed a commemorative plaque on the home of the first Black philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo at Jenergasse 9. © Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago
    The city of Jena has placed a commemorative plaque on the home of the first Black philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo at Jenergasse 9.
  • Latitude – A plaque in front of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ghana commemorates the transnational history of Anton Wilhelm Amos at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. © Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago
    A plaque in front of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ghana commemorates the transnational history of Anton Wilhelm Amos at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.
  • Latitude – The statue “Free Africa” by the sculptor Gerhard Geyer in Halle © Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago
    The statue “Free Africa” by Halle sculptor Gerhard Geyer from the 1960s was originally intended as a gift from the GDR to Ghana in recognition of the African state’s pioneering role in the anti-colonial struggle.
  • Latitude – In 2021, for the first time a multi-day event was held on Anton Wilhelm Amo in Ghana. © Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago
    In 2021, for the first time a multi-day event was held on Anton Wilhelm Amo in Ghana: Initiators of the first work meeting were Professor Abena Oduro – Institute Director, Maria Sibylla Merian - Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) Ghana, Dr. Richmond Kwesi – Philosophy Department, Dr. Sarah F. Dorgbadzi – Theatre Department, Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago – Initiator of the Anton Wilhelm Amo legacy and theatre production initiative Every Active Entity, Dr. Ekua Ekumah – Theatre Department, William Nsuiban Gmayi – Ghana Monumental Museum Board at the University of Ghana, Sahba Sahebi – Theatre production of Every Active Entity, Viviane Boateng – Theatre Department.
  • Latitude – Teams of the Anton Wilhelm Amo Legacy in Germany © Han Le
    Teams of the Anton Wilhelm Amo Legacy in Germany
“Amo was proud of being an African and wrote it down everywhere: Afer – the African,” says artistic director of the symposium of Sahba theature production Every Active Entity, Dr Ekua Ekumah. “It’s as if Amo’s talking (...): ‘My body will (...) disappear, but my spirit (...) will remain.’ It’s no surprise to us that Amo had a strong self-awareness.” Similar ideas can also be found in Amo’s philosophical essay The Mind-Body Problem.
 
The first president of Ghana, Dr Nkrumah, campaigned for a transnational remembrance of Amo back in the 1960s: Nkrumah dreamed of an Anton‑Wilhelm‑Amo foundation that would enable Ghanaians to research Amo’s life and works in Germany. After a coup against the Nkrumah government, both this idea and the history of Amo largely disappeared from the Ghanaian education system. In Shama, where Amo’s grave is situated next to Fort San Sebastian, and also in Axim where he was born, citizens are for the most part unaware who Amo was and the significance bestowed upon him. In the Library of Africa and the African Diaspora in Legon a space has been created in memory of the people of the African diaspora – however it doesn’t include a book about Amo.