Black German Literature
Home, Identity and Racism

© Marina Camargo, 2020

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 Germans

The 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 Afro-German author, television presenter and director Mo Asumang presents her book: "Mo and the Aryans. Alone Among Racists and Neo-Nazis" Photo (detail): Robert B. Fishman © picture alliance/dpa

    The Afro-German author, television presenter and director Mo Asumang presents her book: "Mo and the Aryans. Alone Among Racists and Neo-Nazis"

  • In his book "Hope in the heart, freedom in mind" Zekarias Kebraeb tells the unimaginable story of his flight from Eritrea to Germany. He was only seventeen when he fled from the domestic military dictatorship, and his odyssey to Europe lasted four years. The journey took him through Sudan, across the Sahara to Libya and from there across the Mediterranean - a true hellish trip, full of danger and privations, where it was completely uncertain whether and how Zekaria's Kebraeb would survive the escape. Photo: Horst Galuschka © dpa

    In his book "Hope in the heart, freedom in mind" Zekarias Kebraeb tells the unimaginable story of his flight from Eritrea to Germany. He was only seventeen when he fled from the domestic military dictatorship, and his odyssey to Europe lasted four years. The journey took him through Sudan, across the Sahara to Libya and from there across the Mediterranean - a true hellish trip, full of danger and privations, where it was completely uncertain whether and how Zekaria's Kebraeb would survive the escape.

  • The prominent exception is the Berlin-based British author Sharon Dodua Otoo, who won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016 with her short story "Herr Gröttrupp setzt sich hin” (Herr Gröttrupp sits down). Photo: Gert Eggenberger © picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

    The prominent exception is the Berlin-based British author Sharon Dodua Otoo, who won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016 with her short story "Herr Gröttrupp setzt sich hin” (Herr Gröttrupp sits down).

  • Negus Martin with his father's book “Nenn es: mein Leben” (Call it: my life). The colored Briton Noel Martin was the victim of a xenophobic attack in the German community of Mahlow (Teltow-Fläming) in 1996. The 47-year-old Noel Martin, who lives in Birmingham, England, has been paraplegic ever since. Through a fund he promotes youth exchange and is active against racism. Photo: Nestor Bachmann © dpa-Report

    Negus Martin with his father's book “Nenn es: mein Leben” (Call it: my life). The colored Briton Noel Martin was the victim of a xenophobic attack in the German community of Mahlow (Teltow-Fläming) in 1996. The 47-year-old Noel Martin, who lives in Birmingham, England, has been paraplegic ever since. Through a fund he promotes youth exchange and is active against racism.

  • Successful author Melanie Raabe "Die Falle" (The Trap), grew up in the GDR without her Benin-born father Photo: Christoph Hardt © picture alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

    Successful author Melanie Raabe "Die Falle" (The Trap), grew up in the GDR without her Benin-born father

  • Afro-German actor and journalist Theodor Michael, editor-in-chief of the magazine "Afrika-Bulletin", who died in 2019 Photo (detail): Horst Galuschka © dpa

    Afro-German actor and journalist Theodor Michael, editor-in-chief of the magazine "Afrika-Bulletin", who died in 2019

In 1980, the production of black literature in Germany started to gain momentum. Exiled African writers and performers founded the African Writers Association in West Berlin in the 1980s, which published the literary magazine, AWA Finnaba, from 1983 to 1988.  Between 1988 and 1999 two other magazines were published, Afrolook and Afrekete . The three magazines as a whole provided an extensive collection of black German poetry and short stories.

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 themselves

More 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 develop

Even 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.

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