When does racism against black peoples end?

The long history of racism : On both sides of the color line

- Gianna Zocco is a literary scholar and Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin. She conducts research on Germany and its history in Afro-American literature.

His years in Berlin must have been a moving experience for him: “I freed myself from the extremes of my racist provincialism. I became more human. ”With these sentences the African-American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois studied from 1892 to 1894.

If one reads today how positively the later historian and sociologist, who shortly after his return to the USA became the first black man to obtain a doctorate from Harvard University, wrote about his apprenticeship years in the German Empire, one might be irritated by the apparent contradiction between his Statements and today's reports by black people about systemic racism in Germany.

Does “Germany you have a racism problem” - one of the sentences that recently appeared on the posters of the Black Lives Matter movement in major German cities - only apply to the reunified Federal Republic? Was the Humboldt University, which was much more homogeneous in terms of the composition of its student body at the time and which was still called Friedrich Wilhelms University in Du Bois ’time, a place free from discrimination for one of its few non-white students?

For the current debate triggered by George Floyd's violent death, Du Bois' statements are less illuminating as a finding about the existence of racist attitudes in Germany at the end of the 19th century than with regard to its transatlantic dynamics: When it comes to racism, Germans and the US look to them -Americans like to go to the other side of the Atlantic.

Depending on the context and intention, these looks are often carried by self-satisfied indignation over “the unimaginable conditions over there”; or, conversely, they are connected with the critically committed endeavor to change something in one's own country with the help of “imported” slogans and ideas. In both cases, looking across the Atlantic harbors risks: On the one hand, it is prone to the fact that you mainly see what you want to see; on the other hand, there is a risk of ignoring or overestimating differences. At the same time, such changes of perspective have the potential to open up an instructive distance from conditions that have become habitual in one's own country.

[If you want to have all the latest news live on your mobile phone, we recommend our completely redesigned app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices.]

The historic case of W.E.B. Du Bois, who in Berlin is remembered not only by a plaque on his former address in Kreuzberg, but also soon by a memorial designed by the artist Jean-Ulrick Désert in the main building of the Humboldt University, is an example of how many things often come together. Born in 1868 in a comparatively tolerant small town in Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up believing that the boundaries between black and white could be overcome through hard work, hard work and a puritanical lifestyle.

It was only in Berlin that he realized how restrictive it had been to have to refute prejudices against black people through exemplary behavior. In exchange with his fellow students in Berlin, who probably met him with a more open mind because he was more privileged than many others as an American scholarship holder, he discovered the meaning of “wine, women and song”. In his diary entries, in the manner of Sturm und Drang, he conjured his longing for a sensually intense and at the same time historically significant life. Works such as the collection of essays “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), which appeared in German for the first time a hundred years later as “Die Seelen der Schwarzen”, combine romantic-nationalist ideas borrowed from Hegel and Herder with precise sociological analyzes of the situation of African-Americans.

Liberally, black people with US passports were looked at

The problematic sides of the German Empire only became clear to him later. Du Bois linked his academic years in Berlin all his life with the liberation from the American variant of racist thinking, but acknowledged in retrospect that he was hardly aware of the imperialist traits of Bismarck's policy and the European involvement in the slave trade.

That changed in the following years when he became a pioneer of black internationalism and recognized the global dimensions of racism. A sentence from his speech at the first Pan-African Congress in London in 1900 was interpreted as downright prophetic: "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line."

The liberal climate towards black people with a US passport, which Du Bois was able to enjoy with artists such as Josephine Baker, Sam Wooding and Claude McKay in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, represents only one background of the Afro-American views of Germany References to National Socialism and the Holocaust, which promoted the fight against US racism in different ways.

[More from the capital. More from the region. More about politics and society. And more useful things for you. That's now available with Tagesspiegel Plus: Try it now for 30 days free of charge.]

An early example is the journalist and writer William Gardner Smith (1927–1974), who came to Germany in 1946 as an occupation soldier. In his untranslated novel “The Last of the Conquerors” (1948), he dealt with the paradoxical experience of having to carry out educational work against Nazi “racial madness” as part of a US army segregated according to “races” in defeated post-war Germany. Racism, so the tenor of the book, encountered the Black GIs primarily on the part of their white superiors.

They let them do mostly unskilled labor and tried to keep them away from the German population, especially women. The experiences of the approximately 1.2 million Black Americans who took part as soldiers in World War II, and those of the more than two million who were stationed in Germany during the Cold War, influenced developments in the United States. As early as 1942, the black newspaper “The Pittsburgh Courier” launched the “Double V campaign”, which - referring to the popular Victory symbol - sought to mobilize young African Americans for service at the front with the slogan of a double victory: “Democracy - Double Victory, At Home - Abroad ".

Black GIs were not received as heroes

On their return to the USA, however, many black GIs found that their “victory at home” was not far off: Despite their patriotic commitment, they were not received as heroes, but continued to be treated as second-class citizens. The knowledge that they had got to know a "breath of freedom" (according to the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell) in defeated Germany, of all places, increased the willingness of many returnees to commit themselves to the fight against racism in their homeland - and that is how it became to the impetus for the burgeoning civil rights movement.

While the protests in the USA received a lot of attention on the local side of the Atlantic then as now and in turn inspired countercultural developments - think of the West German student movement or the “A Million Roses for Angela Davis” campaign in the GDR - the time of the remained National Socialism is a point of reference in the fight against US racism, even beyond direct autobiographical experiences.

[With the “Twenty / Twenty” newsletter, our US experts accompany you every Thursday on your way to the presidential election. You can register for free here: tagesspiegel.de/twentytwenty. ]

This reveals a problem that is often involved in transnational comparisons when it comes to comparing historical experiences of suffering. An extreme example is the Afro-American nationalist Khalid Abdul Muhammad, who spoke of the transatlantic slave trade as a “black holocaust” that was “a hundred times worse” than the murder of European Jews. But even black intellectuals of a completely different format, such as the rediscovered writer James Baldwin (1924–1987) in recent years, spoke of the USA as the “Fourth Reich” and compared the Afro-American students who passed a rioting mob admission in schools that were formerly reserved for whites, with Jewish children in Hitler's Germany.

Is it ethical to use the higher level of recognition that the suffering of a victim group has received in the public consciousness to draw attention to the suffering of others? Does the creation of such parallels necessarily mean reducing or relativizing the suffering of one in favor of the other? While Muhammad's utterances are undoubtedly pervaded by a competitive logic, the situation with Baldwin is more complex.

The black friend - imprisoned in an ex-Nazi execution site

The comparison between National Socialism and US racism, which can mainly be found in his later texts, goes hand in hand with a shift in his interests from purely American to more global political contexts and in this respect follows a “multidirectional” structure rather than a competitive one.

The analogies to Nazi Germany are not only a strategy for effectively naming the extent of racist discrimination against the Afro-American population, but conversely, James Baldwin's familiarity with the US context also sharpens his sensitivity to the effects of comparable and historically related dynamics elsewhere. With regard to the Federal Republic of Germany, this is reflected in his commitment and the (unfinished) literary processing of the case of Tony Maynard, an Afro-American chauffeur and friend of Baldwin, who was held in a Hamburg prison for six months on an international arrest warrant.

As an African American, Baldwin knew all too well of the particular threats black men face in police custody. Frightened by the drastic symbolism that his friend was imprisoned in the pre-trial detention center on Holstenglacis, a former Nazi execution site, he described his mission as being determined by the double challenge, "the laws of two countries and the psychology of two not too different peoples" to have to consider.

[Keep track of things: Corona in your neighborhood. In our Tagesspiegel district newsletters, we report on the crisis and the effects on your district. Free and compact: people.tagesspiegel.de]

If one looks at recent examples in which African-American intellectuals look to Germany, one can see the longevity of many historical perspectives. Paul Beatty in “Slumberland” (2008) and Darryl Pinckney in “Black Deutschland” (2016) not only discover parallels between the American “Color Line” and the German division into East and West, but are both influenced by Du Bois' Experiences in the German Empire and the international attraction of liberal Berlin in the “Roaring Twenties”.

For John A. Williams' “Clifford's Blues” (1998) and Teju Cole's “Open City” (2012), the Holocaust remains a central point of reference, with Williams being particularly interested in marginalized victim groups such as blacks and homosexuals, while Cole is interested in the question of differences thematized between different historical traumas. Finally, the need to consider differences is also a key idea in the work of the Afro-American poet and feminist Audre Lorde (1934–1992), whose rediscovery is perhaps most fruitful in the current context.

For Audre Lorde, who stayed in Berlin regularly in the 1980s and became the driving force behind the Afro-German movement, the cooperation between Afro-Germans and Afro-American women required an awareness of the “common differences”: “To successfully see the many faces of institutionalized racism to fight, we have to share the strengths of our visions as well as the weapons born from specific experiences. "

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page