By Stefani Messick
Froh Donnerstag! Or for you American people (like myself), Happy Thursday!
The morning air was brisk and the passengers on the train were buzzing. I take that back. The American students onboard were the most visibly excited – cracking jokes, catching up on the day’s reading, and fawning over the lush, German scenery rushing past the window. I’m sure the German people can smell the American tourists from a mile away. It might be the way we pronounce street names, the constant action of snapping pictures, whether by our dynamic, appointed photographer, Blaise, or by the iPhone of ever-eager social media guru, Professor Heidi Lewis, or it might be that I carry around a stuffed elephant. It could be the gaping mouths and darting eyes at the unfamiliar cityscape or the fact that we try to get off of trains before they’ve come to a stop. Ultimately, it’s pretty obvious that when the people sitting next to us get up and move, it is most likely because of our loud, American accents and broad topics of conversation. What a hoot.
A hop, skip, and a slimy slug sighting away from the station, we found ourselves at the Clara-Zetkin Memorial and Museum (or in fancy German words, the Clara Zetkin Gedenkstätte), where we met Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück and her husband. Cassandra was born in New York, but has lived in Germany since coming to Europe to attend university, and graduating in 2006 with a Ph.D. Her connection to the Black German community is personal; she knew Audre Lorde, and has also completed research and published work on identity, the African Diaspora, and the concept of imagined communities. One of her major projects with the European Union involved exploring hyphenated identities in the UK.
It is an art to create safe spaces, especially upon first meeting someone, but Cassandra created an open, collaborative, safe environment from the get-go. Her kind demeanor was genuine – she wanted to know us. She asked where we came from, what we were studying, what had most impacted us in Berlin thus far, and it was a kind gesture by a speaker to include her audience in that way. Our class read some work by Dr. Ellerbe-Dück before arriving in Germany entitled “Networks and ‘Safe Spaces’ of Black European Women in Germany and Austria.” After reading this, I realized the necessity of organizing networks or spaces when one belongs to a minority group. These spaces are necessary, because dominant groups continuously function within spaces catered to them, whether those spaces are determined by race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or some other facet of identity. Thus, the development of the Black European Women’s Council was, according to Dr. Ellerbe-Dück, a crucial “vehicle of recognition and visibility of Black women in Europe, through which they can reach their optimum potential.”
The presentation she gave us supplemented her writing perfectly. I had not known that Germany had a period of colonialism, for I had always associated that period with Britain. The transatlantic slave trade established racial hierarchies and the emergence of colonial imagery, and was followed in the subsequent world wars by fears of miscegenation and a growing Black population, racist propaganda, purification, and orphanages and adoption. Currently, many people feel there is not racism in Germany, and further avoid talking about race at the risk of accusations that are reminiscent of anti-Semitism. “Afro-Germans neither exist as humans and in the ethnic consciousness of the majority of their fellow citizens nor have they been authentically represented in German historical publications or the media.” This quote by Judy Gummich embodies the invisibility of Afro-Germans and the sociopolitical ways that they have been erased throughout history. Until they began defining themselves, this group of people was harshly defined and thus dismissed by the dominant German culture. The term “Afro-German” was developed as a form of self-definition in the early 1980s by German women of African and African American descent, and has since come into wide usage. Self-definition brings visibility.
Something that Cassandra ended with struck a chord with me. She said, “I’m always on display.” I have struggled with identity issues, but never with race, and the testimonies and stories of marginalized women in our studies thus far have been eye-opening. To be able to meet some of the authors and supporters of the Afro-German movement has been touching. It has provided an overwhelming context and understanding. I want to understand. It is my responsibility to understand. Identity fascinates me, and building my ideas and beliefs with influences from other international feminisms is not only humbling, but also priceless.
Stefani Messick is a rising sophomore at Colorado College and hopes to major in English and Education. She also runs for the cross country and track and field teams, and has been finding time to run laps around the block near the apartment where she lives in Berlin, rain or shine. She prefers shine.