By Samantha Gilbert
We began our morning by meeting our tour guide Josephine Apraku—a Wedding local who has been giving the Africa in Wedding Tour for eight years—at the cross streets of Ghanastraße and Swakopmunder Straße. At first, I was confused about how we were supposed to learn about the most diverse part of Berlin by standing at what seemed like a normal street corner. However, Josie explained that the African Quarter of Wedding is not where one would necessarily find the largest amount of people from throughout the African Diaspora, but that so much of we needed to know about Germany’s colonial history was in these street names. Many of these streets were named when Germany (then Prussia) was gaining colonies.
Germany’s first colonial conquest was Namibia, Africa’s “town by the sea,” which resulted in the first genocide of the 20th century. According to Apraku, the German Military entered Namibia wanting to kill as many people as they could with “as much blood and brutality as possible.” First, Namibians were stripped of their land and given reservations instead. Angered by their lack of freedom, Namibians showed resistance against the colonial military. Subsequently, the German military pushed as many Namibians as they could into the desert so they would die of starvation. The Namibians that survived were sent to concentration camps, where they were expected to work long, hard hours day after day, and by the end of this war, Germans had eradicated 70% of the Namibian population. Swakopmund was the name of the first concentration camp built in Namibia, resulting in the street name Swakopmundstraße.
During the same time, Germany was heavily involved in slave trading in Ghana, hence the street name Ghanastraße. These streets are Germany’s way of commemorating the colonization of the African continent. In “A Fanfare For The Colonized,” Philipp Khabo Koepsell explains the brutality and selfishness of colonization when he writes, “It’s a story of explorers / of the glory of these soldiers / who drove thousands into deserts…./ for the white men’s dream of glory…” Koepsell then goes on to write from the white man’s perspective, “You’re just over-sensitive! / Why should we apologize, / we colonized not much…” This poem sheds light on the insensitivity of the Germans towards the people they colonized.
While naming streets after concentration camps and locations of slave trades seems wildly offensive, the questionable street names don’t stop there. Mohrenstraße, known simply as M-straße to many Black Germans because of its offensiveness, was the first street named in Wedding nearly 300 years ago. This word is derived from the Latin language meaning a dark person who is childish and stupid, and is related to the English word “moron.” This word was exclusively used for Black people during the time of slavery, which leads me to question how Germany can support such racist ideology. This reminded me of the “Introduction” to The Little Book of Big Visions in which Sharon Dodua Otoo and Sandrine Micossé-Aikins explain how the suppressed colonial legacy in Germany affects Black people today. They write, “Although the mainstream appears not to remember why, Black people are repeatedly reminded of, confronted with, and challenged by fantasies of white supremacy right up until the present day.” Even though Black people regularly request for these street names to be changed, many white Germans don’t see this as a problem worth addressing. Hence, because of white supremacy, these offensive street names are not changed.
The last street name Apraku discussed, Petersallee, entailed her telling the story that angered me most. Named in 1939 by the Nazi Party, Petersallee was meant to honor an incredibly racist man named Carl Peters, who hung and burned several Africans during his explorations of East Africa. Despite being criticized for brutality to Africans and then removed from his position in office, he was later considered a German hero by Nazis for his radical racism. A movie was even made in this man’s honor. When many people in Germany protested this street name in hopes of having it removed, Germany simply decided to “repurpose the street name.” Now, hanging above Petersalle is a small sign that reads “Prof. Dr. Hans Peters.” Hans Peters was a man who was a politician that helped hide and free Jews during the Nazi era. Regardless of this repurposing, the street sign still stands, and the history of its significance cannot be forgotten.
After we learned how many of Berlin’s street names are monuments of racism, the next part of the tour took place in a small, quaint park, where Josie introduced me to the words “human zoo.” To my disbelief, from the late 1800s up until the mid-1940s, this land was used as a zoo for African people and other minorities living in Germany. Germans paid them to work inside these fenced off enclosures and perform African “acts,” which entailed them wearing stereotypical African clothing and waking up in small huts—anything to feed Germans their idea of African life. As Maisha Eggers explains in “Knowledges of (Un-) Belonging,” the problem with racism is that it often goes without being discussed, which makes it nearly impossible to eradicate it. To clarify, many people living in Germany think of human zoos as something that existed long ago and that should be forgotten. But they didn’t even end until the Nazi party had been overthrown, which was only 70 years ago. Most Germans don’t realize how prevalent racism still is. This may be history, but it is not very far in the past.
Samantha Gilbert is a sophomore who hails from Northern California and loves to be outside. From hiking to snowboarding to just breathing fresh air, nature really has her heart. She also really loves being active, as she runs track and field at CC as the team’s main female sprinter. She also writes for the sports section of The Catalyst, and is extremely passionate about journalism. She hopes to create her own major in Sports Psychology and double minor in Film & New Media Studies and Feminist & Gender Studies. Other hobbies of hers include watching The Food Network (specifically Chopped), going exploring with friends, and developing strong one on one connections with unique souls. Samantha loves traveling and learning, so this course has her super excited!