Blackness in America and Europe: Where the Grey Space Exists

by Monica Carpenter

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The Black experience has never been uniformed, but being in Berlin and studying a different part of the Diaspora outside the U.S. has made it clear how intricate and vast it is. The complexities of Black identity and justice I want to explore have been primarily inspired by the work and wisdom of Mumbi Nkonde, Mitchell Esajas, Jasmin Eding, and my professor, Heidi R Lewis. My main interest in blackness has been rooted in the U.S. and the lingering impacts of slavery on Black Americans. My perspective of the Black Diaspora was never entirely limited but it was definitely lacking.

Before coming to Berlin, I was so excited to travel outside the U.S. for new experiences, but I was expecting to notice a difference in the Black culture and interactions. I did not expect the methods of community-building amongst Afro-Europeans and how they define their connections to blackness. Obviously, my views on Afro-European experiences and how they compare to Black American experiences are limited to my own perspective and the short time in which I’ve observed and listened to Afro-European stories and histories. It is important to highlight there cannot be any definitive claims on Blackness–to speak on the complexity of Black people, we must be comfortable with grey space. Dr. Lewis had said this in one of our recent class sessions, and it continues to be relevant to me as I experience Germany as a Black American woman.

My positionality as an American has played a huge role in how I have digested my time in Germany and the conversations we have had the past two weeks. I have been learning about Black issues and Black joy my entire life but always from an American perspective. Because of the frameworks through which Black history has been taught to me, I feel very unified with Black people. I understand my own Blackness and other Black people through shared experiences, a shared history, and a shared sense of pride. Although we have a lot of differences, the sense of community I feel in the U.S. certainly extends to the Black people I have met in Berlin. Whether it is the smile I receive from someone passing by while walking to the train or the pride I feel listening to the success of the Black women who have spoken to our class, I am so happy to be a part of such a widespread community. Regardless of our geographical location or ancestry, there is a strong feeling of solidarity amongst us that I did not really know was there before leaving the U.S. Being in another country was never fathomable to me, and it is still difficult to believe even now as I write this. Even more surprising is that there is a part of the Black community that exists in a place I never saw myself being in.

Europe, especially Germany, has always been depicted as a white country to me. I knew there were people of color in Europe, but everything I have been taught about it in school or online does not include them. Although representation is lacking in the U.S., Black people are an integral part of describing what America looks like–undeniably so. There are so many Black cartoons I grew up watching, Black musicians I listened to, and Black people I interacted with despite attending white schools. From what I heard at the BlackEurope: The Beginnings of Black Self-Organization in Europe and from Jasmin Eding, representation is almost non-existent comparatively. In our talk with Eding, she described her “Black coming out” story as she named it. My understanding of what it means to “come out” as Black is to fully claim your brown skin and the experiences attached to it. Jasmin comes from a bi-racial family living in the countryside of Germany. Her father was a U.S. Soldier who started a family with a white German woman. He then returned to the States as did many of the newfound Black fathers who were stationed in Germany. This left Jasmin to be the only source of blackness within her home besides her siblings. In addition to being raised by a white mother, she lived in an area with a particularly low Black population. Her coming out as black was imperative to embracing an identity that was not properly fostered in her youth. This was really shocking to me, because I have always been proud to be Black. I was raised to claim it in every situation, and it has been part of my identity my entire life because of my parents’ influence. I did not like to hear how deprived Jasmin and other Afro-German youth could be from a lack of Black representation. This is not to say my connection to Blackness is stronger or better, but it is different. Jasmin had to search for her Black community. Mine began within my own home. My dad passed it down to me and gave me the opportunities and the knowledge to understand and embrace Black American culture. Regardless, Jasmin fully loves her Blackness and said she was happy to be in spaces with just Black German women. She even helped build a network of people that connect her and others to blackness. Her story as a Black woman is relatable but also specific to Black Europeans.

Photo Credit: Erin Huggins

The conference echoed the disparity of the Black European community but the speakers also found this to be empowering. Mumbi Nkonde talked about identity as well as Black Europe’s relationship to Black America. Because Black people are so widespread within Europe, Black people have to actively find community. Nkonde spoke about how Black Europeans often do not relate to a singular nationality such as Afro-German. She said that for many Afro-Europeans, Black hardship and joy can be compared to the various other countries in Europe because they share a common experience of being Black in white-dominated countries. This is particularly relevant considering the close proximity between European countries. She spoke about how Black Europeans will move around Europe and experience similar hardships as Black people regardless of the country they are in. As a Black American, I feel particularly connected to America and not other countries regarding my identity as a Black woman. They way Nkonde talked about Black identity makes it clear that blackness can be much more complex than the way that I have often understood it.

The conference also highlighted America’s influence on blackness outside the U.S. Mitchell Esajas discussed Europe’s perceived tendency to mimic Black movements within the U.S. He referenced the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter Movement specifically, as there are European versions of each. Audience members and himself questioned the validity of Black European movements if they are rooted in American initiatives. This conversation only made it more clear to me how much America is centered even regarding marginalized communities. Black Europeans obviously have their own culture and connection to blackness that differs from the experiences of Black Americans, but how much autonomy do they have if they feel restricted to the American initiatives?

Overall, being in Germany as a Black American has made me realize how much privilege I have been granted by my citizenship. This is not to say the experiences of Black Americans are easier or more difficult than Black Europeans’, but it is important to recognize the advantages of being American with respect to Black identity and community. The Afro-Germans who spoke to our class and those we read shared their difficulties in discovering a community and proclaiming their blackness. This narrative is also somewhat shared by Black Americans, as we also lack representation. But the lack of representation experienced by Afro-Germans extends to a level of disconnect and erasure I have not felt. This is where the grey space exists in the Black Diaspora. Black people globally are experiencing similar hardships, joy, pride, and a sense of community, but we are impacted in vastly different ways.

Monica Carpenter is a junior majoring in Sociology at Colorado College. On campus, she’s involved with theatre, arts and crafts, and she’s a Student Ambassador at the Worner Desk. An immediate vibe check about Monica: her favorite color is purple or brown; she has a Gemini sun but has five cancer placements; and she can read tarot cards. Her favorite thing about Berlin so far has been all the nature embedded in the city, as well as the two Euro coins instead of paper dollars. A major culture shock she experienced since being here is the shared love for sparkling water and the fact that water is often not free. Overall, she really enjoyed her time in the city and is happy to have taken this course!

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