On Tuesday, we attended a colonialism walking tour in one of Berlin’s thirty “African Quarters” in the neighborhood of Wedding with Josephine Apraku. The tour focused on several locations—including Ghanastraße, Petersallee, and Mockingbird square—where we discussed who and what had been memorialized by those names. This was especially relevant to me in light of the protests following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. These protests pushed for social change in many forms, including the destruction and removal of statues that memorialize colonialists and those who either enacted or fought for slavery. In Germany, similar discussions have happened regarding these and other street names.
For example, Ghanastraße ties back to Germany’s colonialism. Particularly, a German “fortress” on the Ghanaian coast and was part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. However, its existence is not often remembered or discussed. Similarly, Petersallee was originally named after colonialist Carl Peters who was a particularly violent man who was once called back to Berlin after burning down the homes of one of his former female partners and her new partner. However, his return home was not due to the violent nature of his acts but rather how it reflected on his country. In 1986, there was a big push by German activists to rename streets in a move to no longer honor German colonialism. In turn, the street underwent a “perspective change” and is now meant to honor Hans Peters who aided efforts against Nazis.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
As I stood there, looking up at this green sign learning about this violent man, I thought about what kind of violence is acceptable. Along these lines, Apraku told us that one of the ways people in power attempted to prevent resistance was by limiting enslaved people’s ability to communicate with one another. They intentionally placed people from different regions together on slave ships to prevent them from being able to organize. However, enslaved people continued to find ways to resist, including training their bodies using sports such as capoeira. Learning, understanding, and maintaining language is seen as violent under the eyes of colonialists. However, theft, murder, rape, and genocide are acts of cleansing and sovereignty, according to this logic. So, I stood there thinking about Carl Peters, his legacy, and how hard people have fought to preserve it.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
At the end of the tour, we visited a large panel planted in the ground. One of the first things you might notice is graffiti scribbled over it, random tags that covered up the German letters in certain spots. There are also two sides, each telling a slightly different version of the time period. One side showcased an image of a postcard depicting a death camp and colonialists standing over and holding human bones. The bones were being packed and prepared to be sent back home. I thought about the type of person who would purchase such a post card to write home to their own families. “Hi, Dear. My travels are going well. Hope to see you soon. Love, Mommy.” The normalization of Black pain in Germany has been long in its duration and yet most often remains unaddressed.
With all these thoughts swirling in my head, we journeyed over to the Neues Museum to examine the exhibits. The museum had a beautiful, inviting architectural design. I have liked museum since I was a kid. I have been a big reader throughout my life—my books often accompanying me in restaurants and stores. In other words, I enjoy reading the descriptions and gaining more historical context. So, as I walked through the exhibit, this was my main focus. Reading and analyzing the written descriptions of stolen artifacts and art, one in particular caught my eye. It was the description for “The Repression of Chaos” formulated by Hermann Schievelbein, which was a large frieze high up on the museum walls in the “Greek courtyard” filled with natural light. It was towards the top of walls, so your neck needed to be strained to look up and examine the intricacies from 30 feet below. The description of the piece read: “King Sahurê, as hunter, slays wild animals and thereby subordinates nature which appears before him as personifications of fertility, handing him the fruits of the earth. The gods are shown bringing captive Nubians, Libyans, and Asians to the King, while order is being established in foreign affairs by the cargo ships bringing goods from Lebanon to Egypt.” The description insisted these men, these kings and their pawns of colonialism, were simply a natural occurrence. In fact, they boldly declare that enslavement is an act committed by god.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
I read and reread the second line, and I was dumbfounded by the lack of ownership in the art and its trailing paragraph—this courtyard connected to the Egyptian exhibit where many stolen artifacts sat behind broken glass looking both beautiful and mournful. I want to note that the Egyptian exhibit was almost entirely in the dim basement and the one area where sunshine poured down was dedicated mainly to the Greeks. These artifacts did not naturally arrive here, and surely god did not deliver them. One of the main sections of the Egyptian exhibit was dedicated to sarcophaguses. It was haunting as I thought about who once found rest in them, their bodies removed and placed elsewhere while this intricately decorated frame was brought here. Even in death, their bodies could not find rest or solitude.
As I walked through the other exhibits, such as the Greek exhibit, I thought about what could possibly rectify these thefts of life and love that were taken through such explicit violence. This is something Black Germans have been working through long before my three-week long study here. Organizations, such as Adefra, have worked to break down violence, isolation, and discrimination. They have found empowerment in unity and by prioritizing and appreciating one another’s stories, they break down these constructions. Resistance to colonialist ideologies comes in many forms: renaming, acknowledging, destruction, and listening.
Amalia Lopez is a rising junior at Colorado College. As a Chicana who grew up in Denver, she has a deep respect for social justice work and has seen its impact and essentiality in her own city. Specifically, unions, workers’ rights organizations, and Ethnic Studies has been of great importance to her and her parents. She plays rugby and has enjoyed athletics for the majority of her life. She loves to read poetry, and dancing is one of her favorite pastimes, as well as spending time with my friends. She’s a September Virgo, and she acts accordingly. She does not particularly care for fried eggs.
I have to start by saying that the five-year anniversary of the course started out with a bang for a few reasons:
It’s the first time the course has been full. In fact, we exceeded the maximum enrollment limit of 16 by one student;
two of my students were able to secure funding to come conduct research—Judy Fisher, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20, 2019-2020 TriotaPresident, 2018-2019 Shannon McGee Prize winner, and Fall 2017 #FemGeniusesinBerlin alum came to conduct transnational studies of American Indigeneity; and Mekael Daniel, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20 and 2019-2020 Triota Vice President came to conduct transnational studies of Blackness;
and we were joined by my niece-cousin-boo from Memphis, TN, Kelsey Nichole Mattox, who turned 18 and graduated from high school recently. So, her presence was especially meaningful. In fact, she had never gotten on an airplane until she traveled here, excitedly letting us know, “I decided to go all the way!”
Judy and Mekael arrived the same day I did, and we trekked to Radebeul (near Dresden) to attend the Karl May Festival so Judy could observe, think about, and examine Native American participation in predominantly white festival culture in Germany, as well as white Native American hobbyism. Imagine the raised-eyebrows of every single one of my friends and comrades in Berlin when I told the about this—haha. Judy and Mekael also went to the Great Indian Meeting at the El Dorado theme park in Templin the following weekend to continue Judy’s work. Shoutout to my colleague, Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra (Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College), for introducing Judy to the significance of hobbyism in Germany, illustrating the collective efforts necessary for critical theory work.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that it’s been a while since the #FemGeniusesinBerlin were so full of #BlackGirlMagic (2015was the last time, to be exact), and I couldn’t have been more excited about that. One adorable and powerful manifestation of that was Avi(a) leading several rounds of “Deep Truth, Truth,” a game that allowed her to bond with her classmates, especially her roommates, but also with Dana and I one day during lunch. “Deep Truth, Truth” starts with someone asking another person if they’d like to share a deep truth or what one might refer to as a “regular” truth. A “regular truth” could be anything from sharing your favorite color to a song that you hate; however, a “deep truth” is usually something that one might not share in a group like this, because lots of us don’t know each other well enough to be comfortable with that kind of vulnerability. Then, once the person being questioned decides what kind of truth they want to share, the questioner asks a question. After the question is answered, the person being questioned then gets to ask another person in the group a question. I got to ask and answer twice (one truth and one deep truth), and learned a lot about the students that day. Neat stuff.
In “short,” the2019 #FemGeniusesinBerlin were such a great bunch even though we most certainly hit a few snags along the way. Here are some (definitely not all) of the most memorable moments:
The weather hitting 90F degrees, something I’m pretty sure never happened in years past, and doing so several days each week.
Bella’s cube bear.
Mekael, Judy, and I being photographed by a stranger (with consent) at the Karl May Festival and finding the very poorly-filtered but very cute photograph on social media (posted with consent).
Lauren’s RBF and fierce modeling skills.
Avia’s phone fan and ridiculous pranks.
Zander playing Captain Save ‘Em, and gettin’ hollered at all along the way.
Nicole being almost entirely silent then shakin’ up the space with the loudest, most hilarious laugh you ever did hear.
Vang asking to sit on our roof (which would most certainly result in his untimely death), asking about transporting beer back to the U.S., telling us he got “hemmed up by 12” (which turned out to mean he was approached by some ticket-checkers on the subway and allowed to continue his trip with a mere warning…side eye), telling folks about sex stores, and gettin’ hollered at for almost every single thing all along the entire way.
Discussing the advantages and risks of comparative analysis.
Dr. W. Christopher Johnson, Assistant Professor of History and the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and husband of our Course Associate Dana Asbury, coming for a visit and joining us for a few sessions.
I could go on and on and on. I will never forget this group. Such a great summer through it all, which led to my new phrases: Must be June. Must be Berlin.
2019 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index: Click hereto view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos!
It’s been a while since I contributed to “Some Final Thoughts.” So, bear with me, please, as I shake some of the rust off.
Despite earning tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this spring, this year had its rough spots—some worse than others, especially the death of one of my closest aunts. Because of that, a few people—some who I thought were close to me and others who I knew weren’t—recommended that I cancel this course. In some strange way, I’m glad they did, because it reminded me of two very important things:
A lot of people who compliment me on this course have no idea what it is, what it does, and/or what it means—not just to me but to my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
This course means a lot to me and my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
My faith in the course was rewarded by a great group of students. They were thoughtful, kind, patient, interested, curious, and outright hilarious. I had so much fun with them, and I miss them already even though it’s only been one week since the course concluded. I could fill this page with memories:
Charles declaring, “Those two left at the same time.”
Me and Charles, singing, “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”
Laila’s hilarious faces and hand gestures—I wish I could type the sound she made to complement her monster face and hands.
Dana’s and my “cheese fight.”
Our first long-distance trip in the course.
The constant references to John’s future run for Senate.
Sarah’s broad-shouldered dinner jacket.
The search for mom jeans and the finding of a pair “in pristine condition.”
Dereka’s new nose ring.
And as always, we had such a great time with and learned so much from everyone in Berlin who gave their time and energy to the course. Best of all, I think everyone knew just how much we appreciated them, because these students made every effort to ensure that from start to finish. If you haven’t yet, please check out the student podcasts (index below) and share them with anyone you know who may be interested in what we study here.
2018 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click hereto view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see more pictures and videos!
Throughout this trip, I encountered many difficult questions that I have been struggling to answer. After three weeks of exploring Berlin, meeting with local activists, visiting museums, and attending walking tours, I find myself only a little closer to understanding their answers. More often than not, my experiences have left me with new questions, wishing I could spend more time in Berlin. On my final day in the city, I would like to consider these questions and reflect on how my recent experiences have allowed me to more critically examine them. I hope to apply what I have learned in the course and continue furthering my understanding of identities, forms of oppression, and memorials.
First, I want to consider our navigation of identities and subjectivities. How do we see ourselves and acknowledge how others see us? This question has helped me reflect more deeply on my own positionality and how society chooses to perceive it. In the spaces I have been welcomed into during this trip, it was important for me to understand how my own experiences exist in relation to the experiences of others. Having a greater awareness of this has better enabled me to listen critically and appreciate the narratives people share. Therefore, I discovered that my primary role ought to be that of a curious listener. This blog serves as an extension of this curiosity and as an ongoing attempt to understand the marginalized communities of Berlin and my role in it.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]
After speaking with local activists, I began to question how and when people decide to confront forms of oppression and when they choose to affirm or challenge stereotypes. These questions reminded me of our “Rethinking Masculinities” panel and our discussion with Post-War Generation Black German Women. Spending time with Black and Turkish activists in Berlin has allowed me to better understand how individuals chose to deal with racism and sexism. While each experience is unique to the individual, it was clear that in their navigation of public space, they are never divorced from activism. As Musa Okwonga plainly stated, “You’re Black all the time in Berlin.” And although it is the Afro-German’s right not be discriminated against and exhibit self-determination, they must to spend their life in opposition to racism. They are not getting paid to spend their time confronting oppression, yet the burden so greatly lies on them.
How people choose to confront different forms of oppression also reminded me of our discussion with Salma about their work with Gladt and SAWA. I felt that Salma consciously and efficiently navigated what needed to be achieved in their own fight against racism and sexism. Although it is exhausting work, it seems as if they effectively prioritize their goals when trying to combat oppression in a community. As someone who works day and night to support queer communities in Berlin, Salma has to carefully decided how to spend their time. They described the sacrifices they had to make in order to achieve their short-term initiatives. For example, instead of spending their time arguing with the local government at the risk of receiving cuts to Gladt’s government funding, Salma decided to temporarily halt a particular kind of political activism. For the sake of Gladt, Salma now chooses to spend that time helping queer people secure a permanent place to live. While this achievement might not seem monumental to some, it is life-changing for those people who now have a place to sleep at night.
Memorial in Schöneberg [Photo Credit: Nikki Mills]
Additionally, after visiting many museums and memorials, I hope to gain a greater understanding of how certain histories have been told. I personally need to take more time to consider who writes these stories. More specifically, I want to understand the implications for those who speak for themselves and those who are being spoken for. Also, it was important for me to learn more about what groups of people were involved in the creation of Jewish memorials. I was curious if Jewish-Germans often gave input on their construction and who decided what to include in it. As Sabine Offe writes in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” “We do not know whether individuals, confronted with the obligation to remember, do indeed remember what they are supposed to” (79). However, while some forms of remembrance can be more accurate than others, figuring out a way to accurately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust is beyond complicated and nearly impossible to accomplish. As a result, I am reminded of the importance of looking at historical sites more critically. This causes me to further question how we decide to honor a community that is not monolithic. For instance, I hope to better understand how a memorial can erase the individual experiences of a population. As R. Ruth Linden describes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” a generalized representation of a group of people “fails to be accountable to lives that are actually lived: situated in bodies with limited means of making sense of…world-historic events in which they participate as…cultural subjects” (27). As a result, this adds another layer to the complexities of memorials and how people choose to represent communities. I hope that we more often attempt to honor the experiences of individuals since it can be easy to erase these differences when trying to honor an entire group.
Unlike most of the Jewish memorials, there were two important instances during our trip where I noticed groups of people deliberately telling their own story: the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (FHXB) Museum and the Roma and Sinti Historical Walking Tour. The FHXB Museum exhibit was a collaborative piece that the local community came together to create. They directly told the history of the district where generations of their own families grew up. I felt this participatory exhibit was representative of strong community relationships and also much more effective in the telling the histories they chose to portray. Additionally, the Roma and Sinti walking tour did much of the same work. The Roma high school students who led the tour self-organized and researched all the material presented. Further, when I asked the students what their parents thought about the tours they were giving, they responded, smiling: “Our families are very proud.” The energy and passion the students exhibited on the tour I feel could have been easily lost if non-Roma and Sinti people led it.
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]
Lastly, after three weeks of listening to and engaging with marginalized people in Berlin, I am left wondering how I can take what I have learned out into the world. Firstly, I hope to do this by recognizing the importance of going beyond academic work. While reading and discussing articles and books are beneficial in developing a basic understand of the material, the practical application of Feminist and Gender Studies outside the classroom is a hard-fought war. By spending time both inside and outside the classroom, I feel as if I can most effectively support marginalized communities and become more consciously aware of their situation. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti describe in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” if people understand the complexities of human relationships, this subsequently “drives them toward solidarity with outcasts and emboldens them to a collective struggle against the oppressors” (89). I feel my future goal must be to join this collective struggle. By knowing my place and understanding my own identity in relation to others, I feel as if I can do this and support marginalized groups in their fight against forms of oppression.
Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis
2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!
To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here.
Annie Zlevor is a rising junior from the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. She is an Organismal Biology & Ecology major and a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. Annie is also a pre-medicine student, and hopes to attend medical school. In her free time, Annie enjoys eating Lebanese food, going fishing with her family, and taking lots of naps. Currently, you can find her spending some time outside the lab learning about Berlin’s hidden histories. She is excited to be exploring Germany for the first time and hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences.