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!

The 2022 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Click here to view a slideshow of pictures, and follow @FemGeniuses and|or @AudresFootsteps on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos.

Multimedia Podcast Index:

The RomaniPhen Feminist Archive + the Romanja Power Walking Tour with Estera Iordan” by Christiana García-Soberanez
A Conversation with Jasmin Eding” by Eliza Strong
Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour + Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt with Adam Schonfeld” by Bridget Hanley
BlackEurope: The Beginnings of Black Self-Organization in Europe” by Erin Huggins
German Colonialism Walking Tour w/ Josephine Apraku + the Neues Museum” by Amalia Lopez
A Conversation with Sharon Dodua Otoo” by Latra Demaçi
The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour” by Margalit Goldberg
Blackness in America and Europe: Where the Grey Space Exists” by Monica Carpenter
A Conversation with Dana Maria Asbury, Mona El Omari, and Iris Rajanayagam” by Vicente Blas-Taijeron
Graffiti & Street Art Walking Tour + the Urban Nation Museum” by Alexis Cornachio
A Conversation with Judy Lynne Fisher” by River Clarke
Queer Berlin Walking Tour w/ Mal Pool + the Schwules*Museum” by Riley Hester
A Street Art Workshop with Berlin Massive” by Judy Gonzalez

To read and|or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous #FemGeniusesinBerlin, click here

A Conversation with Jasmin Eding

by Eliza Strong

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

On June 8, the #FemGeniusesinBerlin sat in our classroom at xart splitta for only the second time, awaiting the arrival of Jasmin Eding. We had read Jasmin’s work in anticipation of meeting her and started to understand the gravity of her experience and her work as an Afro-German. After speaking with her, I was left even more in awe than I expected. Jasmin is likely most well-known as one of the co-founders of Adefra, an organization founded by Black German women in 1986 with the purpose of creating a space for them to acknowledge their identities and define themselves while living in a largely white German society. While creating this space for solidarity alone is an impressive and important act, in the context of dominant German culture, it becomes clear just how groundbreaking Jasmin’s work has been. I appreciated how clearly Jasmin emphasized that she could only speak to her own experience and did not want to dictate the experiences of anyone else. Keeping this in mind, her experience does provide an excellent testimony to the ways dominant German culture has affected Black women and Black people’s identities and positionalities.

We began our session hearing about Jasmin’s childhood. Jasmin was born to a white German mother and a Black American father who was serving in the military. After her parent’s divorce, she was raised in Bavaria by her single mother alongside her twin sister. Bavaria, which is located in the south of Germany, was both rural and homogenous, and Jasmin stated that for a long time, she didn’t know what it was that made her feel different in her community. She only realized later that it was the color of her skin that made her feel outcast. It was a white teacher who better understood racism in Germany (largely because of her Black partner) who gave Jasmin the initial language to describe her feelings of isolation when she was in her early teens. When she noticed how quiet and unhappy Jasmin and her sister consistently were at school, she gifted Jasmin Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. As she recounted this experience, Jasmin said, “That was the first time I realized, wow, that’s about us…and I’m not alone.” This initial inkling of the possibility of community around her Black identity, and the message in the book that encouraged resisting oppression, propelled Jasmin to write a line from the book on the blackboard in her classroom. The message was ignored, but Jasmin described herself as still determined to build a community where she was supported and celebrated.

Jasmin went on to describe an experience that happened years later when she was visiting a friend in Berlin. She noticed Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (translated in English to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), the first book by Black Germans, a collection of many stories and essays. Jasmin described the book as a “mirror” of her experiences. The specificity of the experiences of Black German women struck her, and Jasmin and wrote a letter to the publisher requesting to be put in touch with Katharina Oguntoye, one of the editors. Katharina then invited Jasmin to a Black women’s meeting in The Netherlands, and for the first time, Jasmin sat in the community she had been continuously searching for. With this community supporting her, Jasmin recruited many women to come to an initial meeting at a women’s center where Audre Lorde was scheduled to do a reading. She described this meeting and those soon after it as the beginnings of Adefra.       As Jasmin continued speaking about the process of creating Adefra and organizing during a time without internet, other students and I were struck not only by how hard she worked to create community, but also by how measured and thoughtful she had been throughout her activism, even while navigating the intricacies of Black identity in Germany from so many perspectives, when in her earliest years she didn’t even have the language to identify herself.

While we have not yet spoken extensively about transnational feminism, after our meeting with Jasmin, we discussed its meaning at a beginner’s level. We defined it loosely, and in part, as the ability to recognize there are different definitions of what liberation means based on positionalities. It seems to me that many budding activists of our generation feel as isolated as Jasmin did, at least to some extent, because of our identities and the ways we navigate the world. But because connection with each other is simpler with the internet and social media, , for the most part, people can afford to disregard a transnational perspective and outcast those who may react to or organize around their experiences differently.

Photo Credit: Eliza Strong

My peers I’ve talked to since the session and I valued Jasmin’s wisdom and transnational perspective. For example, her thoughtfulness was exemplified by her answer to a question about the complexity of West Germans connecting with East Germans within Adefra after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While she noted there were some tensions between them (as some West Berliners tended to consider East Berliners as “behind the times”) and she did say Black German activists experienced other conflicts after the Wall came down, she provided complex and measured perspectives. She told us about the different ways East and West Germans experienced racism, making it clear that Black Germans were not entirely free by their own understandings on either “side.” While some Eastern Germans made claims of racism not existing there, she described African students experiencing discrimination there and sometimes even being deported after the fall of the Wall. She also noted the rise of racism in East Berlin during this time.

Jasmin has taken into account the specific experiences of Black people and exemplified respect and a consistent willingness to work with those who approached their barriers to liberation differently. In her words, “We are Black, but still, we are different.” Despite her lack of access to language to define herself as a young person and the hard work she has put into understanding her identities, Jasmin acknowledged she is interpreted differently by people with different identities and experiences. While she is confident in both her Blackness and her Germanness, she described without judgement that some Africans do not see her as a Black woman because of their specific experiences with and knowledge of Blackness. As I move forward in my studies and in my personal life, I will consider her patient, considerate, and inclusive approach to activism, and hope to move away from the frantic need to determine one correct answer.

It seems Jasmin’s relationship to joy aids in this calm approach to change and creating solidarity. One student asked her about how she copes with burnout as a long-time activist, and she lit up discussing the pleasure she takes in dancing and spending time with friends. For people of color, especially, she noted, enjoying themselves is a powerful act. While I didn’t get the chance to ask specifically about how she incorporates this joy into her work with Adefra, she did mention how community-based this pleasure can be and told us about providing massages for her friends and singing with them. Not only does joy create solidarity across differences, I also understand it as combating the franticness of activist culture because it values rest. This concept is also addressed in Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which, along with adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, has been integral for me in framing relationships to joy and pleasure, and I was excited to hear Jasmin touch on these topics. I wonder whether Jasmin and Audre Lorde might have talked about this concept when they worked together in Germany and whether the erotic as a source of power has been a consistent philosophy in Adefra or whether prioritizing pleasure in activism has been a more recent journey for Jasmin.

Our visit was a wonderful chance to reframe our attitudes toward activism and identity, and I felt incredibly grateful to learn from such a grounded and smart person who was so integral in establishing the tradition of Afro-German thinkers and community members in Germany and specifically in Berlin. I am honored to learn from this tradition through this course and to have been in her presence. Our meeting with Jasmin Eding will continue to guide me.


Eliza Strong (she|her) is a rising junior at Colorado College (CC) from southern Oregon. She is pursuing an Independently Designed Major, Critical Art Studies, which entails studying art and its role in defining the self and communities through a transnational feminist lens. Outside of school, Eliza plays in a roller derby league, makes art, and works with the Student Organization for Sexual Safety at CC. She is grateful to be in Berlin, learning from many knowledgeable people who have worked tirelessly to create counternarratives.

In Audre’s Footsteps: Events

Detroit Book City’s 6th annual African American Family Book Expo

Thank you so much to everyone who has invited us to speak about In Audre’s Footsteps. We continue to be honored to co-create worlds with all of you. If you are interested in booking Dr. Heidi R. Lewis for engagements, click here.

 

 

 

 


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Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis visiting Black Wall Street (and accidentally running into her former student Paige Clark and being introduced to Dr. Tiffany Crutcher) at the Greenwood Cultural Center and Terence Crutcher Foundation) then speaking at Fulton Street Books & Coffee in Tulsa, OK on September 29, 2022.

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Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis speaking at The Chinook Center in Colorado Springs, CO on September 3, 2022.

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Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis speaking alongside Ashley M. Jones, the Poet Laureate of the State of Alabama, at the Burdock Book Collective in Birmingham, AL on August 6, 2022. 

Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis on the National Black Book Festival’s Black Authors Matter TV program on July 12, 2022.

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Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis during a reading of In Audre’s Footsteps at Audream, a Mobile Antirassistische Bibliothek, in Berlin on June 24, 2022.

Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis speaking during the Black German Heritage & Research Association’s 10th anniversary conference, “Black Germany and Beyond,” on April 25, 2022 at the invitation of Dr. Rosemarie Peña (President) and Dr. Emily Frazier-Rath (Executive Director). 

Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis speaking with Davidson College students taking a course with Drs. Peña and Frazier-Rath on April 28, 2022.

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Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis at Detroit Book City’s 6th annual African American Family Book Expo on February 19, 2022.

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Co-Author Dr. Heidi R. Lewis back in Berlin in November 2021 (after 2 1/2 years due to COVID-19) for the official launch of In Audre’s Footsteps at Each One Teach One e.V. in Berlin.

The HighlightsWitnessed The Co-Authors#FemGeniusesinBerlin | The DedicationThe Acknowledgements | The Preface | The Foreword | The Introduction | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six | Chapter Seven | The Afterword | Buy the Book | Book Dr. Lewis | Feel the Love

In Audre’s Footsteps: The Co-Authors

In Audre’s Footsteps was co-authored by Dr. Heidi R. Lewis and Dana Maria Asbury with Jazlyn Tate Andrews. Lewis is Associate Professor of Feminist & Gender Studies and inaugural Coordinator of Early Career Faculty Development Programs at Colorado College; Asbury is an activist based in Toronto; and Andrews is a writer based in Denver, CO.

Dr. Heidi R. Lewis, Jazlyn Tate Andrews, and Dana Maria Asbury

Remember to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @AudresFootsteps on all platforms.

The Highlights | Witnessed | #FemGeniusesinBerlin | The DedicationThe Acknowledgements | The Preface | The Foreword | The Introduction | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six | Chapter Seven | The Afterword |  Buy the Book | Events | Book Dr. Lewis | Feel the Love