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.
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.
On that note, I was especially honored to be invited by Dr. Rosemarie Peña (President of the Black German Heritage & Research Association) and Dr. Emily Frazier-Rath (Executive Director) to be the 10th and final speaker during the “Black Germany and Beyond” series on April 25, 2022. I also had the opportunity to speak with their Davidson College students on April 28. Please see recordings of both events below.
If you are interested in booking the co-authors for speaking engagements, please click here.
We are honored In Audre’s Footsteps joins these brilliant texts as the 7th edition of Sharon Dodua Otoo’s powerful, groundbreaking Witnessed Series, an English language book series written by Black authors who have lived in Germany.