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.
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:
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With a blanket of grey sky over our heads, light rain hitting our cheeks, and remnants of a less than adequate night’s sleep on our faces, the FemGeniuses boarded a tour boat docked on the Spree River. As the ship began to creep forward, it quickly became clear to me that this tour would be unlike many of the critical and socio-political tours we have been lucky to take during our time in Berlin. As we glided down the river, passing under bridges and being urged to take notice of buildings on the banks, I felt a bit frustrated by the passive site-seeing our guide facilitated due to his failure to attach any sort of critical lens to his comments on the various sites and buildings we passed. What frustrated me further was the idea that some of the tourists that surrounded me might not have the opportunity to understand the plethora of narratives I have been lucky to learn about on this trip. If this is the only information about Berlin they are being presented with, they’re bound to have a more-than-skewed and less-than-full understanding of the social, political, and cultural history of this politically-charged city.
“On our left, the TV Tower, which houses a wonderful restaurant with spectacular views of the city!” I found myself waiting for the guide to shine light on the socio-political meaning behind this tower, which, according to Simon Arms, stands as a symbol of the legacy of political history in Berlin. A tower so socially and politically charged that East Berlin graffiti artist Tower created his pseudo-name with it in mind. “Tower, as in the communist TV tower; Tower, as in the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline of almost every major city—built not only for the people who lived there, but for the egos of the people who ran them” (3), Arms writes. Next, we were urged to direct our eyes to a building known as The Palace of the Republic, once the site of the German Democratic Republic parliament, now home to various restaurants, hotels, and auditoriums. I chuckled at the thought of such a shift in function of this building. Could it be yet another representation of the development of Germany’s political past, evidence of a shift toward a German capitalistic society during the last half-decade? Disappointingly, the guide failed to present any critique or delve past the functional importance of the structure.
The boat also passed the Jewish Center, a building hidden peaking through a gap in the buildings well beyond the riverbank. As the guide directed our gaze to the center, stating not much more than the name, I thought of Sabine Offe’s interpretation of the critical functionality of Jewish museums in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany.” She argues that Jewish museums “are places of remembering. Or, rather, they are sites that have been established intentionally to make people remember, institutions representing collective memory […] the result of political decision making, even in those cases where they came into existence by seemingly quite individual motives” (79).
As the guide pointed out the Moltke Bridge, I was not taken in by the architecture of this beautiful red, brick structure, but by the graffiti that covered the concrete on either side of it. I considered what this graffiti was communicating to its viewers, what political and social message it was sending, and how it represented an act of resistance. Because of this, I was reminded of Jonathan Jones’ article wherein he writes of the importance of the first graffiti on the Berlin Wall, Thierry Noir. Jones writes, “This scar running through a city had provided novelists, musicians, and film-makers with a dark subject matter and surreal inspiration so often lacking in the safe, consumerist world of the postwar democracies” (1).
As our pace began to lessen and the boat slowed to a stop on the bank of the river, I began to question what frustrated me so about the tour, why I felt so unfulfilled by the site-seeing experience I would have once been happy to enjoy quietly from my seat. Yes, the buildings were beautiful, the architecture of the bridges we passed under was intricate and admirable, and I loved being on the water, but after three weeks of critical examination of Berlin’s past and present through exposure to a breadth of narratives, passive enjoyment of buildings around me felt impossible. I couldn’t seem to quiet the corners of my brain that were begging for an acknowledgement of the socio-political implications of these sites, and I can thank this course for that.
Willa Rentel is from Croton, New York, and will be entering her second year at CC this coming fall. She is planning on majoring in Sociology and absolutely loves people and good conversation. The Sociology class she took 5th block of last year focused on the growing income gap in America revealed to her an interest in majoring in the field. An avid thrift shopper, Willa loves searching through racks of clothing to find great, quirky gems. Willa loves music and is constantly altering her playlists on Spotify. She prides herself on being open to most any genre, but currently loves listening to The Talking Heads, Al Green, FKA Twigs (and most everything in between). Willa really, really loves strawberries. She also loves lying in hammocks, the smell of lilac flowers and swimming (in the ocean and ponds particularly). Her favorite television show of the moment is Broad City, and she is currently making her way through season two with impressive speed. Willa has a strong passion for social justice and feminism and would like to use her degree to pursue her passion further.
Full of an assortment of lunch and energy-filled beverages, my classmates and I made our way towards the Neues Museum to experience the Egyptian and Papyrus Collection. After a factual and enlightening tour of the African Quarter in Wedding with Josephine Apraku, we entered the museum with opened minds and malleable ideas. As Sabine Offe points out in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” museums are expected to portray one or two things and collect and give shelter to a cultural heritage but to also obscure and make a society’s heritage invisible. Offe argues that museums turn into “ambivalent places, established to transform collective guilt and banish it from memory and thereby enhancing its commemoration” (78). I would have to agree that museums are used for the erasure of murders, enslavement, and other forms of domination in order to perpetuate the “look how far we’ve come” complex. It’s difficult trying to focus on the progression of a society when it is built on the subjugation of various communities. The role of the museum is to protect and preserve the pieces “explorers” collected or stolen. The problem with museums is exemplified when the historical narratives they disseminate are sugar-coated and served with a polished spoon.
While roaming the bottom floor, I came across a family burial of three children and a mother known as Lady Aline. Tuning into the translating headset, I noticed the automated narrator adding a little sugar to the colonization of ancient Egypt. Lady Aline’s family was said to be an example of the “intermingling of ancient Egyptian tradition and Roman individualism.” The entire recording gave listeners the idea that Romans accepted the culture in honor of Egyptian traditions, when in actuality, Egyptian culture was robbed and exploited. We should also be critical of the terms paired with each group discussed in this description. As Sharon Dodua Otoo points out in “Reclaiming Innoccence: Unmasking Representations of Whiteness in German Theatre,” referencing the work of Marcus Garvey and Noel Ignatiev, “Whiteness works by creating a club, the membership of which is conferred only to certain individuals at birth without their consent” (59).
As I continued roaming, I was graced with the “hottest commodity” of the museum, the headliner in every brochure—the bust of Nefertiti. Students (from another course) circled around her, attempting to sketch the divine beauty of the queen. However, the plaque discussing Nefertiti, “the beautiful one has come,” only focused on the appearance of the queen, and made it known that she took the “traditional feminine role.” It primarily focused on the idea that Nefertiti was King Akhenaten’s counterpart. However, the plaque also noted that he valued her influence on the people and her unique ideas to better the kingdom. Still, most observers see Nerfertiti as spectacle of beauty, not as a prominent queen. Maisha Eggers raises the importance of narration in “Knowledgs of (Un-) Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in German” when she writes, “Narration creates and conserves normalcy, dismantling legitimized and historicized dominant knowledges requires counter-narration,” Eggers explains the vitally of narration when trying to properly record history (7). Along these lines, history should be told with complexity and contradictions, in its most accurate forms.
Reigning from the central quarters of Arkansas, Lyric is a Psychology major with a minor in Feminist & Gender Studies. Known for her risk-taking character, she decided to attend Colorado College without visiting the campus once. When she’s not hypnotized by the tunes in her headphones, she spends time writing rhymes and short stories. Her number one priority is to make her family proud and comfortable. On a broader scale, she would like to intertwine her Psychology degree with media in order to start change in the Black community’s mindset. She would start with writing for TV shows to alter the images of Black characters and begin to create highly-ranked, all-Black casted shows that represent various images of Black women. Lyric is extremely grateful for the opportunity to travel abroad, and looks forward to more experiences.