Black Diaspora and Germany Across the Centuries

Mar 19, 2009 - Mar 21, 2009

Conference at the GHI | Conveners: Martin Klimke (GHI Washington), Anne Kuhlmann-Smirnov (History Department, University of Bremen), and Mischa Honeck (Heidelberg Center for American Studies, University of Heidelberg)

"Black Diaspora and Germany Across the Centuries" embarked on an ambitious task: the conference retraced six centuries of mutual perception and contact between blacks of diverse origins (from the Americas, the Caribbean, the Byzantine Empire, Asia, Africa, or Europe) and people from the German-speaking parts of Europe. Over the past several years, transnational and global historians have successfully challenged monolithic concepts of national identity by emphasizing the interconnectedness of various regional developments, no longer treating them as separate entities. One recent area of inquiry that has benefited immensely from this perspective focuses on the intersections of black and German history. But while important strides have been made for the twentieth century, Afro-German interactions of earlier periods are still comparatively underexplored. To fill this gap, the conference brought together scholars from various disciplines – history, art history, cultural studies, and literature – to map continuities and ruptures in the long history of the African-German encounter from the Late Middle Ages to the First World War.

The conference kicked off with a panel interrogating representations of black people in art and social discourse in the Renaissance and early modern periods. Using the Calenberg Altarpiece as his point of departure, Paul Kaplan demonstrated how Africans in religious art served to enunciate a Christian universalism which was less concerned with racial identities than with stressing the inherent unity of a divinely ordained Christian society and world. Patterns of racial differentiation, however, emerged more forcefully from the eighteenth century onward. As Allison Blakely argued, Kant, Blumenbach, and other German Enlightenment intellectuals proved instrumental in cementing stereotypes of black inferiority by turning them into legitimate objects of scientific investigation. In the first of two keynote addresses, Kate Lowe then looked at different ways of imagining, performing, and experiencing blackness, in Renaissance Germany. Parallel to the conspicuous presence of blacks as court moors and servants, as Lowe pointed out, staging blackness for satirical purposes in popular comedy and carnival reflected the identity struggles of a burgeoning German middle class. In his response to Lowe, Dirk Hoerder added that the terms "moor" and "black" had no fixed meaning but carried various racial, social, and religious connotations which could change over time.

The second day started with Peter Martin addressing theoretical and methodological problems pertaining to early Afro-German history. His deliberations culminated in a call for a more nuanced terminology that would transcend the simplistic black-white dichotomy and capture a greater array of social spaces blacks occupied in German society across the centuries. Anne Kuhlmann-Smirnov followed Martin, providing valuable information on migration routes as well as the social and geographical dispersion of blacks in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany. Presenting statistical evidence detailing that as many black migrants came from the Caribbean and North America as from Africa, Kuhlmann-Smirnov moved away from an African essentialism to espouse a more global understanding of Germany's place in the Black Diaspora. Rashid Pegah’s talk on real and imagined Africans in eighteenth-century court divertissements highlighted yet another facet of early modern Afro-German interaction: as blacks started to figure more prominently in the world of courtly entertainments, deteriorating images of Africa and Asia began to supplant older notions of exoticism and increasingly tended to ascribe inferior status to dark-skinned people.

The next two panels moved ahead in time, shifting the focus to literary and scientific representations of blackness in nineteenth-century Germany. Heike Paul focused on German receptions of black writing, establishing that they rarely connoted an independent black agency, and Eva Ulrike Pirker, through a close reading of Theodor Storm, showed that the spaces where black figures were allowed to excel were circumscribed by prevalent racial stereotypes of the time. Jens Uwe-Guettel went on to investigate the racist ideas and pro-slavery attitude of the late eighteenth-century Göttingen professor Christof Meiners. Placing his writings in the context of transatlantic slavery, Guettel underscored that, even though blacks were a fringe phenomenon on German streets, Enlightenment scholars intervened vigorously in the transnational debate on the existence of different 'races,' with various leanings and results. Jeannette Jones, in her talk on Heidelberg anatomist Friedrich Tiedemann, delved further into the complexities and divergences of German Enlightenment culture and its impact on the evolution of anti-black racism. Contrary to Meiners, however, Tiedemann employed scientific methods to challenge, not bolster, dogmas of racial hierarchy, emerging as a spokesman of abolition in German academia and beyond. Also linking German discourses of blackness to transatlantic and global developments, Bradley Naranch argued that competing mid-nineteenth-century images of the Black Diaspora, which stressed either philanthropy or savagery, can only be properly understood if situated in the evolving struggle for a German national identity. In the section's concluding presentation, Frank Mehring offered a fresh appraisal of the German-American artist Winhold Reiss and his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. Reiss's portraits of iconic African Americans, Mehring elucidated, mirrored his complex transition from a German immigrant used to seeing the world through a colonial lens to a cosmopolitan artist visualizing "the unfinished business of democracy."

At the end of the day, Maria Diedrich delivered the second keynote speech on her new research project, which seeks to rescue  the individual and collective life stories of the Black Hessians from oblivion. This community consisted of former slaves who had served in the ranks of pro-British German regiments during the Revolutionary War and their families. Faced with a relative dearth of primary sources, Diedrich made a case for "critical fabulation" (Saidiya Hartman) as a way to reconstruct the circum-Atlantic worlds through which the "Kasseler Mohren" moved, from their African homelands via the slave fields of North America to the domain of Hesse's Landgrave Wilhelm IX.

The third and last day was set aside for two panels that addressed Germany's place in the Black Atlantic during the long nineteenth century, both of which put a strong emphasis on black agency. Mischa Honeck revisited the European sojourn of the African-American abolitionist and churchman James W. C. Pennington, contending that his idealized depiction of mid-nineteenth-century Germany grew out of his search for an egalitarian, non-racist society. Echoes of a black cosmopolitan mobility also resonated in Stefanie Michel's talk, which probed the opportunities and limits of two privileged Afro-German families in transit, the Jimenez family from Cuba and the Bells from Cameroon. Kendahl Radcliffe unearthed the story of the Tuskegee Institute's cotton-production scheme in German Togoland. This effort, while catching the attention of Germans bent on developing methods of scientific agriculture in their colonies, was above all intended to propagate the Tuskegee vision of uplifting the socio-economic status of blacks by means of education. Robbie Aitken then brought the discussion back to the heart of the Hohenzollern Empire when he charted the migration stream of young Cameroonians into the German metropole. The migrants' experience, said Aitken, was shaped by their status as colonial subjects, as well as by imperial policies which sought to restrict and control migrants' exposure to German society. Imperial Germany's fascination with colonial Africa, too, was reflected in its burgeoning consumer culture. As David Ciarlo demonstrated, advertisements such as those featuring the Duala leader "King Bell" provided a powerful justification for colonial rule and fixed stereotypes of racial difference. Finally, Christian Koller shared his ideas on German perceptions of African colonial soldiers enlisted in the French Army from 1859 to the First World War. Claiming that most statements had to be read in the context of Franco-German antagonism, Koller also identified a common sentiment of white civilizational superiority that was prevalent on both sides.

In sum, the conference broke important new ground in the complex, contested, and highly volatile history of Afro-German interaction prior to the twentieth century. Rather than promulgate a linear narrative grounded in static notions of racial difference, it presented the story of Germany's entanglement in the Black Diaspora as one of many competing strands of discourse and social practice vying for dominance across time and space. Germany's place in the Black Atlantic might have been marginal in a geographical sense; intellectually and discursively, however, it proved significant for the formation of modern social and national identities.

In addition to very stimulating and productive exchanges, the conference also sparked a long-term multinational and multidisciplinary collaboration. Tangible fruits of this cooperative endeavor will soon be made available to a larger academic audience and the general public, including a forthcoming publication and a joint online site that presents many diverse sources on the Black Diaspora with regard to Germany.

Mischa Honeck (Heidelberg Center for American Studies)

Call for Papers

Persons of African descent have been present in Europe throughout the past millennium. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Africans crossed the Mediterranean to Spain, Sicily, and Italy or made their way to Europe via the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire. In later centuries, the system of transatlantic trade brought black people from the different regions of the Americas to Europe.

In Central Europe, African "court moors" became increasingly present during the Early Modern Period and were an integral part of courtly representation. As a result of exchange processes between Europe, Africa, and the West Indies, the social roles of blacks in Europe and European discourses on blacks diversified over time. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, an increasing number of black Europeans lived in middle-class households, especially those of retired colonial officials, plantation owners or merchants residing in Europe. Others lived independently as seamen or as guild members. Transatlantic chattel slavery, however, fundamentally reconfigured Afro-European relations and transformed perceptions of black people throughout the Atlantic World. Over time, black people were increasingly referred to as "slaves"  or "negroes" instead of "moors," an older term associated with, among other things, images of brave warriors that derived from the presence of black soldiers in the armies of the Islamic Empire on the Iberian Peninsula and humanist images of a Christian "land of the moors" ruled by a mythical Prester John in Ethiopia.

By the early nineteenth century, racist views on blacks had found broad public acceptance in Europe. Scientific racism, a branch of ethnology that began to infiltrate Western science from the 1840s onward, further consolidated notions of black inferiority and was widely used to justify the continued enslavement of African peoples. Simultaneously, proslavery arguments were vehemently challenged by Enlightenment ideas of human equality, which gained broader significance on both sides of the Atlantic through the rise of various abolitionist and revolutionary movements. This dialectical contest between racial egalitarianism and white supremacy persisted well into the early twentieth century, when the latter reemerged forcefully in the guise of European imperialism.

The conference Black Diaspora and Germany Across the Centuries will retrace these processes of change and revaluation from the eleventh century to the beginning of World War I. Particular emphasis will be laid on the interactions between blacks of various origins (the Americas, the Caribbean, Byzantine Empire, Africa, or born in Europe) and people in the German-speaking parts of Europe.

Researchers of all disciplines are invited to discuss continuities and ruptures in this history of mutual perception and contact: migration, art and court historians, American, German and African studies as well as scholars from the field of cultural studies, literature, sociology, musicology, linguistics, etc.

Possible conference topics include:

  • Geopolitical and social spaces of communication and interaction: Which geographical areas and groups of individuals or social classes were involved in processes of exchange? What kind of action repertoires did these spaces leave or offer to people of color?
  • Perception and appropriation of African culture, art, music, etc. and their representations in various contexts (e.g. European court cultures, literature, art production).
  • Altering influence of religious, philosophical, and scientific discourses on modes of Afro-European contacts.
  • Race/Racism vs. egalitarianism as discourse and social practice in the African-German encounter.

Please send a proposal of no more than 500 words and a brief CV via e-mail to Martin Klimke. The deadline for submission is October 15, 2008. Participants will be notified by mid-November.

The conference, held in English, will focus on discussing 5,000–6,000-word, precirculated papers (due February 1, 2009). Expenses for travel and accommodation will be covered.