Afro-Germans and the Problems of Cultural Location

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/17/2009

The leitmotif of the German society in regards to African people has a lot to do with the way Germans approach racial difference. Thus, the German society, in many ways, similar to that of other European nations views Africans as other and lesser. This is a particularly troubling problem for children of mixed heritage since in the German construction of social reality they cannot be German by blood and therefore are African, the other.

It is claimed in this essay that the Afro-Germans, those born of African fathers and German mothers or German fathers and African mothers, a less frequent combination, have a peculiar problem of cultural location which is unlike the problems of other residents of Germany. There is a relatively sizable population of immigrants from Turkey, Greece, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia who reside In Germany. But while Turks, Italians, and Greeks may be defined as not-German they are still seen in the light of their own nationality, but to which nation is the Afro-German connected? This is at once an existential and a locational question for the Afro-German, encompassing being and physical place.1

The Significance of the Issue

I shall approach the problem of cultural location by explaining the context of Afro-German history, the concept and conflicts of identity, and the possible resolution of those conflicts in a definition of Afro-German identity. Grounded in the Afrocentric theory my analysis will relate the historical and cultural location information to the idea of agency, the central issue in any movement toward social and cultural sanity. To say that German history has been contested by race and the problems of race is to say the known; to argue, however, that the Afro-Germans of all mixed race people have been especially brutalized by the official leitmotif of the German society is to indict the politics of race.

A special issue of the Journal of Black Studies entitled "The Image of Africa in German Society," edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay and a book, Blacks and German Culture, edited by Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand demonstrate the new interest in Afro-Germans.2 Carolyn Hodges writes in "The Private/Plural Selves of Afro-German Women and the Search for A Public Voice" in the special issue of the Journal of Black Studies that "the recurring expression of a loss of identity and a lack of community in which to identify is rooted in the precarious, and indeed, precarious which they find themselves."3 (December, l992: Vol. 23, no. 2, p. 224.)

Racist Construction in Germany

Europe has engaged in a racist construction of its own history since the Renaissance and the evolution of the single idea that Europeans are different qualitatively from other humans has permeated most European societies. A hierarchy of human beings was first constructed, in the modern era, by Europeans who accorded to themselves the highest status and downgraded others. Africa was almost always on the bottom of such constructions. German history is replete with the same sort of negative interactions with African people as other European and American nations. In fact, in Germany, one finds a history of racial thinking that rivals the genre in the United States. From the work of the von Humboldts to the apologists for National Socialist racism to the present skinheads one finds one continuous stream of rhetoric of white supremacy. This constitutes a special character among the German people of a construction of race. Their idea is one of hierarchies and hegemonies and in this construction African people are near or at the bottom. Aryanism which flowered in the l8th and l9th centuries in Germany has left an indelible mark on the social and political thinking of many contemporary Germans. And therein lies the problem which confronts the Germans of African ancestry. They are victimized by a world they did not make and cannot change and the racial consciousness of the society demands that they operate as not quite German.

The Afro-Germans

The development in Germany of the Afro-Germans as a distinct population goes back to the end of World War I when the children of German women and Senegalese troops fighting for the French government became an identifiable part of the German society. Children from the union of black soldiers and white mothers were called by derogatory names, discriminated against, and during the rise of National Socialism were sterilized so that they would not have any children. This essentially wiped out the first generation of mixed children in the German society. Only a few remained. However, during the American occupation after World War II, an entirely new group of mixed children came into the society. Actually Farbe bekennen edited by May Opitz, Katherina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz and translated as Showing our Colors by Anne Adams provides telling portraits of the lives and experiences of Afro-Germans after the Second World War.4

The Afro-Germans have experienced a similar dislocation to the African Americans. Although the differences are major in terms of the size of the community, the histories of the communities and the special relationship each has to the majority community, there are cultural and psychological similarities. In "Racism, Sexism, and Precolonial Images of Africa in Germany," in Farbe bekennen, translated by Anne V. Adams as Showing our Colors, May Opitz explored the race theories in Germany that gave birth to the exploitation of African people.5 She further examines the difficulty of maintaining a black identity in a white society in her chapter in the book called "Racism Here and Now."6 In a striking parallel to the life experiences of the African Americans the African Germans find racism existing in the contemporary society as it did during the time of the so-called Bastards. This is the German word for people who were the children of white women and African soldiers during the First Major European War (called the First World War l916-1918).

Racism toward Afro-Germans was exhibited in the manner they were treated by other Germans, how they were considered within the context of German society, the sterilization of female Afro-Germans during the rise of the Nazis, and the ultimate killing of many people of mixed race during the Holocaust. But there is a another side to the story of the Afro-Germans who are the descendants of Africans and African Americans who came to fight in Germany during the last great war. This other side is the subtle and often not subtle effects of German racism on the psychological health, socialization, life chances and opportunities of Afro-Germans. What I mean is the creation of a population of people who have found themselves dislocated in three fundamental ways. Afro-Germans are often dislocated in cultural, historical, and social senses.

The Problem of Location

Cultural dislocation occurs when people live their lives on someone else's terms other than their own.7 In the case of Afro Germans the dislocation is reinforced by the culture of the German people. The German people have expressed their sense of nationality in racial and biological terms for centuries and this has meant that to be German or at least to be considered a German citizen one had to be German, not German and African or German and Chinese but German and German. This translates in a cultural sense to the participation in German myths of racial superiority and purity. The Afro-German cannot successfully participate in this myth and becomes therefore an outsider to the experience of the Germans. To be not quite German because of the African mixture means that the Afro-German are outside of the cultural center that is considered to be German by the Germans themselves. But cultural dislocation is closely related to historical dislocation.

Historical dislocation occurs when people do not know to whom they are connected or live their lives outside of the influence of their own intellectual traditions, hence, they live on the fringes of the experiences of others.8 For the Afro-Germans this produces an unusual situation where individuals are born in Germany, are educated in Germany, and view themselves as German yet in the minds of their fellow citizens they are not truly German because they do not have pure German ancestry. Sometimes even in their own minds they do not see themselves as like the other Germans because of their color and their knowledge of their own biological past. Racial and cultural origin, not environment and lifestyle become the dominant motifs in how they are treated. Nevertheless, they may feel German because they do not know their African roots. This is the predicament of precarious centrality. Precarious centrality exists when a person is born into a society of parents with different histories but only knows one of the histories. I call it precarious centrality because the person has a historical center that is only a part of his or her history, and it is possible, or likely , that at some point in history he or she will seek to know the other part of the identity equation. Or as is often the case of the Afro-German, the second history is thrust upon the person by the society itself. Even when members of the society claim nonracialism or lack of prejudice, they are often, as they are claiming such, demonstrating in their action of claiming that it matters to them. This is like the white American who says to the black American, "I do not think of you as black." The very act itself is a betrayal of the real fact.

Afro-Germans must confront the problem of color and the problem of blood. Social dislocation is sometimes experienced by Afro-Germans because of their color and historical origin. Often because they are easy to identify by their complexion the Afro-Germans are marginalized socially if not discriminated against outright as the African American might be in the United States. However, in the German society and in German literature it is the fact of the presence of African blood that makes the Afro-German not-German. How can a person who is not `totally German' be German? This becomes the issue with the majority of German people. To ask such a question in the context of the United States of America would take an entirely different direction. Indeed, one would have to deal with a different set of historical and territorial facts. You could not get very far with an analysis in the United States by asking, How can a person who is not `totally American' be American? The reason for this resides in the fact that the nationality of American does not reside in blood, but in national allegiance. Even those persons born into an American citizenship but whose cultural or biological origins may be Chinese or Japanese or Yoruba or English are not linked to other Americans by blood or genes but by common acceptance of the citizenship bestowed by virtue of one's birth or allegiance. All Americans, other than the indigenous people, are relative newcomers to this land and can claim no special privileges based on anteriority. In no way, therefore, can the idea of Americanism be applied to the situation of the Afro-German and Germanism. To be German, then, is pre-eminently to be German by native ancestry. It is probably more equivalent to the idea of the Native American being the true American. To be African and German, in the German mind, is not to be German. Therein is the locational problem for the Afro-German, the Turk, Italian, Jew, and Albanian. But even in this instance the Afro-German is able to claim pre-eminence because of "some" German blood. Only color remains as the badge of non-Germanism since Germans are supposed to be white, and the ideal German is pale with blue eyes and blond hair, the essential characteristics of whiteness in the mythology of race.

The Myth of Purity

Whiteness becomes a legal and social property bestowed upon the population of Germans by their ancestors and it cannnot be lost except in the "mixing" of the blood, which is technically not what happens in the biological production of a child. To be white is to have something which insures a person of first class status in the German society and the full support of the political and social institutions. One is fundamentally registered by the society to be pure, that is, of German blood and therefore worthy of the benefits of the society. This property of whiteness can neither be destroyed nor can it be transferred to a non-German; it can only be inherited from two German parents. This means that the Afro-Germans are located in a particular different environment from that of the Germans simply because they are not white.

But problems of location are not merely the problems of the defining society. They are also problems of those defined and therefore point to the lack of the defined to define themselves. It is this impotence that makes the Afro-German person seem such a marginal figure in the history of Gemany and in the social construction of German society. Because one is defined by others and becomes the peripheral image in the margins of the German society it becomes difficult to have a sustained sense of consciousness such as one might find if the population of Afro-Germans were larger.

Afro-Germans could be easily defined as Germans with African ancestry. But then this would move the location of the term German and stretch its definition to be more inclusive (Turks, Greeks, Italians, Africans, etc.) something the German people have decided against in several polls. They hold to the idea of race purity which guarantees dislocation from the idea of the German race for the Afro-German. So despite the ease with which it should be possible to define Afro-Germans as Germans with African ancestry, they remain essentially distant from the conception that the Germans have of themselves.

The Nation and Race

This is unlike the definition or conception of nationality one finds in the United States, a nation where the idea of race and nationality are not so tightly meshed as even some white Americans would have it. One cannot speak of an American race in the same sense that one speaks of the German race. Americans are people of many races, hence, the Japanese, Chinese, African, or Pacific Islander can say he or she is an American and have no difficulty. This becomes problematic in the context of German society because the mythic factor of race is essential to the meaning of German.

But alas, the German concept of national location is unlike the French notion as well. In the case of the French a person who is born in France, speaks the French language and acquires the French manners and cultures, is French. Thus, nationality is bestowed upon people of many racial and genetic backgrounds. Guadaloupeans and Martinicans of the Caribbean are French; they are considered French by virtue of their acceptance of the French culture. On the other hand an Afro-German or an African from outside of Germany may master the language and yet not be considered a German. To be German one must have location in the German blood. Such a construction of nationality is based on the idea of racial hierarchy and the Germans of all Europeans were the most strict in this regard. From the l8th century, with the beginning of the development of the idea of Aryanism, the Germans saw blood as more important than language and cultural acquisition. Indeed for them the idea of culture was a racial idea. This understanding of culture has often been offered as one of the reasons the Jews of the Hitler era had such great difficulty recognizing the coming of the Holocaust. They had integrated themselves into the German society, attaining high positions in education, business, and science and also contributing regularly to the advancement of German culture. Yet with the racial moment stirred by Hitler and his coterie of race demagogues, the Jews were sought out and murdered because they were not pure Germans. This is unlike some of the other European constructions of national identity; it is purely the nation as the race.

Another aspect of the German society which has a tremendous impact on the Afro-German is the rejection of difference at the moment the Afro-German understands his or her difference as an individual. Imagine the child who suddenly recognizes either on his or her own or by virtue of the acknowledgement of another person that he or she is different, brown, not German. Subsequent rejections based on this difference can cause psychological pain and produce bitterness. It is not unlike what happens to the child of mixed heritage in the United States who has been told she is white, a privilege status in the American society, only to be told or to realize herself at some point that she is not considered white by either whites or blacks in the American society.

Chinua Achebe, the award-winning Nigerian writer, has spoken of being influenced by the Eurocentric world as like being in the rain and finding that it seems to be everywhere, inescapable. In a similar fashion the Afro-German is surrounded by the Eurocentric world and feels the wetness and the coldness of the situation while remembering or trying to remember, out of sentiment, the warmth of not being in the rain. It is this memory, or this ancestral bond to Africa, that awakens in the minds of Afro-Germans the possibility of Africa. It is in the convergence of the possibility of Africa, even as Africa-American and the reality of Europe, that is, Germany, that the Afro-German is forced to make peace with herself or himself. The African possibility is the fact that in physical characteristics and perhaps in temperament the person feels African but in culture and language the person is German. This duality of being sits at the heart of the person's biography like a clinical witness to what is to come. There is nothing subtle about the presence of the twinness; it is in many ways the definition of being Afro-German. So are the contradictions that come with just being German itself. How much of German history and culture must the Afro-German bear?

Bearing the Challenge of Difference

The weight of the Nazi Holocaust is heavily imprinted on the external life of the Afro-German. What I mean is that the persecutions of Jews, Roma, and Afro-Germans by the Third Reich are well known and that to the degree that the Afro-German participates in history and culture as a German to that same degree he or she bears much of the weight of the Nazi era. This has to be considered an area of intense personal conflict when it is computed as a conscious reckoning of historic meaning. It requires the person who is "black" to assume the burden of persecution of others in a bizarre twist to the problem of identity. This assumption of the Nazi burden occurs or could occur at the same time as the person is trying to deal with his or her own marginality In the German society.

Any construction of German society that begins with the definition of German based solely on blood makes it difficult to consider a separate identity such as "half-German" and to make that identity acceptable to the German people. Viewed mainly in terms of its wars with its enemies during the past century the German nation, by which I mean, the German people in the same sense that the Germans mean when they construct their social and cultural identity, is suspicious of "der auslander." When Chancellor Konrad Adenauer pursued a policy of Westintegration he was attempting to gain acceptance of Germany, at least at the time, the Federal Republic of Germany, into the Western, meaning mainly United States, Britain, France, and Northern European, political sphere. However, all of those societies had a difference with Germany in terms of the construction of citizenship and the integration of its people. Both France and Britain because of their far-flung colonial empires reaped the profound impact of their earlier conquests when many immigrants from those empires entered the mother countries. There had been for a considerable time in France and in Britain children of the colonial administators and officers who were genetically,-mixed. These children were French or British. And although prejudice existed in these nations, there could be no real movement against the Africans and Indians as not-British or not-French becuse they were accepted as British or French because of citizenship. While in Germany there is no movement against Afro-Germans, the neo-Nazis and the Skinheads do view them as foreigners, and foreigners are non-German. How the Westintegration would solve this problem depends on how much the German society was influenced by French, British, and American cultural patterns.

From the l950s onward the government of the Federal Republic of Germany contacted the Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Moroccan, Portuguese, Tunisian, and Yugoslavian governments to recruit workers for Germany. This would prove to be a thorn in the side of the nation in the years to come and have a side impact on the role of the Afro-Germans in their society. The national groups from Europe, Asia, and Africa represented comprehensive communities; this was unlike the status of the Afro-Germans who have limited communities of culture since they are essentially the products of individual unions that exist in highly disperse areas rather than in compact communities. Hence there are no examples of particular foods, festivals, events, or activities that suggest that the Afro-Germans are a community; they are German in a way that the Turks, Slavs, and Tunisians are not. They are culturally German but their genetic history is part African. In such an equation unless there is an African consciousness, which there would normally be because of the pressures of the society, there would be no problem of dislocation. The problem arises precisely because in the German society so much is made of the issue of blood and the Afro-German is not in the position to declare both parents German in blood. This is so despite the fact that both parents may be German in culture. A child who is the product of an Afro-German and a German might also be considered not quite German.

The idea of Germanness makes cultural location a matter of symmetry between one's blood and one's culture. This is a biologically determined conception that is essentially alien to the way other modern nations construct the idea of nationality. Thus, the Afro-Germans are victimized by the historically-constructed concept of race in the German society and yet cannot escape the complete immersion of German culture. In other words, they are denied a full measure of being German while at the same time are often disconnected from African cultural traditions creating in the Afro-Germans who seek to know their African side a psychological and cultural dissonance that can be described as dislocation, the quality of being only partly centered in one's cultural and biological identity. To escape the terror of the situation the Afro-German can become connected, attached, and situated in the historical place of the African people by a conscious commitment to the discovery of self in every dimension. This means that the theoretical problem of mis-placeness, disorientation, and misorientation can be avoided or eased if the Afro-German find a way to address the problem of Africa which resides deep in the recesses of his or her mind.


1 See Molefi Kete Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge. Trenton: Africa World Press, l990, for a treatment of the modalities of cultural location.

2 Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, "The Image of Africa in German Society," in the Journal of Black Studies, December, l992, Volume 23, No. 2, p. 224 ; and Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, eds. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, l986.

3 Carolyn Hodges, "The Private/Plural Selves of the Afro-German Women and the Search for for a Public Voice," Journal of Black Studies, December, l992, Volume 23, No. 2, p. 224.

4 May Opitz, Katerina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schult, eds., Anne V. Adams, trans., Showing our Colors, Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1992.

5 May Opitz, "Racism, Sexism and the Precolonial Image of Africa in Germany," in Showing our Colors.

6 May Opitz, "Racism Here and Now," in Showing our Colors.

African symbol