YOUR BLACK AZZ HISTORY MATTERS!
Looking for Langston (1989) makes me cry every time I watch it. My first time seeing it was in the Lincoln Centre in New York City– privately–on a 35-mm reel via a projector. As it clicked and fluttered away in the darkness, spitting out visual poetry of black and white silhouettes of dark men in their most regal of forms on the wall; I saw them loving one another with no shame as if every breath and waltz was their last. I knew I had a place in time at that moment. Now that Langston is a permanent installation in the British Tate, I felt that the movie would finally reach those who never could grasp where modern queer cinema’s turning point actually took place. It was a new visual language crafted by Isaac Julien in order to express his retelling of a Queer Harlem Renaissance and the life of Langston Hughes in order to connect blacks throughout the diaspora. It also was the fire that illuminated my reflection in my own Black American history and led be down the path to become the Black Queer historian I am today. Everyone needs to have this moment! You need to find yourself in your nation’s past. You have to really. I cannot stress how imperative this action is to build a sense of self and belonging in the present and future for the Black population. I, despite being queer and black, benefit from American imperialism in ways that were not apparent to me until I left the states. When I saw Black Europeans posting only MLK and Malcom X quotes for Black History month, and the explosion that was the global acknowledgment of Juneteenth this year, I knew right then and there that my Black culture was global and rode on the coattails of the empire to some extent–this scared me. It scared me a lot because I wanted to know more about the Black British timeline, and I want that history to be presented on the same platform as Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, the Million Man March, Selma, and so much more. But then, I had to remind myself of the past labour that was required of me to find Bayard Rustin, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, and other Black Queer folks of the American past. Finding one’s own history is laborious in its nature; unless you’re a part of the white race. The black image in European history–not just in Britain–still struggles to make it to the surface of our general understanding of the past. Tracking these Black images has been done by scholars, but the names of these historical figures still have not been ingrained into our society the way American figures have. This needs to change, and I believe the images in art and media are a great starting point for this. Let’s focus on Germany for this conversation.
German Black History: From the Court “Moor” to the Negro
Don’t believe the White hype, Blacks of Afro descent have had a presence in Germany from the Middle Ages to World War I and all the way up to now (oh course), but history is messy and the victors of it usually get to paint the images of the past for the present people to look back and see. Despite the erasure of this Black presence by major factions from Christianity, the Nazi party, and White supremacist culture to follow; you can find images of a Black aristocratic class if you look hard enough– just head to the German Historical Museum in Berlin for a start. When you’re there, you’ll catch a glimpse of a regal image of a Prussian (now a dissolved state of Germany; today part of Poland and Russia) military official holding his lover. They are an interracial couple dating back to the late 1800’s during the Wilhelmine Period.The image is by German artist Emil Doerstling entitled Preußisches Liebesglück. It depicts Gustav Sabac el Cher. His father, whose name is August Albrecht Sabac el Cher, was brought to Germany in 1843. Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann lay out the history of Gustav and the importance of the image exquisitely in Germany and the Black Diaspora : Points of Contact, 1250-1914:
Gustav’s father, August Albrecht Sabac el Cher, was brought to Germany in 1843 by a Prussian nobleman who received August as a “gift” from the Egyptian viceroy Mehmet Ali while traveling the Orient. The Sabacs fared well under the tutelage of the Prussian aristocrat. Gustav was educated by the best teachers, enjoyed close ties to the Hohenzollern court, served in the army, and rose to the position of imperial bandmaster. Well-respected and fully integrated into German society, Gustav performed in front of kings and emperors. When Gustav Sabac el Cher died (1934), forlorn and almost forgotten after the Nazi takeover, Wilhelm II sent a letter of condolence to Gustav’s family from his Dutch exile.
Being that his father was somewhat a product of a pre-scrabble for African era–being that “Germans joined the scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century, subjugating and exploiting indigenous populations”–the narrative of Gustav and other Court Moors (black servants given as gifts) attempts to create a more nuanced, and alternative model, of the lives of Blacks in Germany and in other Europeans nations. Sheldon Cheek, assistant director of the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Centre, adds more perspective to this “gifting” of Afro slaves and servants through the lens of the slave trade in the Netherlands years before Gustav’s time:
“Often, Africans would be brought into the Netherlands by means of the Dutch slave trade, presented as ‘gifts’ to the wealthy. The young black people seen in the exhibition … served within noble households as signs of prestige and ornamentation which, like fine paintings, furniture and the like, could only be afforded by the privileged classes,”
Cheek writes this via email to an NPR news station in 2016, he goes even further to describe their possible duties in the context of being an aristocratic gift:
“… As these black servants grew up, their duties within the household often changed substantially. Sometimes they were charged with duties of exceptional authority such as bookkeeping and other types of household management, or as musicians, horse grooms, hunting companions, or as lavishly dressed troops featured in grand ceremonial pageants. In other cases, they were sent to other wealthy, noble, or even royal households as tokens of esteem or self-promotion.”
Afro blacks occupied Europe in many different ways and social statues from the 1600 to the 1800s. This multifaceted occupation by Afro-blacks in Europe, more specifically Germany, also dictated White European perceptions of people from the “dark continent” in diverse forms and fashion, being that their images– like Gustav’s–can still be found among classic Euro art. These said Euro-art images today, generate curiosity from onlookers as it dispels the images of chains and shackles and slavery that have branded all blacks in the past.
The Makings of a Modern Black Germany their role in the arts
Germany’s colonial exploitations and ventures within Africa ( Togo; German East Africa: present-day Burundi, Rwanda, and the mainland part of Tanzania; Namibia; Cameroo, and German south-west Africa ) starting with the Scramble for Africa and ending with the first World War and the Treaty of Versailles (1884 – 1919) is what arguably creates the visible black modern presence within the country from the 1800’s to the early 1900’s (2). Figure’s like Theodor Wonja Michael (1925- 2019) offers a first-hand account of these and other experiences within his autobiography Black German An Afro-German Life in the Twentieth Century By Theodor Michael, as one of the last surviving members of the first generation of ‘Afro-Germans’ (3). Although former colonized afro-blacks populated all of Germany, most of this population was concentrated on the cities of Hamburg and Berlin. Which would eventually lead to a working-class community of blacks that needed to carve out an identity and community in this white euro dominated state. With the creation of the African Heritage 1918, this identity of working-class Black German begins to take form. Its “aim to provide a support network that would replace, as far as possible, ethnic and family ties in Africa and take away the feeling of being isolated amidst the white population”, the AH group marks the being in modern Afro-German mobilization. This mobilization serviced the roles that black Germans took: Language assistants, Colonial businessmen (traders), and other tasks; but a role in the arts proved to be among the most accepting. Robert S. Abbott, of the Chicago Defender, who did reports of the African presence in Europe as an African American saw that “It is in the arts that black people who have made their homes in Germany have found the greatest welcome”(4) at the time. This “welcome” came in the form of performers, and in particular movie actors. Due to factors like the cultural explosion of Jazz and American culture in the 20s, Black American artists in Europe sparked white fascination and provided escape from the harsh world of an economically deprived post war Germany. It should also be noted that this film and theatre work relied heavily on racial stereotypes: barbarianism, slavery, savagery, and the ethnic other. Most African names had to be Euroized or Americanized for the Black German to get work at the time as well. (5)
But where are these images? Where are these Black faces of the past? And who were they? One name that you should know is that of Ludwig M'bebe Mpessa, often referred to by his stage name Louis Brody- Alcolson.
With a career spanning 1915 to 1951 and a filmography, Mpessa starred in many films before, during, and after the Nazi regime in Germany–but at a high moral cost. Three films analysed by Patrice Nganang offer a snapshot into the tumultuous lives and images of Black bodies on German films throughout the Weimar Republic, WW2, and the post-war period. These films are Der müde Tod (1921) for its pre-war expressionist form, Die Reiter von Deutsch-Ostafrika (1934) for the Nazi racist propaganda years, and Quax in Afrika (1947) for a post-war comedy adventure film perspective. The most notable of the three is Der müde Tod (1921), due to it being directed by Fritz Lang. But beyond the silver screen, Mpessa was aware of not only the roles he occupied but the perception of the Black African in German, which prompted him to do work with African organizations. After the war, he continued to work in film, more specifically with the Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) a state-owned film studio of the German Democratic Republic. Beyond the colonial exploitative lens, Mpessa image is a testament to the survival tactics and overall resilience of the Afro-German. His presence on classic grainy film strips and still images continue to spark the same curiosity of modern viewers till this day–as it does with Gustav Sabac el Cher.
From a Great war struggle to a cold war era, the blacks on screen began to demand more of a presence on the screen. One film–which I recommend you explore– is one entitled Whity (1971). If there was a genre that encompasses this work, it would be that of a Blaxploitation –Queer–Spaghetti Western–B-list–melodrama. Highly sexualized and racially forced into servitude, Whity–the protagonist played by Günter Kaufmann– is framed as the morally impenetrable Black servant of the white wealthy Nicholson family. A family that plots, steals, and kills one another in order to gain power. Despite being consistently beaten down and used as a sexual object, Whity refuses to fight back until the grand climatic moment where he takes back the power at the end of the narrative. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a hallmark of the New German cinema movement infuses the film with his recurring themes of dysfunctional families, sexual diversity, and the struggle of the individual and belonging to a society.
This sexual diversity is also explored more, later by Fassbinder in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) where a romance is kindled between a white German woman in her mid-sixties and a Black Moroccan migrant worker around twenty-five years younger. These two people separated by age and race abruptly decide to marry, sparking conflict and discrimination from everyone around them. (6)
After the wall fell, in 1994 one short film garnered international attention for its unrestricted and self-reflexive look at the Black German’s experience with modern racism. Pepe Danquart’s Oscar winning short Schwarzfahrer explores racism in the public transit system of Berlin. The film explores a voiceless black protagonist enduring racial bigotry on the S-Bahn by a white elderly woman. The role of silence and groupthink within Schwarzfahrer mimics Black Queer director Marlon Riggs’ seminal work Tongues Untied (1989), where he explored American racial oppression and the slow death due to black body’s refusing to speak up. This film adds more to the conversation as it explores themes of racial purity, anti-immigration, and assimilation through the dialog of the bigoted older white German passenger that the Black protagonist is forced to sit next to.
But these images that I have explored thus far still exist with a caveat, they are directed and dictated under the lens of whiteness. However, there are many contemporary artists who are taking up the charge to this lens and directing the narrative of black Germany on film today. One step in doing this is the establishment of creative collectives and professional groups like the SFD - Schwarze Filmschaffende in Deutschland (Black Artists in German Film) in 2006, that focuses on diverse representation of the lives of black people in German film and television. In the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival– running under a series titled NEW PERSPECTIVES– the SFD helped in curating 6 films by Afro-German filmmakers and filmmakers of AfroGerman descent living in Germany which was a first in the history of the international festival. Spanning across fictional, animation, and documentary forms, the films make a huge step in providing both representation and authorship on a new level to the Afro-German image on film. These works included: ZWISCHEN (2006) a film about what it's like to be a foreigner in Berlin. TURMSPRINGER (2006) is a cinematic comic about a German superhero who thwarts an attack on one of the city's main railway stations. LANDING (2007) is the story of a young Afro-German woman who wakes up to discover that she is invisible. UND WIR WAREN DEUTSCHE (1999) documents an encounter between two old school friends, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi and Ralph Giordano, who managed to survive the Second World War and the Holocaust by hiding in Hamburg. CHERISH (2000) tells the story of a young girl's first encounter with her father. YOU ARE WELCOME! (2006) contains three interviews that were conducted in Ghana with a Ghanaian and two visitors from Germany. (7)
From Gustav’s Prussian days, to Mpessa wartime stories, the black German has been integral to the formation of the state. Your history matters and seeing yourself on screen is a part of that journey. Sadly, in a state of being black throughout the diaspora, in order to begin tracking one’s black history, we must grapple with the devastating systems of racism through the lens of colonialism and white supremacy in order to even see ourselves in the past. But decolonization is a process, not a single act. And in order to decolonize one’s own history, we must know that the story doesn’t stop at this junction of racial and sexual injustice. Afro-Germans are creating in the now; the stories that they are fostering have the ability to do what Langston did for me: reaffirm my existence in the past, present, and future of my county.
Kenneth W. Norwood Ph.D. candidate
Xavier University of Louisiana
Long Island University Brooklyn
University of Southampton
(2) Aitken, R., & Rosenhaft, E. (2013). Surviving in Germany: Work, welfare and community. In Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884–1960 (pp. 119-160). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139649575.006
(3) Rosenhaft, E. (Trans.). (2017). Black German: An Afro-German Life in the Twentieth Century By Theodor Michael. Liverpool University Press.
(4) Abbott,‘My Trip Abroad. VIII’,p.1.
(5) Aitken, R., & Rosenhaft, E. (2013). Surviving in Germany: Work, welfare and community. In Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884–1960 (pp. 119-160). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139649575.006