Black History Month

February is Black History Month and, like last year, I'll be reading from some of my work in a Dialogue Books event. (see below for details)

On my blog I have previously acknowledged Black History Month by citing black figures, mostly American, that have inspired me. In light of my most recent post, I thought it might be interesting and educational (for me included) to look at a history of black people in Germany. I'll be fishing out some of the people I've admired but I also wanted to see how black people have been portrayed here throughout history.

This morning, my 6 year-old son said, "Good that we weren't here a long time ago, they would have laughed at us." When I asked him why he thought that he showed me one of his favorite cartoon books from E.O. Plauen, "Vater und Sohn" Father and Son. (Honestly, I can't make these kinds of coincidences up! My son might have been more aware of the illustration's implications since we were reading a book about Rosa Parks yesterday. I recently read in a book written by Brene Brown, an American sociologist who researches and writes that about self-esteem and vulnerability, that once we see something it's impossible to un-see it!)

The illustration shows Africans being displayed in a Voelkerschau, or human zoos, which were popular in European and North American cities between the late 1800s up until the Second World War.

The exaggeration of color and lip size in this illustration (which is actually making fun of the human zoo) shows the caricaturization of African people during Germany's relatively brief colonial history in Africa.

*I'll be reading from new work on February 7, 2012 at 19:30 at Dialogue Books Schoenlein Str. 31, Berlin Kreuzberg, RSVP: events@dialoguebooks.org.


Gustav said...

The depiction of the blacks is very caricatural and stereotypical indeed.

But besides that, I must say that one could have expected much worse from a comic drawn during the 3rd Reich. After all, the blacks get to laugh last, and also the fact that there is a black and a white father and son seem to point out a basic connection/similarity of sorts. From a contemporary perspective, that might even have seemed progressive.

Interesting to hear your son say that at age 6.

I'd come to your reading, but it's too far away.

Maya M said...

If this cartoon was drawn during the 3rd Reich, I wonder whether it has an additional layer of meaning.
Of all European racial traits, the black man singled out the pronounced moustache...
Who in the Third Reich was known for his moustache?
Perhaps the caricatural black character was used to express, in a disguised form, something that was too dangerous to be said directly.

lifeexplorerdiscovery said...

On the subject of black figures in Germany you must read the book Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, quite an interesting read. Had to read it for my African Civilization class, about the only interesting thing we actually did in there.

The book is essentially about a mixed race kid with a white mom (probably the only thing that kept him from being sent to the camps I imagine) and how he was faced with some brutal realities as he aged in that era.

currentsbetweenshores said...

@Maya, this cartoonist was actually vilified by the Nazi regime because of his political cartoons.

Thanks Gustav. . .hopefully my second book will reach more parts of Germany.

@Life, was that by any chance Hans Jergen Massaquoi?

lifeexplorerdiscovery said...

Yes it was. You know of him?

Gustav said...

@Maya: The cartoonist may have had trouble with the Nazi regime. It's still quite a stretch to assume a connection between this guy's mustache and Hitler.

I think the cartoon is quite straightforward.

Nadève said...

I was wondering if Rose-Anne or anyone else had had a chance to see this film? It looks fascinating. But I'm a huge fan of Audre Lorde, so I could be biased.


an evil german who hopefully wont get a headache because of this said...

What am I reading here?

Erich Ohser(aka e.o.plauen) committed suicide the day before his "trial" at the Volksgerichtshof lead by Roland Freisler.(i wonder how many know what the Volksgerichtshof and who Freisler was...)
His friend Erich Knauf was also arrested, "sentenced" to death and murdered a month later.

Lets look at the comicstrip shall we?
1st picture: The father and son visit a Völkerschau.

2nd picture: The father makes fun of the hairstyle of the black woman. His son laughs too.

3rd picture: The black woman imitates the mustache of the father and laughs, Her daughter laughs too.

4th picture: The father is obviously furious about this and goes away. His son looks indifferent as if he doesnt really understand it OR perhaps he understood it.

And now we all imagine living under a dictatorship where you cant express yourself. How do you mock the racial theories of those in power without getting a huge profile.
You just dont go out and shout to the world how you feel. Because if you do that you end up in the basement of the local Gestapo. If you actually survive that you end up at home as a broken person or in KZ.

The sheer idea that Erich Ohser wanted to express his racism that way is just...

But then again we learned something because of it.
We learned that history seems to differ between various countries and that you cant judge something like you are still at home within your cultural ties and history.

Gustav said...

> The sheer idea that Erich Ohser wanted to express his racism that way is just...

Nobody even remotely said that.

Alexander said...

Actually, I don't think this cartoon is that bad. I've seen a of lot cartoons from that time and have been researching that period for a while because I want to write a play about this very subject. In fact I reference a couple of cartoons in piece. They certainly were no more racist, and one could argue, less racist toward black people then they were in America.
I actually find some of the cartoons (I said "some") even though they are drawn in that ugly black caricature*- some still had this kind of ironic satiric element to them. Like this one; the White person points to the strange odd looking hairdo and laughs, the Black person points out that the White person's odd looking mustache is just as bizarre and laughs at him. Which is actually kind of an interesting and true statement. Who gets to define what is odd or exotic?

And the German cartoons were very critical of the hypocrisy from America where racist treatment of blacks were very open. For instance there was one where they had this Uncle Sam figure ranting about how horrible and inhuman the Germans where and in the background behind the Uncle Sam were drawings of black men being lynched by the KKK and a black figure in an electric chair and being beat by police. Very satiric, the message and irony very clear.

I've found a couple more like that. I hope the odd history of Germany and black people really get explored more. It's very interesting. I can say almost with a certainty that I would rather have been black in Berlin in the 20s than a lot of cities in America in the 20s, especially the South. My father grew up in Alabama in the 20s and lived a nightmarish upbringing.
One of the lives I'm exploring is that of Louis Brody, who came from Cameroon when it was one Germany's colonies and became a big actor in a film career that lasted from before 1920s through the 1950s - during that time he appeared in over 72 films, including films with esteemed German directors like Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene and about 25 of them under the Nazi regime. Which I find astounding. Sure many of the roles he played were the stereotype noble savage that helps the white colonist save the world but that was no different than the roles black actors in America played and none of them, not even a star like Paul Robeson did 72 films. I'm just saying. I am not sure if Germany's history of racism toward black people is anything unique to the rest of the big western powers (America, Britain etc)

*(which by the way was the typical way the depicted blacks everywhere, especially in the US - Germany was not unique in it's mockery of black people)

currentsbetweenshores said...

Evil German, again, you jumped to conclusions and didn't even get the idea of the post? My agenda is not to label Germans evil and racist. You seem to be projecting a lot of anger back onto this site without opening your mind up for what is actually being discussed.

Read it again and see if I'm saying Erich Ochser was showing his racism???

@Nadeve! I am about to post about Audre Lorde! Forgive me, have gotten so busy!