In her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, scholar Christina Sharpe described her concept of “wake work” as “a theory and a praxis of Black being in the diaspora.” Wake work, for Sharpe, is an act of resistance that recognizes the on-going valences of colonialism and enslavement in the present. Moreover, it requires one to care for the living and the dead, which privileges mourning at all levels (local, national, and global) in the quotidian. But wake work is also a form of cultural consciousness and provides new forms of resistance that are tied to Black diasporic expressive practices and traditions.
Black Germans pursued wake work through their decolonial and antiracist diasporic activism from the 1980s through the present day. With their wake work, Black Germans became what I refer to as “quotidian intellectuals.” As quotidian intellectuals, they shared new forms of “blackened knowledge” that enabled them to survive and resist their erasure and subjugation in the German metropole and in its former colonies. Through the organization of antiracist demonstrations, international conferences, and consciousness-raising workshops, Black Germans embraced vernacular culture and aesthetics that privileged the everyday, opening up new modes of resistance. In the process, they reimagined a better world that decentered whiteness and anti-Blackness.
Black Germans’ wake work has served as both a corrective and a disturbance, particularly in a nation that experiences what Ann Stoler refers to as “colonial aphasia.” For Stoler, colonial aphasia describes white Europeans’ dissociation with their colonial pasts. With aphasia, Europeans obscure knowledge and dismember the past, leading to incomprehension and unspeakableness. Indeed, Black Germans’ wake work sought to rectify the wrongs of the past and publicly called attention to the afterlives of German colonialism in the everyday lives of Germans and how it reaches far beyond Germany’s Black diaspora.
The emergence of the modern Black German movement signaled the first public community-based effort at pursuing wake work as both a theory and a praxis. The movement resulted in the establishment of two grassroots cultural-political associations in the mid-1980s: the Initiative Schwarzer Deutscher (ISD)—or the Initiative of Black Germans, which has since been renamed the Initiative of Black People in Germany—and the feminist organization Afrodeutsche Frauen (ADEFRA)—aka Afro-German Women and now known as Black Women in Germany. This moment signified a new stage in diasporic activism because Black German quotidian intellectuals decided to no longer live in silence and invisibility. Reclaiming their place within the nation, Black Germans created local ISD and ADEFRA chapters across the Germanies in cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leipzig and Dresden. These local chapters gave Black Germans opportunities to forge new kinships with one another and revive their diasporic consciousness through “thinking Black” and learning, reading, and discussing diverse Black histories. As quotidian intellectuals, they pushed their intersectional concerns about oppression, racism, and white supremacy to the fore by providing new terms and knowledge. They advanced new diasporic traditions such as anti-racist conferences, writing seminars, and/or Black hair workshops in a white European nation that had long both othered and ignored them.
Black Germans’ wake work relied on diasporic resources from the United States that offered them ideas for their own events, including their annual Black History Month (BHM) in Berlin. The first BHM in Germany in February 1990 celebrated the work of Black Germans and African American activists who centered Black internationalist themes such as South African history, civil rights activism in the US, or Black victims during the Nazi period. ISD-Berlin members also coordinated with other local diasporic and migrant activists and organizations. Some of those individuals and organizations included South African writer and artist Vusi Mchunu and the organization Immigrant Political Forum (IPF). Moreover, Berlin was a major city that served as the site for global intersections and interconnections. The creation of BHM in Berlin illustrated Black Germans’ conscious ability to foster transnational linkages with their diasporic kin within and beyond German borders during a time of rising xenophobia and racism in both Germanies before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
One of the main goals that Black Germans had for BHM was to challenge Germany’s willful ignorance about racism while also unearthing different Black histories. At multiple BHMs, BHM committee members noted in their programs that there were often limited opportunities to learn and explore Black history, especially colonialism, in Germany. They also recognized that entrenched discrimination against people of African descent endured in Germany and elsewhere. From the history of slavery to the roots of Islam in Africa and films on Marcus Garvey, the BHMs centered Blackness, allowing Black Germans to produce and disseminate Blackened knowledge. The organizers of the BHMs made sure there were also Black-only events that gave Germany’s Black community a space to be, socialize, and learn without the worries of the white gaze and white hegemony.
Black Germans’ wake work during BHM positioned intellectualism and Black culture in the everyday. Annual BHM events were acts of recovery that rendered Blackness legible and acknowledged how the past influenced the present. At the 1990 and 1991 BHMs, for example, ISD-Berlin co-founder and member, John Kantara presented a panel entitled “Afro-German History.” In it, he tried to overturn the common view that Black German history began after 1945 by demonstrating that Black people lived in Germany since the eighteenth century. In his presentations, he offered details about Anton Wilhem Amo, a Black German Enlightenment philosopher, who studied and taught in eighteenth-century Germany. Just last year Mohrenstrasse—which translated to “Moor Street”—was changed to Anton Wilhem Amo Strasse due to the activism of Black Germans. This was important wake work that recognized the dead and no longer permitted people of African descent to be redacted and violently displaced from German history. But these events also reflect the ethics of care about their brothers and sisters (in life and death) in the larger Black diaspora.
Black German quotidian intellectuals’ ethics of care served as a form of advocacy. They pushed white Germans to offer historical amends for colonial atrocities inflicted on Africans in German Southwest Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania). Beginning in November 1884 with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Berlin Conference, which resulted in the carving up of Africa among European colonizer nations, the German Empire used colonial administrators and scientists to collect human skulls and fossils. During the Herero and Nama genocide from 1904 to 1908, German colonial forces sent more than 3,000 Nama and Herero skulls back to Germany for study at universities and institutions, including the Charité in Berlin. These skulls and bones were also displayed in museums or ended up in private collections across the nation. In the Wilhelmine period (1890-1914) Germans utilized those bones to support their racist claims of Black inferiority and to advance their version of white supremacy. German colonialism also dictated the parameters of German identity, citizenship, and belonging, by normalizing whiteness across diverse spaces and times. Attending to Germany’s colonial legacy revolves around Black Germans and other Black activists’ efforts at repatriation. For them, repatriation entails watching over and honoring the dead as well as providing them with proper burials. The return of stolen bones also serves as a form of healing after their violent departure.
Efforts to return Namibian bones and to emphasize Germany’s colonial legacy constitute wake work that radically reimagines Africa and Germany, flipping the script of who is primitive and who is civilized and challenging the idea of what Sylvia Wynter refers to as the Western bourgeoisie “Man.” This wake work offers restitution in a variety of forms that center the dead and care for the living. Black German and other diasporic activists recognize that Germany’s current attitudes, institutions, and structures were built on a legacy of racism that German colonialism shaped, and they see continuities from the colonial period to National Socialism and into the modern times, especially with the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD). Working with Berlin Postkolonial e.V., a human rights organization that pushes for public reckoning with German colonialism, Black Germans and other Black activists organize walking tours and events around Berlin that explore German colonialism in the quotidian now. Black German activists such as Josephine Apraku, Joshua Kwesi Aikins, and Israel Kaunatjike are involved with the Berlin Postkolonial. Tanzanian activist Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a co-founder of Berlin Postkolonial, continues to push for the restitution of human remains that were stolen during the colonial period, especially from the Maji Maji rebellion in Tanzania from 1905 to 1907.
These examples demonstrate how wake work has been integral to the work that Black Germans and others in Germany’s Black diaspora have pursued for years. Their restorative activist work disrupts the status quo and challenges white Germans to interrogate their complicity in interlocking systems of oppression, dispossession, and genocide. Their work counteracts white supremacy’s stranglehold in the nation. Black German quotidian intellectuals have sought to remedy centuries of entrenched German discourses, practices, and symbols that produce and reproduce Black subjects’ negation. Ultimately, Black Germans’ wake work is transformative and imaginative, offering manifold possibilities in the present and in the future.