German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture

Afro-German during the Third Reich. Photo: Propaganda-Pravada.
Afro-German during the Third Reich (Photo: Propaganda-Pravada).

Black German Studies has focused on women’s writing over the past thirty years. Priscilla Layne’s White Rebels in Black is a welcome addition to the field that turns our attention towards intersections of masculinity and race. White Rebels in Black builds upon the critical scholarship that has shown us that Blackness and Germanness are intertwined from an early history, rather than a recent phenomenon. In her book, Layne argues that rebel men have appropriated Black culture to better understand themselves in postwar Germany.

Using a cultural studies analysis, Layne engages film, music, poetry, and fiction to analyze how Black identification plays a role in Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the Nazi past). This book focuses on small moments of Blackness in postwar German literature that have been overlooked by German Studies scholars. Layne analyzes where Blackness comes up, setting it not in the background, but in the forefront of the action. She explains, “So if white German artists choose to engage with black culture in their works, it is our job to interrogate what those choices are trying to tell us about the characters and the texts” (97). The book takes a more chronological approach and begins with the white authors first. She looks at white Germans, African Americans and Black Germans in her analysis of the various ways Black identification leads to the protagonists’ view of normative masculinity, which is more of an examination of how the white protagonists feel safe around their performance of Black masculinity (2). This chronology is effective in seeing how the treatment of Blackness does not change over time, but it also has its limits.

In the introduction, Layne claims that Blackness brings cultural cache when the protagonists feel outside of their communities. For her, much of this identification comes from leftover guilt from the Holocaust (2). She explains the problem about Blackness and German identity thusly: “My critique of this association between white German male rebels and black culture is that blackness is posited as always already outside of German culture and in opposition to German culture, foreclosing the possibility of being both black and German” (2). Layne explains that the opposite of Blackness is not Germanness although it has been treated as such in the postwar moment. In chapter one, “Who’s Afraid of the Black Cook?,” Layne evaluates Blackness in the classic Der Bleichtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959) by Günter Grass. Layne analyzes the infantilized state of the protagonist, Oskar, as he rejects white German male identity (and the weight of the Nazi past) by refusing to grow up and escaping through playing jazz. Most importantly, in this chapter, Layne investigates the Black Cook childhood rhyme. Layne is the first to read the Black cook as racial (45). The Black cook childhood game ends with the children singing: “Is the Black Cook there? Yes, yes, yes! There she is, there she is / the old witch from Africa” (42). She reads the novel further into the life of author Günter Grass in order to understand the author’s attempt at Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Layne understands the lack of dealing with the past for author and protagonist as skewed because they only acknowledge themselves as victims (50).

The next chapter, “Waiting for My Band,” discusses Die Unberaten (The Unadvised, 1963) by Thomas Valentin and the television film loosely based on it by Peter Zadek, Ich bin ein Elefant, Madame (I am an Elephant, Madam, 1968). Layne describes the historical mood involving student protests, identification with the Third World, and how jazz was counterculture for white German youth (53). Music in the film leads her to analyze the following questions: “Whose culture must/can we inherit? Can we choose our own legacy? Whose children are we?” (73). Chapter three features two major works of the East German post-war period, Ulrich Plenzdorf’s novel Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sorrows of Young W., 1972) and Michael Schorr’s film Schultze gets the Blues (2003). Layne provides a substantial background on East Germany for a non-German audience and explains that Black pop culture provided an alternative to masculinity in the German Democratic Republic (94). In Die neuen Leiden des jungen W., Layne points out the protagonists’ switch from calling Black people Neger to Afrikaner, noting that Blackness becomes African instead of anything else. Layne further points out that the slippage in language is lost in the English translation of the book (95). In Schultze gets the Blues, polka music is contrasted with zydeco (called “Negermusik” in the film). Layne explains the protagonists’ draw to playing zydeco as an escape out of Germany (111). Schultze leaves for Louisiana, and Layne explains that by “Exposing himself to this black woman perhaps Schultze recognizes his own whiteness” (113). Schultze gets his Black experience in hanging out with the African American woman. He gains masculinity in his visit to the U.S. and the Black woman he spends time with acts as a proxy wife for the one he did not have in Germany (117).

The subsequent chapters focus on Black authorship. “Two Black Boys look at the White Boy” focuses on Paul Beatty’s Slumberland and the musical Passing Strange. Both works feature African American musicians (a DJ and drummer, respectively) who leave Los Angeles for Berlin. The male protagonists slip into stereotypes and watch as other people push stereotypes upon them as they navigate daily life in Berlin. For Layne, Slumberland is less successful at its treatment of Blackness than Passing Strange (146). Layne explains it best:

“…Ultimately, Passing Strange’s exploration of constructed versus ‘real’ identities does a better job of exploding categories and breaking essentialist expectations for both men and women. In contrast, because Ferguson’s goal to become unmarked is made possible by his male and class privilege, Slumberland liberates its protagonist while keeping black women imprisoned in stereotypical roles” (121).

“The Future is Unwritten” draws on Black German male authors. In this final chapter, Layne discusses American dominance in the Diaspora for Black Germans. Layne uses Fatima El-Tayeb and Michelle Wright’s analysis of diaspora that includes histories beyond the Middle Passage and instead include Black German identities. Here, Layne uses works of Black Germans Charly Graf, Günter Kaufmann, Hans Massaquoi, and Philipp Khabo Köpsell. In particular, Layne calls Köpsell’s interest in Afro-futurism a way to escape African American dominance in the diaspora. Layne calls Afro-futurism a “utopian imagination of what a more positive future might hold for Africa and African diasporic peoples” (186). This last chapter includes Black authors in scholarship to move the conversation of Blackness and Germanness forward, while previous scholars of this period have failed to do so (192). The inclusion of Black German voices in dialogue with white German canonical texts is valuable and importantly places Black German material in the mainstream. In her conclusion, Layne discusses how identifying with African American culture lead white Germans to a false mentality that they are colorblind, even though this ignored the experiences of Black Germans (195). Blackness is not always outside Germany, and the texts she investigates reveal how racism remains alive in Germany today.

The book begins with white German authors and the notion of white rebels is implicated in the book’s title. Because Black authorship ended the book, I wonder if there could be another way to expand the title. I worry that scholars of the Black Diaspora might not reach for this book because the title does not make it clear that Black voices are also highlighted in the work. This small detail does not diminish the book’s contribution of highlighting the multiple ways Blackness is present in German Studies. Layne provided expansive evidence and multigenre research on the appropriation of Black culture and masculinity in postwar Germany. Layne reminds us to pay attention to Blackness in German literature, which will hopefully shift the way we talk about Blackness in German Studies. In this persuasive take, Layne combines traditional “canon” texts with newer works by Black Germans. These discussions provide a great analysis and way to move German Studies forward.

Layne interjects meta-comments at moments in the book that speak to her role as a researcher-writer. In one such comment, Layne states,  “Whenever I mention that this chapter begins with an analysis of Günter Grass’s three-part novel The Tin Drum, the most common reaction is surprise. What does Grass’s epic novel have to do with blackness?” (22). This quote explains the pushback she received while writing the book. Namely, for so many Germanists, Blackness is invisible. This touches the day-to-day struggle and microaggressions of those of us researching race in German Studies. Hopefully scholars can call into question their own biases and put aside their aversion to accepting Blackness into the field.

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Jamele Watkins

Jamele Watkins is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of German Studies at Stanford University. She researches and teaches on issues of race and gender in contemporary German performance, film, and literature. She is currently working on a book project that focuses on Black internationalism and the solidarity campaigns for Angela Davis in the GDR. She completed her doctoral studies in German at UMass Amherst and also studied at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, and Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg. Follow her on Twitter @jamwatk.