Rethinking Black History Month in Germany

Karneval der Kulturen, Berlin 2012 (Credit: Alemanha para Brasileiros, Flickr)

In Britain, Canada, and the United States, Black History Month (BHM) events are widely well-known and are celebrated annually. But Black History Month also has roots in Germany. This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the annual Black History Month celebrations in Berlin, which became a fixture in the Black German community. Started by members in the Black German organization, ISD or the Initiative of Black Germans (Initiative Schwarze Deutsche), the celebrations began in 1990. Black History Month represented a clear manifestation of African diasporic politics and solidarity, particularly with themes that ranged from Black German history to African literature in Europe to South African Apartheid to U.S. Civil Rights activism. BHM committee members, who included members from ISD and other minority organizations, actively made these events not only cultural and political, but also intellectual. They were events at which Black Germans, Africans, African Americans as well as other People of Color from Brazil and Britain (to name a few), produced and disseminated knowledge and where attendees learned about the diversity of African diasporic histories in Europe and elsewhere. As a result, BHM represented a culture of everyday intellectualism that marked Black Germans as thinkers and doers. Starting in Berlin and spreading to Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Munich, these annual events emboldened Black Germans to pursue a spatial politic that showed their resilience and agency and rooted them in both the German nation and the global diaspora.

The BHMs, along with the Black German movement more generally, brought a variety of people together from different backgrounds. Black Germans were often scattered across white neighborhoods in West and East Germany with limited or no contact with other Black people or relatives. They were often individuals of mixed-race descent with ancestry in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and the United States. They were also sometimes non-Black People of Color, like Asian Germans, who envisioned Black as a political identity for solidarity against racism. The BHMs also helped Black Germans socialize and forge connections with their diverse counterparts and others in Germany.

Black Germans’ organization of Berlin’s BHMs served as a form of grassroots diasporic activism that engendered new cultural and political practices and made Blackness visible within the white national polity. Advancing their activism, ISD’s BHMs quickly became a source of continuity, sociability, and kinship within the Black German community. Reflecting the goals and perspectives of members within the movement, these annual events also formatively shaped Black German claim-making, community building, and knowledge production, providing an avenue through which to acknowledge the contributions of Black Germans in the past and present.

BHM events, together with other activities and organizations, shaped Berlin as the center of the Black movement in Germany.1 Berlin was a major city that served as the site of global intersections of culture and politics. In fact, the 1980s brought writers, performers, and filmmakers from across the African diaspora to Germany, though this is not to suggest that earlier diasporic connections and exchanges did not exist. In the 1980s, however, a larger number of individuals of African descent, especially from Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Namibia, Kenya, and Sierra Leone, wrote, lived, worked, and survived in Berlin. As Black German writer and activist Philipp Koepsell argues, “It was the activism, solidarity work, and leadership of African students that created the structures and the fertile ground for a modern Black German movement to evolve.”2 African American artists, filmmakers, and writers were also prominent in the city. In this way, Black German activists and intellectuals tapped into and built upon earlier grassroots diasporic networks already in place in Berlin.

Black Germans’ practice of grassroots diasporic activism also relied on “diasporic resources” from the United States to create the BHM. Indeed, they modeled the BHMs after African American historian Carter G. Woodson’s “Negro History Week” in 1926. Almost all of the Berlin Black History Month programs from 1990-2000 refer to Woodson. ISD-Berlin members, Danny Hafke, Roy Wichert, and Mike Reichel, along with African American Patricia Elcock, organized the first one in 1990, which lasted about a week in February. Their efforts must also be understood as a response to the rising tide of xenophobia and racism in both Germanies before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the need to emphasize the existence of people of African descent in Germany, challenging their erasure. Throughout the years, new and old faces joined the BHM committee. Beginning in 1992, the BHM celebrations ranged from several weeks to a little over a month in length with a variety of minority activists and groups involved. With these events, the organizers shared their willingness to connect with people and traditions across the diaspora.

One of the main goals of the BHMs was to challenge Germany’s amnesia about racism and unearth and share different African diasporic cultures and histories, a point often expressed in the BHM programs. They did so by focusing on often overlooked and forgotten narratives about Black Germany and Black Europe. Some early panels on South African Apartheid featured prominently. Moreover, they also tackled the themes of civil unrest and inequality in Mozambique, the Southern Sahara, Nigeria, and Somalia, demonstrating their interests in other countries on the African continent. They promoted the acceptance and circulation of their ideas and used them to offer a more complex image of the struggle to end Apartheid and to change public perceptions about Africa. Black History Month activities advanced ISD’s aim of employing history as a medium for diasporic recovery, consciousness-raising, and critical exchanges, and signaled that Germany was also a site for Blackness and diasporic politics.

Undeniably, these annual events promoted Black internationalist perspectives that emphasized the contours of Africa and its diaspora. The BHMs enabled Black Germans to produce “corrective narratives,” encourage and promote the study of all kinds of Black history along with public outreach, and engage in intellectual activism. They were also intellectual and pedagogical sites that sought to enlighten the Black German community and the general public about the presence of individuals across the diaspora in Germany and elsewhere. Black German activists and intellectuals defined their place and laid claim to public spaces for Black thought. They imparted knowledge and showcased their work through historical lectures, art exhibitions, performances, poetry readings, film screenings, theater productions, panel discussions, and children’s activities–all of which had both informative and entertaining functions. By inhabiting a variety of spaces and centering different types of Blackness, they refused to allow German racism to displace or silence them. The annual celebrations also showed how much intellectual work Black Germans invested into them and signified how much their everyday intellectual culture constituted part of their grassroots diasporic activism.

The BHMs were acts of solidarity and affirmation that sought to empower and encourage Black German organizers and participants. Black Germans opened activities to their white compatriots and a larger public for a modest fee that changed from year to year. BHM celebrations also demonstrate how the annual event sustained Black Germans’ antiracist efforts and provided them with a sense of belonging, especially among their Black compatriots and other people of color within and beyond Germany. Indeed, Black Germans’ involvement with the events facilitated the shaping of identities, perspectives, and activism in their larger movement.

By 2001, the Berlin BHM stopped due to a number of issues, including funding. But in 2009, the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy and the German Federal Agency for Civic Education hosted one, once again, in Berlin. Since 2011, the BHMs have taken place at the Werkstatt der Kulturen, a convention center and community space that offers diverse multicultural programming and activities. Though no longer sponsored by ISD-Berlin, these events still feature Black German activists and intellectuals as well as other antiracist organizations and continue to foreground global African diasporic themes. This year Werkstatt der Kulturen has collaborated with Ballhaus Naunynstraße, a post-migrant and theater hub, Each One, Teach One, an African diasporic library and community-based center, and Savvy Contemporary, an artistic public community-orientated space. Much like other BHMs across the diaspora, the ones in Berlin reflect a rich legacy of Black German diasporic activism, intellectualism, and internationalism, in which they produced spaces for themselves, their community, and others.

  1. Nigel Asher, “Die Geschichte des Black History Month in Deutschland,” in Spiegel Blicke: Perspektiven Schwarzer Bewegung in Deutschland, ed. Denise Bergold-Caldwell, Laura Digoh, Hadija Haruna-Oelker, Christelle Nkwendja-Ngnoubaumdjum, Camilla Ridha, and Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly (Berlin: Orlanda Frauenverlag, 2016), 46.
  2. Philipp Khabo Koepsell, “Literature and Activism,” in Arriving in the Future: Stories of Home and Exile: An Anthology of Poetry and Creative Writing by Black Writers in Germany, ed. Asoka Esuruoso and Philipp Khabo Koepsell (Berlin: epubli, 2014), 42.
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Tiffany Florvil

Tiffany Florvil is a historian of the modern and late modern period in Europe, especially social movements, gender and sexuality, emotions, and the African diaspora. She is the author of 'Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement.' Follow her on Twitter @tnflorvil.