‘White Rebels in Black’: An Interview with Priscilla Layne

In today’s post, Kira Thurman, Assistant Professor of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan, interviews Priscilla Layne about her new book White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture (University of Michigan Press, 2018). Layne is Associate Professor of German and Adjunct Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After completing her BA in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago, where she concentrated on German and English literature, Layne spent three years in Germany. As an exchange student, she studied at the Freie Universität and Humboldt Universität in Berlin. From 2003 to 2004, she spent one year as a Fulbright TA teaching English at the Werner-von-Siemens Gymnasium in Zehlendorf. Afterwards Layne received a scholarship from the Study Foundation of the Berlin Parliament, which allowed her to conduct a qualitative analysis of the leftist skinhead scene in Berlin/Brandenburg. During her three years in Germany, she also gained some professional experience during two internships: one with the Ebersbach publication house in Berlin and one working as a translator with the Deutsche Welle in Bonn. In 2005, Layne continued her studies at the University of California at Berkeley where she received her MA in 2006 and her PhD in 2011.

Kira Thurman: Your book, White Rebels in Black, addresses something that at first glance appears benign but in actuality is insidious: white Germans’ hearty embrace of African American popular culture after 1945. What have you found to be problematic about white Germans’ fascination with African American popular culture?

Priscilla Layne: My interest in Germans’ fascination with African American popular culture began when I noticed during my graduate studies that while white artists made frequent references to African American culture and history in their texts, usually there was no acknowledgement of Black Germans. I found this odd, because I felt that if white Germans truly were interested in the experience of Black people and fighting racism, why wouldn’t they just start at home and listen to the Black Germans in their midst? This made me suspicious. I began to question why white Germans would be so invested in African Americans’ struggle and so blind to the struggle of the Black citizens around them. The process of writing my dissertation and then this book led me to conclude that 1) Following World War II, white Germans liked to focus on African American culture because that allowed them to condemn racism without acknowledging their own implications in racism or their own white privilege (Sabine Broeck discusses this in her essay “The Erotics of African American Endurance”). 2) Part of white Germans’ interest in African American struggles came from their elevating African Americans to a particular status of cool to which they aspired. 3) This association between Blackness and coolness did not allow for an engagement with Blackness that recognized the full spectrum and humanity of Black people. 4) When Blackness is posed as “Other than” German, even if it is meant in a positive way, this is not only essentializing, but also negates the existence of Black Germans. 5) Black Germans often bare the brunt of this white German Afro-Americanophilia, because they are either seen as “not Black enough” to be interesting or to experience racism, or not German because they are Black.

Thurman: Your book examines both white and Black Germans’ usages of Black popular culture. Why was it important to you to incorporate Black Germans into your book?

Layne: It was important for me to include Black Germans’ perspective for a few different reasons. First of all, I am not a Black German. I am an African American of Caribbean descent. Growing up in the US with Caribbean parents made me quite familiar with what it’s like to be considered “not Black enough” for some people, but definitely “too Black” for the white majority. This is what resonated with me when I read Black German texts. That being said, although I can relate to how the construction of Blackness in different contexts can influence how people read you, I have never lived in Germany for longer than a few years and I don’t have to have the day-to-day struggle of living in that society. So I would never want to speak for Black Germans. Furthermore, I’m aware that in the Diaspora, African Americans often have a lot of capital as our history and culture is most recognizable around the world. And African American academics kind of have a monopoly on the topic of Black German Studies, within the academy at least, because in the US we have more opportunities to enter the academy and get full-time positions – a feat that is quite difficult for Black German scholars. Analyzing the poetry and autobiographies of Black German men gave me a chance to introduce their perspective on this issue, so that their writing and their views are acknowledged as an important part of this debate.

Regarding their appropriation of Black popular culture, I believe they sometimes see it as inspiring; as a connection to the larger diaspora that can help them deal with local struggles. Black popular culture can also offer certain tools to help articulate their experience, like music or vocabulary, that might not exist in German culture. But Black popular culture can also be a burden. I address this in my analysis of Philipp Khabo Köpsell’s poetry. He discusses how being read as African American or being expected to think and behave like African Americans is alienating for him as a Black German. While I think Black popular culture brings a lot of positive things for Black Germans, in the end, they have a unique experience that they want to be recognized. And of course, when a white German assumes that a Black German is African American or that they necessarily relate to African American culture, that is essentializing.

Thurman: The central framing of White Rebels in Black concerns the power of hegemonic masculinity. All of the artists and protagonists you discuss in your book from famous white German novelist Günther Grass to contemporary Afro-German avant-garde artist Marc Brandenburg are men. Why did you focus on masculinity instead of, say, Black women in Germany?

Layne: This was initially by chance. I didn’t set out to write a book about masculinity. First, my doctoral advisor, Deniz Göktürk, pointed out to me that all of the texts I was working with were by or about men. Then I started reflecting about how a lot of the scholarship and aesthetic texts people know of are by or about Black German women. So I decided it could be an interesting opportunity to focus on masculinity and reflect on what Black German men uniquely bring to these conversations. Focusing on men also allowed me to get away from the common narratives about Black men and white German women, which are a frequent subject of discussion when it comes to postwar issues about race. Finally, as a feminist and someone interested in Gender Studies, I find it important to consider issues of masculinity and the ways in which hegemonic masculinity harms both women and men.

Thurman: In your fourth chapter, “Two Black Boys Look at the White Boy,” you flip the script and return the gaze. Instead of writing about white Germans’ fascinations with Black popular culture, you write about African American men’s fascination with Germany. In particular, you focus on Paul Beatty’s hilarious book, Slumberland, and the riotous rock and roll musical, Passing Strange, both of which were written by African Americans and feature African American protagonists traveling to Germany in the 1980s. Why did you want to include this perspective, and what do you think it brings to our conversations on Germany and the Black Atlantic?

Layne: The idea for including this perspective came from my own experiences in Germany. When I first went to Germany, white Germans projected so many things onto me based on their assumptions about Blackness. It was really frustrating. It felt like they couldn’t see me as an individual because their heads were clouded by stereotypes from media images. So I wanted to explore how African American men have addressed the same issue. Furthermore, this chapter allowed me to challenge the idea of Blackness being always already cool. I liked the idea of texts that depict African Americans who find their own culture conforming and who want to travel abroad to rebel and find something different.

Thurman: In her work on Blackness in Liverpool, England, Jacqueline Nassy Brown is quite critical of African American hegemony across the Black diaspora. She asks, “when does the unrelenting presence of Black America actually become oppressive, even as it inspires?” How do you think your work offers a response to that question?

Layne: I stress in my teaching and research that the Black Diaspora is a beautiful spectrum that contains all kinds of people and cultures and experiences. I find it very damaging when we try to impose some kind of universal understanding of Blackness onto people, so writing about the Black experience in Germany helps me address that. In my teaching, I like to expose American students to this topic so that they can understand that there are Black people all over the world, there are many different ways of being Black, and it is important to educate yourself about Black people’s struggles in different parts of the world, to learn from our similarities and differences.

Thurman: You close your book by reflecting on the power of Afrofuturism as a source of Black Diasporic creativity and activism in Germany. What drew you to using it as an analytical lens? Do you think you’ll continue to investigate it moving forward?

Layne: I came to Afrofuturism through my engagement with Köpsell’s poetry. He has a few poems that take up Afrofuturist ideas and I found this exciting because it was a different way of engaging with issues like race and identity. A lot of other Black German writing tends to be autobiographic or deal with the quotidian, so I was very intrigued that an author would do something totally different by incorporating fantasy. Encountering Afrofuturism in Köpsell’s work has actually provided the basis for my current book project: Out of this World: Afro-German Afrofuturism, in which I use an Afrofuturist lens to interpret the works of an additional five Black German authors.

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Kira Thurman

Kira Thurman is Assistant Professor of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. A classically trained pianist who grew up in Vienna, she earned her PhD in history from the University of Rochester, with a minor in musicology through the Eastman School of Music. Together with colleagues in Europe and the United States, Thurman runs Black Central Europe, a site that offers primary sources on Black German history and hosts a digital map of black migration to Germany and Austria since the medieval era.