Thursday, January 6, 2011

Inaugural Workshop Report

Transcending Diaspora: Whiteness, Performativity, and the Politics of the Body
December 3-4, 2010
WWU Muenster, Germany

Report by Holger Droessler (Harvard University)

The history of Black people in Germany remains a rather underdeveloped subject in contemporary research. In recent years, however, a diverse range of scholars working in various disciplines have devoted increased attention to the historical experiences and present-day lives of people of color living in Germany.  On December 3-4, 2010 a group of young scholars working on the history and present of the Black Diaspora in Germany convened at the University of Muenster for the Inaugural Workshop of a new academic network funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Beside two keynote lectures from renowned experts on the topic, four members of the Young Scholars Network “Black Diaspora and Germany” presented from their current research projects. The first workshop “Transcending Diaspora: Whiteness, Performativity, and the Politics of the Body” was designed to address theoretical questions in the study of Black people in Germany such as the adequacy of the concept ‘Diaspora’ itself.

In their opening remarks, network founder CHRISTINA OPPEL, network chair SILKE STROH, and associated professor MARIA DIEDRICH (all WWU Muenster) stressed the importance of having an institutional basis for young scholars interested in the experiences of Black people in Germany. They went on to point out the need for interdisciplinary exchange and highlighted the network’s critical political responsibility in accounting for present and past inequalities. The network consists of fifteen permanent members based in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States representing academic disciplines as varied as history, sociology, (Black) German, (African) American Studies, and ethnology. In a series of six workshops over three years the Young Scholars Network aims to bring together scholars from various disciplines and advance scholarship on the history and present of the Black Diaspora in Germany.

The first presentation by CHRISTINA OPPEL (WWU Muenster) addressed the question whether “Diaspora” validly assumes exclusivity and hegemony in theorizations of Black transnationalism. Taking on its purely enabling function for Afro-German experiences, Oppel assessed silencing mechanisms and forms of ‘speaking for Others’ with a view to their impact on Black agency and the status of the Afro-German subject in a German context. Based on a close reading of Marie Nejar’s life memoir Mach nicht so traurige Augen, weil du ein Negerlein bist (2007) Oppel first illustrated the problematic legacy of white authorization of Black experiences and relations of power. Co-authored by a white German ‘autobiographer’, Nejar’s biography raises the question of the relationship between narrative text and Nejar’s own voice. Presented as a dissensual, yet non-challenging Bildungsroman, Nejar’s coming-of-age as an Afro-German child actress in the Third Reich and as Schlager singer in postwar Germany was geared towards the white German mainstream market as an alternative Holocaust narrative that encourages white ‘literary humanitarianism’. In a second step, Oppel investigated counterhegemonic strategies that negotiate and reject diasporic association as a means to claim Germanness and selfhood and thus problematized definitions of Diaspora membership from outside or by Afro-Germans themselves. Taking these critical diasporic negotiations seriously, she argued, a glance ‘beyond’ the diasporic offers valuable perspectives to reassess Diaspora from a critical perspective.

The question of power and agency in defining diasporic experiences also played an important part in the second presentation by FRANK MEHRING (FU Berlin). Taking Lutz Beckmann’s installation “RE-EDUCATION” as a starting point, Mehring called for a new critical look at postwar re-education efforts by the U.S. occupation authorities, foregrounding the often-neglected role of race. His talk addressed the nexus between re-education, the specific functions of Americanization, self-Americanization, and multi-racial tolerance in postwar Germany. Asking about the underlying reasons, cultural assumptions and socio-political integration of Afro-German children, Mehring compared the visual narratives in German films such as Robert Stemmle’s Toxi (1952) with articles (and photos) by the EBONY staff writer Hans J. Massaquoi. German national identity, Mehring concluded, came to be constructed in part by instrumentalizing Blackness and suppressing racial indeterminacy in postwar West German society. By complicating the alleged success story of democratization, he suggested that the issue of misrecognition in the case of Afro-Germans challenges us to redirect the analytical flashlight towards issues of failed integration, imagined reeducation, and gaps in social justice.

In the first keynote lecture by ALEXANDER WEHELIYE (Northwestern University, Evanston, USA), visual markers of race figured prominently. Drawing from his forthcoming book, Weheliye put W.E.B. Du Bois’s and Walter Benjamin’s oeuvres into a virtual dialogue to illustrate their critique of modernity understood as scientific progress. In his discussion of Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro and Benjamin’s writings on photography and anthropology, Weheliye identified several common  themes in the work of these two ‘marginal’ critics of Eurocentric modernity: liminality, urbanity, the colonial roots of modernity, and, perhaps most significantly, their common view that modern science hides the inescapable centrality of chance in human life. By connecting Du Bois and Benjamin in suggestive ways, Weheliye’s talk highlighted processes of diasporic identification across the Atlantic and raised the question of the model function of Jewish conceptions of Diaspora for People of Color.

The second day of the workshop was opened by TINA CAMPT (Duke University, Durham, USA) who showed a series of unpublished photographs of Afro-Germans growing up in Nazi Germany. Borrowing from Harvey Young, Campt addressed the concept of Diaspora in its tension between displacement and stasis. Like Weheliye, Campt stressed the fundamental ambiguity of visual culture in articulating racial and national belonging. Attentive to the haptic quality of her photographic sources, Campt argued for an understanding of Diaspora as a creative act of dwelling, as a form of home-making in the fluidity of lived experience. Diaspora, according to Campt, is not merely founded on collective suffering, but, crucially, also on shared experiences in the new places of dwelling. After the talk, participants discussed the political stakes involved in foregrounding the vernacular photography of Black life in 1930s and 40s Germany as a counterweight to the much-analyzed iconicity of Holocaust images.

Following the inspiring keynote lectures, two network members concluded the workshop with presentations on possible theoretical alternatives to the concept of Diaspora in the study of Black people in Germany. SILKE STROH (WWU Muenster) drew from her research in Postcolonial Studies and the history of the Black Diaspora in Britain to explore the concept of ‘transperipherality.’ According to Stroh, transperipherality describes attempts to identify parallels between histories of marginalization and violence experienced by different social and racial groups across the globe, as well as parallel strategies of resistance, and efforts to develop solidarity and strategic alignments between such groups. Stroh cited the transatlantic career of Afro-Caribbean writer and activist George Padmore in the 1930s as an example of transperipheral writing and activism. Despite some analytical shortcomings of the concept (such as the danger of reifying center-periphery dichotomies and glossing over internal conflicts among groups defined as ‘peripheral’), Stroh concluded on a tentatively optimistic note as to the potential usefulness of transperipherality to address and compare historical experiences of racialized groups usually thought of as isolated from each other.

In the final presentation, HOLGER DROESSLER (Harvard University, Cambridge, USA) proposed another analytical category to supplement the concept of Diaspora in the study of Black people in Germany: the body. Taking the corporeal turn in the humanities as his point of departure, Droessler differentiated between the physical, discursive, and identitarian dimension of the body. The racialization, gendering, and ableing of bodies, he went on to argue, distributed life chances in unequal ways. Slavery, colonialism, and the Holocaust are merely the most blatant examples for the dehumanizing effects of racial body politics. More recent examples for the centrality of the body as an analytical category in the study of Black people in Germany include exoticizing representations of Africans and Afro-Germans in the media coverage of the soccer world championships in South Africa in summer 2010 and the renaissance of biological racism in genetic research. Droessler concluded that paying more attention to the materiality of the body would not do away with the category of Diaspora altogether, but rather add another important angle from which to study the experience of Black people in Germany and beyond.

In the concluding roundtable discussion a consensus emerged among the network members, associated scholars, and audience members that the category of Diaspora remains indispensable to studying the experience of Black people in Germany. However, more adequate definitions need to be found that attend to the changing relations among members of the Black Diaspora and problematize the distribution between predominantly white academics and Black historical agents. The lived experiences of diasporic belonging has to be kept in focus in applying the concept. The second workshop of the Young Scholars Network Black Diaspora and Germany scheduled for April 15-16, 2011 in Erlangen will address the issue of gender in Black German diasporic contexts.