Borderless and Brazen: UNC Explores Black German Culture During German Campus Week
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill held its annual German Campus Week on the theme of “Transnational Science Fictions: Black German Culture and the Cultural Exchange between Germany and the U.S.” The week, held Nov. 14-18, 2016, was sponsored by the Center for European Studies, Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures, Institute for African American Research and Department of Dramatic Art at UNC, as well as the German Embassy. Special events included film screenings, lectures by prominent scholars and even a German new wave dance party.
These diverse themes and approaches were united by their engagement with the topic of race in German society. Priscilla Layne, professor of German and African and Afro-American studies and coordinator of the week’s events, was attracted to the topic because of her own research on black German culture.
“I think it’s important that people recognize that our notion of German culture as dominated by homogeneity and whiteness is inaccurate,” Layne explained. “In general, Germany is a much more multicultural country than many might think.”
Expanding on the theme of race and culture, Paul Dobryden of the University of Virginia compared imagery in musician Janelle Monáe’s music video for “Many Moons” with that in the 1927 German film Metropolis in his lecture “Android Divas: Janelle Monáe and Metropolis.” Dobryden examined the music video as an example of what he referred to as “retro-Afro-futurism,” the use of vintage science fiction tropes to explore contemporary values surrounding race.
“The song casts the android Cindi as a fugitive slave on the run from a mob of bounty hunters wielding chain saws and electro-daggers,” Dobryden explained, “The song translates… the history of American slavery into science fictional terms.”
German Campus Week was preceded by a related exhibition in the FedEx Global Education Center from Nov. 2 to 16, 2016, on black German history, Homestory Deutschland. The exhibit, on loan from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., began with a description of Germany’s earliest contact with Africa, when the Brandenburg-African Company shipped Africans to Hamburg, and continued through the present day.
“When I arrived in Germany, I had to conceive of myself as a black person for the first time and I had to deal with the fact that one is constantly judged differently,” explained Ama Pokua von Pereira, a lawyer and migrants-rights activist currently living in Hamburg who is featured in the exhibit. “It takes some time before one can develop a sense of self-confidence under such circumstances.”
In spite of von Pereira’s sobering words, Homestory Deutschland also highlighted that, where there is struggle, there is hope and courage. This sentiment was epitomized in the writings of poet and activist May Ayim. Ayim gained fame as the founder of the Initiative of Black People in Germany and a member of the Association of German Female Writers until her suicide in 1996, but her writings about race, gender and politics ring true.
“I will / go another step / and another,” Ayim wrote in 1990, “further and return / when / I want / if I want / to remain / borderless and brazen.”
Layne hopes to expand understanding about Afro-German history and identity, and many other issues related to German culture, by getting more people and departments involved with German Week in the future.
“I would like to bring more of our graduate students on board in the planning and execution of the events,” Layne stated. “I think for as long as they offer this program and as long as UNC wants to be involved, the German Embassy will support us.”
January 23, 2023