2 minutes to read Posted on Wednesday October 27, 2021

Updated on Wednesday October 27, 2021

Black History Month - an interview with Black Central Europe

This October, as part of Black History Month, Europeana is sharing stories, projects and collections to highlight Black history in Europe and beyond. Today, Dr. Jeff Bowersox, Associate Professor of German History at University College London, tells us about the work of Black Central Europe to open new perspectives on diverse histories in Germany and explore Black histories within Europe.

A photograph of Fasia Johnson signing and playing guitar in a crowd
Fasia Jansen
Philipp Khabo Koepsell
Each One Teach One Archive and Empowerment Project

Thank you for speaking to us today! Tell us about Black Central Europe.

It’s my pleasure, and thank you for drawing attention to Black European histories. Put simply, Black Central Europe is a web resource dedicated to connecting people to histories of Blackness in the German-speaking lands over the past millennium. At the core of our work is an extensive and ever-growing collection of historical documents, images, and videos that chronicle experiences and ideas of Blackness, supplemented with mapping projects, teaching resources, and links to activist and artistic projects. 

What approach underpins the work of Black Central Europe?

Our starting point is understanding that there are a thousand years and more of Black history in the German lands, and most people know very little about it. By making this more visible and accessible, we can undermine exclusionary myths and open new perspectives on diverse histories of Germanness that connect the past with the present. Some may assume that this is just a project about and for Black Germans, Black Austrians, Black Swiss, Black Luxemburgers. Rather, it’s a project that counters the myth that these lands are and always have been monolithically white places disconnected from the wider world. By exploring often surprising histories of contact, mobility, inclusion and exclusion, we come to a better understanding of how residents of central Europe have always grappled with ideas of difference and commonality. 

What projects are you currently focusing on?  

We have three big projects underway. First, as always, we are working on filling out the historical collections. Our focus at the moment is the post-1945 period. We are fortunate to have been working with Philipp Khabo Koepsell and the Each One Teach One archive and empowerment project in Berlin, exploring familiar stories in some depth and also revealing unknown or unexpected examples of Black activism and community-building. We are also working to expand the collection to include more materials from outside Germany. For example, Patrick Edore, a PhD student at the University of Lincoln (UK), is generously sharing some of his research to help us better understand developments in Austria.

Second, we are working to include ever more work from our university students. This project began as a way to support the teaching of new classes in Black German history, and it has always been important to have students engaged not just in learning but also in writing that history. Kira Thurman’s students at the University of Michigan have produced an interactive map over a number of years, and this past year Kristin Kopp’s students at the University of Missouri put together an extensive collection of Black German biographies. Some of my students at University College London have produced entries on historical documents that have been incorporated into our broader collection of sources. 

Third, we are looking to update the website to account for the changed context produced by the waves of activism awareness and artistic production since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

What role does digital technology, practices or engagement play in this work?

In the most immediate sense, being able to post these materials online has meant making previously unknown or inaccessible stories available to broader communities around the world. In the first instance, this means instructors, but we’re gratified to hear from people who have stumbled across the site and found useful materials there. We have done some work with digital mapping and plan to explore this further. We could definitely do more on social media, and if anyone wants to share our materials on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or even - why not? - TikTok, we’d love it!

What were the biggest challenges that you encountered? 

I’d say there are two big ones. The first challenge is funding the website, which seems to fall in the cracks between the different sorts of projects that get supported by major funding agencies. We’ve been fortunate to have support from our home institutions, but this is in small doses, and that means the work has to proceed slowly and sometimes haphazardly.

The other has been getting familiar with the technology and also working with copyright regulations. While our web platform (we use Wordpress) makes this relatively straightforward now, it hasn’t always been the case, and figuring out the principles of designing for the history web has been a steep (but enjoyable) learning curve. 

Photo of Gustav Sabac El-Cher
Gustav Sabac El-Cher
Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Gustav Sabac El-Cher

From your experience, do people in Europe know about the history of the Black Diaspora in their countries, especially Germany? 

On the whole, there’s relatively little awareness of the grand sweep and diversity of Black histories in Europe, and that’s as true in Germany as it is elsewhere. There are historical reasons for this, much of it based on processes of active forgetting or erasing or marginalising that have served colonial and racist national myths. It is these that have been challenged by projects trying to either write Black people back into European histories or (I would argue, better) to re-write European histories altogether to account for those diverse experiences. 

What role can heritage institutions play in teaching people about this?

Heritage institutions can do a lot to support this work, and I think it’s a great thing that regular exhibitions are happening across Germany, supported by major museums and funding agencies (see an example). This simply wasn’t the case to this extent even a decade ago.  

One thing that heritage organisations can do is undertake a project of critical self-reflection on their collections and past practices and do so publicly (see an example from the UK’s National Trust). This is a useful way of interrogating an institution’s investment in exclusionary patterns but, more importantly, can offer visitors a model for how to have conversations about power dynamics, historical legacies of inclusion and exclusion and present responsibility. This is often uncomfortable, and it certainly can draw sharp criticism in the current political environment, but who is better placed than heritage institutions to show us how to come to grips with such complicated histories? 

Heritage institutions, especially in Germany, can support this work by supporting the work of younger scholars, often People of Colour, who are doing excellent historical research in these areas but often struggle to gain purchase within academia. Larger heritage institutions can also partner with those organizations that already are working in these areas, for example DOMiD, Each One Teach One, or the organisers of the Deutsches Museum für Schwarze Unterhaltung und Black Music.

Can you share with us a Black German figure who inspires you either from history or is still alive and why? 

There are so many whose stories both inspire and intrigue! If I had to pick one to highlight it would be the singer-songwriter-activist Fasia Jansen (1929-1997) . Growing up under the Nazis, she was repeatedly told that she was not really German because of her Blackness, despite being born in Hamburg and raised there by her German mother and stepfather, both committed Communists. She was forced to work as a cook in the Neuengamme concentration camp, but, as she remained a German citizen, she could leave after a year’s labour service. Her parents’ example, her own childhood experiences struggling against marginalisation and the distressing work in the camp helped forge a sense of justice that made her seek out opportunities for activism after the war, when she joined protest groups singing in the streets. She became a leader of the anti-nuclear and peace movements, was prominent in the women’s and labour movements and was an assertive voice against fascism. She remained a sharp critic of the Federal Republic, even when she was honoured with the Bundesverdienstkreuz for her activism in 1991. 

Beyond providing an example of courageous and forthright action for social justice, her story reminds us that Blackness and Germanness are not mutually exclusive categories, even when the state tries to say otherwise. She also shows us how Blackness can shape Black Germans’ experiences without determining the totality of their lives and perspectives. As such, she invites us to explore the range of Black experiences both in the present and in the past, to seek connections that cross presumed lines of race and nation that can help us draw entirely new maps of Europe.

Find out more

You can explore Black Central Europe online and get in touch at blackcentraleurope@gmail.com with questions, materials and ideas for content or suggestions. We look forward to hearing from you!