Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Sharing the AfroEuropean Experience. My visit to the 25th yearly Bundestreffen in Germany.
Last weekend I was in Germany. ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland – Intiative Black People in Germany) organized the Bundestreffen for the 25th time in a row. This means 25 years of black German coming together, 25 years of theater, dance, workshops, debates, presentations, films, music, knowledge sharing, book selling and more. All focused around the black German experience, and actually by extension, the experience of being black in the Western world. The Bundestreffen doesn’t seem to be on its way out, it is alive and kicking and apparently there to stay.
After knowing it for years I wanted to experience it for myself and took off to Helmarshausen, a little village in Hessen, in the geographical heart of Germany. I am not German but I felt that I could relate to this community being African and European at the same time. And checking googlemaps I realized it wasn’t even that far, just a 4.30 hours drive.
I had questions to ask, questions about the why and the how of these meetings. To my knowledge such an organization in Germany is unique to Europe. I don’t know of any equivalent initiatives in France, the UK, Holland, Belgium, Portugal or Spain, although many of these countries have big local communities of African descent.
But I discovered that exactly because black Germans aren’t that many, the need to come together at a Bundestreffen is much bigger than let’s say in France, where most black people do not live isolated from other black French. According to wikipedia there are 500.000 AfroGermans in Germany, representing just 0,62% of the total population. They are scattered all around Germany and grew up in schools and towns where they were often the only black person around. These people have very different roots going back to Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, the Caribbean, the USA, Brazil … but all have their German roots in common, all speak the same language and have a common experience of being perceived as black and foreign while feeling at home in Germany.
The need to share this experience stimulated them to come together, so they wouldn’t have to feel isolated as ‘strangers’ in a white world. But they also did it for their children so that they would grow up with people having the same experiences and learning that the predominant image of blacks in media and education doesn’t fit reality.
AfroGermans are those people who are culturally German, who grew up in Germany and are part of Germany, but who experience being perceived as foreigners because of their physical features and sometimes non-Germanic names. I wrote about this feature on a European level before in my article on the AfroEuropeans (What is AfroEurope?).
While there are communities of Nigerians, Rwandans, Ghanese, Sudanese and others in Germany, these people are not the focal point of the Bundestreffen I think. The black people I met at the Bundestreffen are not strictly speaking immigrants but mostly Germans who happen to be black. They were born and/or raised there. They feel home in Germany and although they have an earnest interest in their black roots, they know that they belong to Germany. Unfortunately Germany, just as most European nations, is still not aware of its postcolonial diversity.
Still, this experience is not unique to the postcolonial era. History tells us that for centuries there have been black people in Europe making European culture their own. These people have mostly lived isolated lives but some of them became famous as artists, scholars or even politicians (Soon I will write an article about that). ISD and other initiatives try to make people aware of this heritage that is all too often ignored and which can help Europe to accept its postnationalist diversity. ISD makes black Germans also aware of the fact that they are not alone, that they can share their feelings with fellow black Germans.
I drove off on Saturday afternoon. I found the place easily. It was a big hostel in a little rural village surrounded by fields, forests and hills. A very nice spot indeed with old typical German houses of wood and stone. I arrived there around 6.30pm, the sun was still shining and the scenery was beautiful and relaxing.
When I entered the building I introduced myself to a friendly lady at the book stand. She knew about this website which was a very nice surprise. I asked her who I should talk to to stay for the night. She brought me to one of the organizers and I was warmly welcomed. First I had supper. I met Stephen while cueing for the buffet. He asked me if I just arrived and we started to chat. We shared the same table with an African American living in Germany for 15 years now. From then on the talking started and I met a lot of interesting people. It was an awesome experience, like meeting some lost family members …
With them and many others I shared experiences about living as a black person in a predominantly white European world. Experiencing racism the hard way but also the much more subtle and hidden kind of racism, the one that’s much harder to pinpoint and therefore frustrating. We talked about the common troubles we have defining our identity as a black person who relates to European culture, how we feel home and rejected at the same time.
I wasn’t the only non-German there. There were some people from France, the US and Canada who joined German friends. But there were also Austrians and Swiss who share the same German language. I am blessed to speak German too what made contact easier and comfortable although most people there could speak English too.
I realized also that although many of them know about the black American experience they hardly know about the black communities in Germany’s neighboring countries. In France you won’t find a Bundestreffen but there is the CRAN (Representative Council of Black Associations) who represents blacks politically and academically. In the UK there are several black British organizations promoting black solidarity and representation on all levels of society. In Spain there is the Alto Consejo de las Comunidades Negras . In my home country Belgium and its closest neighbor The Netherlands I don’t know of any structural representation of black people or afro descendents as a whole, although we are many of us and most do come together with their respective black communities (be it Congolese, Rwandan, Senegalese, Surinamese, Antillean, …). Maybe that’s the reason I went to the Bundestreffen, to be inspired and stimulated for a meeting of all Belgians of black descent, and by extention to think about an AfroEuropean Congress for the future. Because I know that, safe for the language, we have more in common than differences.
I had interesting conversations with several of the visitors. I met up with some who were also there for the first time. They had known of the Bundestreffen for a while but didn’t know what to expect. Eventually they came, alone or invited by friends or family. Nobody was disappointed, although some were initially scared it would be some kind of radical black power (anti-white) event. But it was nothing of the sort. It was all positive vibes. Still, I wondered if white people would be welcome to join this event (as I didn’t really see any) and when asking I discovered it actually was a topic of discussion within the community. I was thinking about the reason why a white person would want to come there, except to have an outsider’s view and an anthropological perspective. Isn’t that missing the point though? As the Bundestreffen seemed to be about sharing and participating and not about staring at each other, it seemed to be as a chance to talk with each other, and not about being talked about … well, I know I’ll have to develop my thoughts further on this subject, but this experience made me think about this.
The Bundestreffen is not just a meeting of black Germans though. Even if I didn’t notice white people it represents diversity within German society. The age of the participants ranged from 1 year old till around 50 years old, having parents, kids, teenagers and young adults intermingling. Also sexual orientation and gender is an open topic at the Bundestreffen, black gays and hetero-sexuals, men and women, all are just as much involved in the activities and responsibilities. There were families and individuals, couples and singles, punks and hiphoppers, artists, architects, artisans, lawyers and business people. You name it and they were there. A fact not always as common place in society in general or in black communities throughout the Western world. But ISD has succeeded in bringing all this people together.
All this made this whole experience very rewarding and fulfilling. Although I have my life, friends, loved ones and family in Belgium the experience I had last weekend in Germany brings something extra to my life: the ability to express my identity with others without having to explain nor having to excuse myself for cherishing my black ancestry while being part of Europe.
Of course not all black Germans want to relate to this event. Some told me they know other black Germans who don’t want to come to the Bundestreffen. They either don’t feel the urge to share their experience or find the whole thing rather communitarian (self-apartheid). I understand that. All individuals forge their identity differently, and not all feel the need to come together. When I talk with my sisters about being black in Europe we do not agree about everything, sometimes we are even opposite to each other. I wondered if my youngest sister would even want to come to such an event. I counted approximately 150 people there last weekend, while there are many more AfroGermans all over Germany. For very different reasons they didn’t come to this event although they may support it from a distance. But of course others don’t support it. I think that this is a logic consequence of human diversity. Therefore I am not tempted to say that ISD speaks for all AfroGermans, just as this website doesn’t speak for all AfroEuropeans. But it is a platform to discuss the matter if needed and it is first of all a network to share experiences.
Going to the Bundestreffen made me happy. I think that black people of the Western world have something extra here. In contrast to white Europeans we have an identity that transcends language and national borders, we can therefore being more European than all Europeans put together, more Western than any Westerner. We have a natural link with the black experience in the US and Brazil, we can relate to people experiencing other cultures, speaking other languages and living in different countries and continents. We are the outcome of the history that Europe created for itself and we have a ‘community of experience’ that goes beyond the unity that Europe tries to forge for itself.
While creating racism in the course of the last 5 centuries (and legally abolishing it just 50 years ago) Europe created a people that can be stronger than any European people before. It created solidarity among us. Our potential unity is a logic consequence of more than 500 years of European colonial history. It is therefore global, i.e. international, intercontinental, multilingual and intercultural. Grown out of a bloody and absurdly violent past, I can’t do anything but see the present and future beauty of all this. Thanks again to ISD and all the people at the Bundestreffen for making me experience this.
Video of 25 years ISD (2010)
See website Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) at www.isdonline.de