Afro-German: the name might not be familiar to many. Coming to terms with their German and African heritage has taken some time, but now Afro-Germans are carving out their own space in Berlin.By Crystal Orderson, Berlin
Afro-German Catherina Oguntoye has just given birth to her first child, but she has a certain calmness about her. She seems relieved to take a break from breast-feeding. "I was born in the former East Germany to a German mother and Nigerian father," Oguntoye says in her apartment in Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood of Berlin. She spent her early childhood in West Germany and later spent a few years in Nigeria. "Derogatory names -like mulatto, negro or war baby -and racist harassment were often experiences I had to endure."
While growing up in Germany, she found that there was a lack of Afro-German literature. During her university studies, she met African-American writer Audre Lorde, who set her on the path to find her identity. With Lorde's inspiration and fellow Afro-German May Opitzsto to assist her, the term Afro-German as well as her book, "Showing our Colours: Afro-German Women Speak Out," were born. The book narrates personal stories of several Afro-German women in East and West Germany from the turn of the century."Our own history"
"It was a wonderful experience meeting all these amazing women and listening to their stories," Oguntoye says. "It was about searching for our history and finally of going public and to expose the social underpinning of racism. We could now identify with concepts such as pride and assertiveness with dignity." The book received acclaim in black and African communities in the North American and West European diaspora. "People from all over Germany responded to the publication," she says. Many have felt that the book raised the awareness and situation of Afro-Germans in Germany. These initiatives and outspoken views were an important milestone for many Afro-Germans.
In the book, Oguntoye writes: "By the term Afro-German our point is to emphasise that we have a black and white parent. Our essential commonality is that we are black and have experienced a major part of our socialisation and life in confrontation with West German society -a society that is not 99 percent white but that always has behaved as though it were, or should be."A special home for many
On the wave of excitement following the book's publication in 1986, the organisation Initiative Schwarze Deutche (ISD), or Initiative Afro-Germans in Berlin, was born.
"Although there were meetings held all over Germany, Berlin had one of the biggest turnouts," Oguntoye says. Recalling the first meeting, she says the atmosphere in the room was like electricity. "For some, it was the first time that they saw other Afro-Germans in their lives.
They related different stories of their experiences, about how they were told that they don't belong in Germany. At last, there was a feeling that 'we' were not as different or strange as some made us out to be. But not everybody was all that excited," she adds. One participant described herself as "a nothing." With regret and sadness, Oguntoye says this women's unhealthy psychological state is often the remnant of growing up in a white German environment.
Since the first meetings, the ISD has grown in size, with many branches all over Germany. African-American inspired activities are now common features in the ISD's calendar of activities.Black history month
Held annually during the month of February, Black History Month show-cases black art, music, discussion forums and a relaxed meeting place.
One of the organisers of the event is Danny Hafke, a part-time doorman at a Berlin night-club. Light skinned, two metres tall and well-built, Hafke represents the stereotype of the black man as basketball player. Hafke, whose father was a black US army officer based in Berlin, grew up with his mother. Like Oguntoye, he echoes that names like mulatto or n___ were often used in his presence, although he says it did not affect him too much. "I was lucky because I not only had contact with Germans but also African-Americans." During a visit to the US he attended a celebration of Black History Month, and in 1989 he helped to organise the first Berlin Black History Month with a showcase of film and poetry.
With events such as these as well as the strong infrastructure of the ISD to rely on, Afro-Germans can feel secure in their identity, Hafke adds. They have a place and forum to express their ethnic culture.Future plans?
Although the ISD started as a social movement, going a step further to organise a political platform is much more difficult. "Becoming a political force may be for now a pipe dream," says Hafke.
Publisher and Afro-German activist Ekpenyong Ani agrees. People are reluctant to get involved, and the price on your personal life, she says, can be high. "It can be a very lonely struggle," Ani says. Yet unlike other conflicts where people had to fight for basic rights, such as in South Africa, the case of Afro-Germans is not the same.
"I would like to raise political issues such as racism and create laws that could make these derogatory terms punishable. But the ground is not fertile yet," says Ani. "It is not just enough that we have monthly meetings. We should also look at what the future will be and how young people are taking the movement further," she concludes.
Although ISD is the forum to raise social issues and give confidence to Afro-Germans, it is merely the beginning of a constant struggle for equality.
With the ISD spearheading the movement, many smaller organisations, like Adefra, have also been launched.Political future?
"I think it was important for Afro-Germans to find out that they were not invisible," says Ani.
Afro-Germans are quite safe, because according to the constitution, their German passports give them access to education; they should not be discriminated against. "But as you know, whether it is in the street or at the workplace, we are reminded by Germans that we are different."
Link to original page with a large photo of African-German girl and child