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Brown Bag Lecture series. . .

“The American Civil Rights Movement’s Effect on Europe”

Presented by Sabine Broeck, professor of literature and African American studies and American studies at the University of Bremen, Germany
Sept. 27, 2006

Professor Sabine Broeck presented highlights of the American Civil Rights Movement’s effect on Europe, particularly on Germany, and introduced the AAADS Brown Bag audience to the premiere organization on African American studies in Europe—the Collegium for African American Research—of which she is currently the president. The topic interrogates the critical intersection of white studies and black studies.

Europeans, said Broeck, have ignored slavery as a part of their history and have not come to terms with it yet. The Middle Passage should not be thought of as only a New World phenomenon for it reaches into the fabric of Europe’s history and current racism. While Germany was a major slave-trading nation, it generated much wealth through the merchant trade in the products of slavery, such as cotton and indigo—a fact that goes largely unmentioned. But this history has been gaining awareness over the past five years.

Afro-Germans make up a growing part of Germany’s population, especially in big cities, and scholars can no longer ignore them. The group itself is becoming more articulate. Afro-Germans are made up of people who came from Germany’s African colonies of Cameroon and Namibia and from intermarriage between white Germans and those immigrants, as well as from the mixed-race offspring of African American soldiers and white Germans after World War II. Despite this population and despite Germany’s move to democracy after the war, the heritage of racism remains.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Berlin in 1964 to a huge white audience, making a lasting impression that has never been looked at “officially,” but which has influenced younger Germans ever since. In the 1980s, Audre Lourde visited the nation, inspiring many Afro-Germans to become activists. Since then, there have been more documentaries with oral histories produced for television, but much of this has been marginalized in European academia. In fact, a wealth of work on the subject of African American studies has been produced in Europe since the late ‘60s, but it is not circulating as it should and does not address European blacks.

As head of CAAR, Broeck’s special project is clarify and refine the European focus on African American studies. The tendency in the U.S., she said, is for that field to become more internally focused. But the cosmopolitan cultural history must be written on world blackness. She hopes to broaden the focus from centering on the U.S. to include the entire African diaspora. For example, she noted that Franz Fanon was not only African, but he also was very much a proponent of European theory.

During the question and answer period, Broeck said that there is no real reparations movement in Germany and that Germany sent no delegates to the Conference on Race in Durban several years ago. But Germany was never a slaveholding country and set its white indentured servants free in 1808. Yet, she said, a public apology for Germany’s role in trade and colonialism is appropriate, and that was officially done in Namibia, even though there are some problematic issues attached to it. If Germans repent of anything, she said, it is the “Shoa” (Holocaust) and to go beyond that seems unbearable. There is no powerful unit to bring attention to the situation, and there is no point of solidarity. Even biracial children in Germany have been mostly raised by their white parent (most black fathers leave). With U.S. hegemony after the war, Europe prided itself in offering racial sensitivity and an alternative to U.S. racism. But that was merely relative.

Broeck predicted that Europe may be in for a backlash before progress is made, citing incidents in several countries. UNESCO has a current project on examining Europe’s role in the slave trade, but its continued funding is not certain. There is funding for her own CAAR project, with the U.S. having given seed money with the expectation that matching funds will come from Europe and other institutions. She is in talks with IU’s Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies to join the project—a prospect AAADS is definitely interested in.