Enriching the Public Discourse by highlighting Colonial Continuities

The Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) has been actively working on the empowerment of people of African descent and Black people in Germany for almost 30 years. Its aim is to raise their voices and also to generate visibility for their perspectives and realities in the German society. The ISD is dedicated to challenging the discourse that does not want to see nor acknowledge Black presence in Germany. For more than three hundred years, people of African descent have been born and raised in Germany, have made Germany their place of home, but narratives about the Black experience in Germany often remain silenced in the public discourse. While their stories do not exist in the dominant historiography, stereotypical clichés dominate the images of the Black Diaspora. Racist pictures and beliefs need to be understood as a historically developed relationship of power – blurring past and present depictions of Black people’s realities.

This must also be interpreted through the lense of colonialism. There is almost no awareness in German society about the atrocities committed during colonialism. The fact that the first concentration camps were built in Namibia, former German South-West Africa, usually remains unknown to the wider German public. This is particularly ignored in the education sector. The genocide against the Herero and Nama and the traces it has left, affecting these communities until today, remain obscured with no effort of reparations made from the German side¹. Hence, it is especially offending that Germany’s `development aid´ is inadequately being advertised as a form of reparations for the genocide against the Herero and Nama. Development aid is clearly not working towards healing the trauma of the colonized peoples, who suffered a “war of extermination (1904 -1908)”². This strategy of the German government deflects from the cruelties that took place and once again imply that the colonizer takes the lead in the defining what is needed to repair the suffering of the affected groups, rather than inquiring about and respecting the way in which the Namibian society wishes to come to terms with the past and its repercussions in present times.
Groups like AfricaVenir, Berlin-Postkolonial e.V., AK Panafrikanismus e.V. – Bündnis Decolonize München and Tanzania Network e.V. as well as the ISD and ADEFRA have been standing in solidarity with demands for reparations from the global South. In 2011 20 human remains of Herero and Nama were handed over to a Namibian delegation. The skulls were taken from Namibia after the genocide between 1904-1908 for experiments³. A second handover took place early this year. Many more human remains are still in Germany’s research hospitals and archives. The active support and campaigning in Germany have strengthened the position of the Namibian side. Tools like interventions, media outreaches, inquiries to the German Parliament were used to increase the pressure on the German government to deal with the topic.
The ISD does not view reparations solely as a mechanism of financial compensation for people of African descent / Black people. Instead there is a need for a structural approach that will allow for the rectification of a broken system. A system that was not built to equally protect and provide for everyone. The Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires (CRAN) in its dossier “Esclavage et Réparation”  highlights the need to actively tackle racism through “legally, morally, culturally and symbolically”4 repairing the broken system that leaves Black people disenfranchised.
The lacking recognition of colonialism as a crime against humanity as well as the factual disregard for the genocide against the Herero and Nama in Namibia allow for the perpetuation of an imagery of the burden of the white man and of colonialism seen as civilizationally worthwhile for the so-called developing countries.
Through the missing education (or miseducation) regarding Germany’s colonial past, colonial racism is being passed on as valid knowledge. These historical (mis-)concepts are hidden behind offensive terminology. Accordingly, linguistic norms become extremely important for the public reappraisal of colonial practices today.
One approach of re-education has been fostered since the 1990s through multiple initiatives  such as Berlin-Postkolonial e.V. (freedom roads!), München Postkolonial, AK Panafrikanismus e. V., EDEWA, No Humbolt 21 etc. They have mainly been working on the topic of the postcolonial city. This includes:

  • active lobbying for the renaming of streets that glorify colonialism and colonial rulers
  • exhibitions identifying and discussing urban manifestations of colonial continuities
  • workshops, city tours, performances and lectures about the colonial past and its present day relevance
  • educating pupils, residents and artists about the silenced history of their environment

These concrete actions and examples resemble the earlier mentioned symbolic dimension of reparation. However, in order to unfold their full potential they must be paired with the moral component which is most powerfully represented through public debate. Public debate educates and informs the wide public and thereby works toward unlearning racist knowledge in society.
In the German context, these debates are very much centered around left-wing academic spaces and therefore raise the question of how to successfully introduce knowledge about structural dimensions of racism to those who do not pertain to these circles.
ISD is actively trying to challenge the white German narrative that deems Black People, their history and Germany’s involvement in colonialism and enslavement irrelevant by enriching the public discourse through decolonizing it.
by Keshia Fredua-Mensah & Jamie Schearer
Jamie Schearer – jamieschearer@isd-bund.org
About the Initiative Black People in Germany (ISD):
ISD is a registered association, seeking to represent the interests and diversity of Black people in Germany. As such, it fights against racism in all its forms and understands itself as a political and social platform for Black People in Germany. The ISD works in the fields of campaigning and advocacy in the political sphere and has a strong focus on community building.

¹Ursula Trüper (21.05.2011): „Gewalt ist meine Politik“ in Berliner Zeitung, http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/archiv/deutschland-errichtete-schon-als-kolonialmacht-in-afrika-erste-konzentrationslager-und-beutete-brutal-die-einheimischen-in-namibia-aus–davon-will-die-bundesregierung-offenbar-nichts-mehr-hoeren–gewalt-ist-meine-politik-,10810590,10788292.html
²Joshua Kwesi Aikins (2008): “Alltägliche Gegenwart der kolonialen Vergangenheit – Ertinnerung, Erinnerung und Verantwortung in der Kolonialmeteropole Berlin” in Herta Däubler-Gmelin/ Ann Kathrin Helfrich/ Ekkehard Münzing/ Christian Walther (ed.), “Afrika: Europas verkannter Nachbar”, pp. 52.
³Simone Knapp (2013): “Der Völkermord in Namibia: Anerkennung und Wiedergutmachung stehen immer noch aus” http://www.no-humboldt21.de/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/knapp_2013_voelkermord_in_namibia.pdf
4CRAN – Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires: “Esclavage et réparation” http://www.le-cran.fr/document-cran-associations-noires-de-france/18-brochure-sur-les-reparations-relatives-a-l-esclavage-.pdf