- Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250–1914 ed. by Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann
Editors Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann have put together an excellent collection of essays on the history of Germany’s connections to the black diaspora in their book, Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250–1914. The book’s strength lies in the fact that it is not centered on the twentieth century. It demands that we tie transnational connections between people of African descent and German-speaking Europe to an earlier time and place. What we have long understood as twentieth-century phenomena (black soldiers on German soil; black entertainers in German culture) are nothing of the sort; these encounters — and German responses to them — belong to older historical discourses.
The advantage to covering pre-WWI German-speaking Europe for a project such as this is that it encourages specificity. Because the majority of essays in this collection concentrate on “Germany” before it existed as a unified nation-state, the book gives us more nuanced and highly contextualized portraits of black-white encounters on German-speaking lands. In [End Page 400] this volume we find regional histories in addition to global ones, micro-histories of black musicians at a Baroque court in Bayreuth placed side by side with a century-long history of black American travel. For example, in her chapter, “Ambiguous Duty: Black Servants at German Ancien Régime Courts,” Anne Kuhlmann demonstrates the diverse opportunities available to blacks within and outside German courts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that permitted them to lead different lives. Local cultures at different regional courts made it possible for blacks such as Anton Wilhelm Amo to be potentially upwardly or downwardly mobile.
Paradoxically, the other strength of this volume comes from the seven centuries-long timeframe the editors constructed. Because the book spans such a long time period, the reader can “zoom in” to local stories and also “zoom out” to see larger shifts over time in German perception of blacks. For example, the authors effectively illustrate the evolution of language depicting people of African descent from the thirteenth century to WWI. Whereas in the medieval and early modern eras German speakers labeled people of African descent “Moors,” by the nineteenth century that word had been replaced by the transatlantic term, “Negroes.” This switch, the editors argue, represents an unfortunate downgrading of the position of people of African descent in German life. While “Moors” connoted “brave warriors, Christian saints, and the riches of Africa,” the term “Negro,” they write, “alluded instead to a trading commodity; a childish, cheap, and unskilled hand” (p. 3).
In Part I, called “Saints and Slaves, Moors and Hessians,” the authors demonstrate how shockingly different and sometimes egalitarian German treatment of blacks were prior to the Enlightenment. In their chapters examining medieval and early modern German artistic representations of blacks, Paul H.D. Kaplan and Kate Lowe encourage us to look beyond the category of “exoticism” to instead consider how an image of a black saint or a black slave functioned in German courtly life. Paintings with black figures in them often connoted religious piety or elite status that reflected positively on the commissioner of the artwork. Maria Diedrich traces a history of over one hundred blacks from the North American continent migrating to and settling down in the Hessian capital of Kassel between 1782 and 1784. Each individual’s biography, she argues, requires regional and transnational specificity in order to understand this transatlantic history. Most black settlers to Kassel were bilingual; some were first-generation slaves, and others had liberated themselves and fought with the pro-British Hessian troops. Once they arrived to Hesse, local Hessians and the court of Friedrich II reconfigured these men and women to conform to social norms that emphasized class status over nascent race theories. [End Page 401]
Part II, “From Enlightenment to Empire,” shows us the power of Enlightenment and Eurocentric...