- “Don’t Look So Sad Because You’re a Little Negro”:Marie Nejar, Afro-German Stardom, and Negotiations with Black Subjectivity1
Being Black, Being German: Naming and Subjectivity
The term “Afro-Deutsch” was coined by Audre Lorde as a result of her meeting with Black German women while she taught a poetry workshop in English at the Free University in Berlin in the spring of 1984. It is often translated into English as “Afro-German.” In the introduction to the book Farbe bekennen (Showing Our Colors), Lorde explains the term as a positive label that unites Afro-Germans with other “hyphenated people of the Diaspora.”2 Nonetheless, throughout the introduction and the foreword, written six years after the original publication, she uses the term “Afro-Germans” and “Black Germans” (schwarze Deutsche) interchangeably. Today, some are critical of the term Afro-German and prefer the description schwarze Deutsche. In this article, I have chosen to differentiate between Afro-Germans and Black Germans by referring to those who have a German parent and a non-German parent from the African Diaspora as “Afro-Germans.” All others who identify as part of the African Diaspora and who live in Germany but do not have a German parent will be referred to as Black Germans. However, I refer to the combination of these groups as the greater Black German community. [End Page 171]
A stirring example of such a nexus articulating identity, identification, and subjectivity, Marie Nejar is a second-generation Afro-German, born in 1932. In the 1940s, her minor roles in Nazi propaganda films as an African savage helped ensure her survival in the face of Nazi persecution. Following World War II, her singing talent was discovered and she transformed into the German pop singer Leila Negra, the little black girl with the sad eyes. Although Nejar was clearly exoticized and eroticized in both periods, historical discussions of race in Germany tend to emphasize how German understandings of difference change during the postwar era, partly because the category of race is stricken from public discourse. Indeed, as Heide Fehrenbach explains, the term Rasse (race) “became taboo over the course of the 1950s” because it was considered Nazi terminology, and the use of such a word in the Federal Republic of Germany would suggest a continuation of the racist ideologies of the fascist regime. Thus the term “race” was “declared inconsistent” with the founding document of the FRG. While the term might have been avoided, the concept of a natural difference between whites and blacks lived on in the form of Anderssein (difference).3 In this essay, I want to consider the extent to which the conditions of the existence of Black Germans do not change between Nazi Germany and West Germany. Drawing on critical race theory, discourse analysis, and performance studies, I argue that under both regimes, Nejar was granted a unique status of belonging to the German nation, because her body had value for the nation and this value could be exploited as long as her sexuality could be subordinated or contained. Nevertheless, this belonging did not imply subjecthood. She was not considered as having all of the freedoms and rights of all other German citizens. However, as a valuable, eroticized object, she was protected from violence.
Nejar’s case allows for a unique approach for consideration of the slippery parameters of belonging to an “imagined” German community—that is to say, to follow Benedict Anderson’s understanding of the nation, a socially structured community imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.4 Both during Nazi Germany and postwar Germany, Nejar was neither fully excluded from the community nor was she fully accepted. Rather, she experienced a state of “partial inclusion”; she was allowed to be a part of the German community as long as mechanisms were in place to defuse the threat of her black femininity. She could be treated like a film and music star, but she could not be considered a possible partner or wife for German men. Rather, her body could only be designated for serving German males’ desires. Furthermore, turning Nejar...