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  • White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture by Priscilla Layne
  • Dirk Göttsche
White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture.
By Priscilla Layne. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018. 272 pages + 3 illustrations. $75.00 hardcover, $59.95 e-book.

Despite significant recent research on German discourses about Africa, Black German history and literature, and German postcolonial writing with an African connection, there is still much scope for further investigation. This study brings together two of [End Page 752] these strands—mainstream German literature’s discourse about Africans and black culture since 1945 on the one hand, and contemporary Afro-German writing on the other, complemented by a third strand, the comparative analysis of African-American experiences of racism and stereotype in post-war and contemporary German culture and society. The author investigates “how blackness functions as an ontology in postwar Germany as it is represented in literature and film by white Germans, black Germans, and African Americans” (1). She traces a well-established tradition in which “black popular culture”—primarily music (jazz, rock, techno)—is “mobilized to signify rebellion and a positive escape and a point of solidarity for white German males rebelling against the legacy of Nazi Germany, represented by authoritarianism and racism and found in hegemonic masculinity” (1–2). Layne argues that “white German valorization of black popular culture” often continues established racist stereotypes and “appropriates” black music in the “attempt to resolve postwar guilt over the Holocaust” (2), while African American and Black German writing develops a range of aesthetic strategies of staging and undermining essentialist ideas of black culture, diversifying notions of Afro-German, African American, and African identity and eventually “unhing[ing] blackness from a perpetual state of rebellion and a constant orbiting around an alienating center” (188), namely the white majority society and its various forms of ‘othering.’

The comparative angle—combining German and African American literature, as well as fiction, poetry, musical, and cinema—and the methodology of a virtual dialogue between German mainstream literature and African diasporic writing in English and German make this study an important contribution to German literary and cultural studies, African diasporic studies, Postcolonial Studies, and Comparative Literature. However, the monograph really only comes into its own in the two chapters devoted to African American writing about German discourses of blackness and Afro-German literature. Chapter Four looks at Paul Beatty’s novel Slumberland (2008) and Spike Lee’s film version of Mark Stewart’s Broadway musical Passing Strange (2009), neither of which have previously been considered in German Studies. Both send their African American protagonists to (West) Berlin as an act of self-liberation from the confines of American society—only to be confronted with German racist “essentialization and objectification” (125) which force the characters to renegotiate their identities as black males and their understanding of black culture. Both texts “challenge both German and American essentialist notions of blackness” (120). The setting in Beatty’s novel is 1980/90s West Berlin as a centre of global counter-culture; set a little earlier, the musical has a more pronounced meta-discursive aesthetic that “introduces the possibility of different black identities that not only exist in the black community simultaneously, but can be performed, referred back to, and undermined by individuals” (131). Layne argues that the musical’s strategy of exploring “constructed versus ‘real’ identities” is ultimately more successful in “exploding categories and breaking with essentialist expectations” than Beatty’s somewhat utopian vision of an African American becoming “unmarked” in a post-unification Germany rife with renewed right-wing nationalism and racist violence (121).

Chapter Five considers Black German responses to mainstream discourses about blackness, alerting readers to generational differences in, and the diversity of, Afro-German writing. Four autobiographies—Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, Theodor Michael, Charly Graf, and Günther Kaufmann—are used for an overview of African [End Page 753] diasporic history and discourse before or after World War II, including the central role of African American references for the authors’ self-assertion in the face of German racism. One of the highlights of the book is the close reading of the poetry of Philipp Khabo...


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