Tracing African-American, German ties

Mar. 23, 2014 @ 05:31 PM

Professors from four North Carolina universities – Duke, N.C. Central, N.C. State and Chapel Hill – are setting aside their rivalries, bridging their various academic disciplines and coming together for a unique, semester-long project that examines the complex relationship between German and African-American cultures during the 20th century. From Jewish-German professors who fled Nazi Germany and found solace at historically black colleges in the south to romances that blossomed between German women and African-American G.I.s in combat zones after World War II, examples of contact between Germans and African-Americans throughout the 20th century are abundant. Despite the frequent cross-cultural contact, the relationship between Germans and African-Americans is an area of study of which most students and scholars have little to no understanding. The Harlem to Hamburg project hopes to shed light on this contact and to introduce undergraduate faculty and students across the Triangle to an academically rich area of study that offers multiple avenues for further exploration. 
“What [people] don’t realize is that during most of the 20th century African-Americans found they were more welcome in Germany than in the South, so a fascinating, open relationship was born,” Ralph Hardy, literature and language professor at NCCU and co-founder of the Harlem to Hamburg project, said. “It’s an area of scholarship that’s interesting and ripe for study, and it’s something that deviates from the traditional narrative of African-Americans in the United States.”
In fact, after World War II many African-American soldiers chose to stay in Germany to escape the hostility they faced in the southern United States, Hardy said. A small, but vibrant Afro-German culture emerged because all soldiers, whether black or white, were respected as the liberators and occupying forces both during and after the war.
“For [African-Americans] this treatment was a breath of freedom” Priscilla Layne, an assistant professor of German at UNC, said.
Despite the welcoming atmosphere, there was still prevalent racism in German society – especially toward the approximately 5,000 children born to African-American soldiers and German women – which is why Layne finds the German embrace of African-American culture so intriguing.
“People can learn a lot from the exchange between African-Americans and Germans because it’s so fascinating, yet contradictory,” Layne said. “On the one hand there was an openness between the two – Germans were and are to this day fascinated by African-American culture – but, on the other hand, this German interest in African-American culture took place amongst a racism that was already there.
  “It’s not just a positive or negative relationship, and that’s what makes it to me such an important thing to research and study,” Layne said.
The relationship between the two cultures during and after WWII is one of the many aspects that will be looked at during the course of the project. Other aspects that will be studied and discussed include African-American scholars who left the U.S. to partake in socialism, which offered them unprecedented equality, and the German obsession with jazz music that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance.
The project, which involves professors of different disciplines from all four universities, has multiple goals aside from merely informing people about the exchanges between two seldom-associated cultures. 
“The goal is to do more than just create awareness,” Hardy said. “We hope to eventually put courses together so that students can delve more deeply into this subject.”
The Harlem to Hamburg project, which began Jan. 18 with a concert, will feature multiple events including a four-part film series, with one film at each of the four participating campuses, and an academic symposium at Duke. The symposium will take place on Friday and will feature Harvard University professor Werner Sollors who will be giving the keynote speech titled “Are You Occupied Territory? Black G.I.s in Fiction of the American Occupation of Germany after World War II.”
“By including multiple components to the project, such as film, music, poetry, literature and military history, we hope to show that this area of inquiry doesn’t have to be so narrow – [the cultural exchanges between the cultures] are quite broad, and we are excited to see people get excited about them,” Hardy said.