Conference Report: “Afroeuropeans 2015”, Münster 2015

“Afroeuropeans 2015”: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe
The 5th Biennial Afroeuropean Studies Network Conference
Münster, Germany

Jean d’Amour Banyanga (PhD Student, Åbo Akademi University, Finland)

Åbo Akademi University
Åbo Akademi University,
Turku (Finland)

From 16 to19 September 2015, the fifth biennial Afroeuropean Studies Network conference took place in the beautiful city of Münster, Germany. There were 170 participants from 15 countries: Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, The Netherlands, Romania, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the USA. The conference featured keynote lectures, paper presentations, panel discussions, and cultural events on the literature, history, music, art, politics, and youth culture of Africans and their descendants in Europe. Since a full report on all events and sessions would be impossible, the following account is limited to a representative selection. The conference opened in the evening of Wednesday 16 September 2015 with the screening of the film Real Life: Deutschland, followed by a discussion with the director, Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye from Cologne.  

On the following day, Thursday 17 September, Vice-Rector for Research Stephan Ludwig welcomed all conference participants and talked about Münster University and Münster city at large. The network director, Ms. Marta Sofia López Rodriguez mentioned the rationale for the formation of the network: a need to recognize and acknowledge discrimination and racism against people of African descent in Europe. Therefore, the network aims at mapping out issues affecting black people in Europe, the exchange of activities between communities, and creating visibility among Africans. The first major event was Jamie Schearer’s keynote address “The European Network of People of African Descent (ENPAD) and the relevance of self-organized counter spaces”.

In the panel “Reading Children’s Literature”, the papers presented looked at what literature should emphasise in order to improve children’s intelligence. In many works on Africa in children’s literatures in Europe, Africa is treated as a country rather than a continent, it is seen as poor (kids without shoes), exotic (traditional dresses and aesthetics), and communal (everyone participates in caring for the children). Many papers showed that children’s literature should fight against racism. For instance, Petra Tournay – Theodotou from European University Cyprus presented a paper entitled “Representing Diversity in Black British children’s literature: Jackie Kay’s novel Strawgirl (2002), in which she argues that within the lively scene of Black British and British Asian writing, literature for children still has a low status and is underrepresented when it comes to critical attention in academic circles. The paper takes a closer look at how Kay’s novel covers the complexities of the cultural situation in the early 21st century and, thus, makes an important contribution to the call for greater diversity in children’s books.

Sharmilla Beezmohun from the London-based journal, Wasafiri, presented a paper with the title “Reading ourselves, writing ourselves: Locating the UK’s minority population in children’s literature”. Her paper provides a brief history of the main provisions for the British Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in children’s literature publishing from the 1960s onwards. In addition, the paper outlines the current climate and situates it within the wider context of BAME authors in the UK, trying to offer suggestions for the present and the future. The paper also argues that monitoring along the lines of the American Cooperative Children’s Book Centre has not been carried out in the UK and she highlights the need to interrogate children’s literature published in Britain at a time when nearly one out of six of the country’s inhabitants belong to an ethnic minority.

Aminkeng A. Alemanji from the University of Helsinki presented the paper “Zebra world: The promotion of imperial stereotypes in a children’s book”. Aminkeng’s study presents an example of learning material in the Finnish context − a children’s book entitled Bibi muuttaa Suomeen (Bibi moves to Finland) by K. Kallio and M. Lindholm. The main concern of the paper is to show how Finland and Africa meet in the book, which describes the life of a young girl, Bibi, in a traditional African village and her move to Finland. The intention of the book is to familiarize Finnish children with different cultures and the life of immigrant children. It maintains the social structures of Finnish society, suggesting that being white is ‘modern’ and ‘superior’ to being African. In addition, the book promotes the idea that Africa is a ‘bad’ continent. As a result, some children who are born of African immigrants do not want to go and visit their families back home due to negative pictures that are shown in the book or on TV.

The roundtable discussion “Why is my professor not black” chaired by Susheila Nasta from Open University (Milton Keynes) featured speakers Karim Fereidoorni (University of Heidelberg), Shanell Johnsson, Emily- Ngubia Kessé, Linda Supik and Vanessa Thompson. In fact, the whole session was about black professorship in Germany. In the discussion, delegates learned that the applications for professorships by some professors or holders of doctoral degrees in Germany have been rejected due to the skin colour of the applicants. As a result, some of the black professors have moved to the USA or Canada, and some of them have given up their academic careers. During the discussions, it was observed that short-term contracts of African holders of doctoral degrees discourage other black students from entering the academic field. Principles of equal opportunities have so far been applied much more successfully to gender, so that in Germany many of the professors are women, but only 13 professors in the whole of Germany are blacks. It was also observed that many white students prefer white professors as lecturers, because they think that their teaching is more important than the teaching done by African professors. Therefore, many of the doctoral students in Germany who are of migrant descent are discriminated against because white people consider them academically less competent than Germans.

Furthermore, the discussion also explored European colleges and universities and how they play a key-role in perpetuating structural racism. In the past, some African professors used to be guest professors in Germany, but they were not allowed to stay because they were not considered knowledgeable enough. Finally, the discussion proposed measures: to make people aware of discrimination at the universities, and to teach how black students should react when a white professor uses a racist word. However, secondary schools and universities could also have a role in countering racism, questioning discrimination and facilitating access for people of colour.

In the panel “Remembering Black German History”, Marion Kraft from Bielefeld University, presented her paper “Transatlantic connections, memory, post-memory and memoires of Black Germans of the post-war generation”. Pointing out that in 2015, the whole world commemorates the end of World War II, 70 years ago, and Germany’s liberation from fascist rule. Kraft, in her paper, deals with the different experiences of black Germans of the post-WWII generation on both sides of the Atlantic and describes social and cultural processes of identification, self-representation and the forging of cross-cultural alliances. She notices that many black people came to Germany as soldiers. The German soldiers brought them back from the war as captives, slaves, and adoptees. The African children who came with German soldiers were forced to stay in children’s homes. However, these children were considered to be a social problem in Germany and were objects of sociological and biological research that was still largely based on racial theories of the fascist era. As a consequence, those children were sent to the USA for adoption. Many were adopted by African-American families and when they grew up, they founded Black Germans associations in the USA. Kraft changes the perspective on Germany’s post-World War II history, transatlantic connections, as well as the experiences and perspectives of Black Germans born in the post-war period.

Christel Temple from the University of Pittsburgh presented her paper “Longing for Germany/ the German: Afro-European African Americans and European nostalgia”. Temple is German on her mother’s and African American on her father’s side. She was born in Germany and moved to the USA as a child. In her presentation, she relies on methodologies and paradigms from the fields of cultural memory studies, migration, ethnography, and United States-based African studies to explore the intersectional identities and critical worldviews of Afro-Germans who have migrated to the USA to develop practices that celebrate and memorialize nostalgia, and to reconcile traumatic kinship histories.

The panel “The Black Diaspora and Germany: Migrations, Imaginaries, Interventions” organised by the young scholars’ research network “Black Diaspora and Germany” explored the past and present experiences of the Black Diaspora in Germany, and the myriad connections of the international black diaspora in Germany, from an interdisciplinary perspective.

In his paper “Masters and servants: The precarious lives of personal caught between Africa and Germany”, historian Robbie Aitken explores the lives of black people who came to Germany as personal servants before World War I. He points out that Germany had many colonies in Africa and the Africans entered Germany by a variety of routes and for many reasons. They came from various regions of Africa, especially from Germany’s African protectorates, from Haiti and from the United States. Those who came to Germany were often single males who were under twenty years of age.

They came to work as servants, or came to Germany as visitors. According to Aitken, the majority of these servants died too early, they did not feel welcome or considered Germany as their home. Their lives were dependent on their relationship to their master; a relationship based on inequality and conditioned by the global colour line. The paper provides an insight into the impact of transgressing the global colour line and living lives traversing Africa and Germany.

In the panel “Transeuropean and Diasporic Encounters”, Jean d’Amour Banyanga from Åbo Akademi University presented the paper “Social suffering and healing among Rwandans’ diaspora in Finland and Belgium”. The paper aims to study, on the one hand, social suffering experienced and expressed by the survivors of the Rwandan genocide who nowadays reside in the diaspora both in Finland and Belgium and, on the other hand, how the communities try to endure and heal suffering by rebuilding social cohesion and trust with the help of traditional communal healing mechanisms and through Western justice. Due to colonial ties, the first Rwandan people came to Belgium to study. The number of Rwandan immigrants who have come to Belgium since 1990 has amounted to over 45.000. However, there are still divisions among Rwandan people who live in diaspora. For instance, Tutsi and Hutu in Belgium have their own separate areas, bars and churches into which no person from the other ethnic group can enter because they are traumatized and think that the other group are killers. Since Finland has not had significant ties with Rwanda earlier, only a few Rwandans came to Finland to apply for political asylum. According to Statistics Finland, by 2014 Finland hosted 453 (229 males and 224 females) Rwandans who had come both as refugees, students and on other grounds. They came to Europe by various routes and from different parts of Africa.

Serena Scarabello from the University of Padova presented the paper “Social mobility and the elaboration of Africanness among the youth of the African-Italian elite”. According to her study, young African-Italian elites are gaining new public visibility in the artistic, entrepreneurial, professional and political field in Italy. Her contribution to transeuropean and diasporic encounters underlines the strict interconnection between professional aspirations and the elaboration of Africanness. Her paper focuses on the evolution of two specific business projects, related to hair care and fashion. It highlights how African-Italian youths use their cosmopolitan competences to locate themselves and their activities in a transnational social space and take advantage of the interactions between the African Diaspora and the African countries. Furthermore, through the leverage of the African-Italian youth, their social and cultural capital redefines their Africanness, turning it from a racial paradigm toward an Afropolitan consciousness.

In the panel “Childhood, Parenting, and Empowerment”, Christelle Gomis presented the paper “How do we shield our children from racism?’ Black British parents’ struggles for educational equality (1967-1990)”. The presenter commented that in 1967, a group of Black British parents organized themselves to improve the experiences of their children in the British educational system. Many Black people in Britain came from the Caribbean after World War II. Some parents were shocked and crushed when their children were systematically sent to schools for the educationally subnormal. Relying on archives of voluntary organizations, on government reports, on educational texts and on parents’ and pupils’ statements, Gomis charts different campaigns of contestation of the educational system in different localities (London, Birmingham, Bradford and Leicester). In reaction, Black British parents established the Black Parents Movement in order to secure equal treatment for their children. Parents’ claims were boosted by the formal worldwide moral condemnation of racial discrimination and they linked their struggle with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In terms of parental choice and individual accountability, their protest had more success than the protest against the British educational system grounded on anti-capitalist critiques.

Finally, the conference was closed by a fishbowl discussion on “African European Studies: Aim, scope and disciplinary”. The discussion of five people at any time, two of whom spontaneously joined from the audience on a rotating basis, centred on specific questions related to African European Studies, such as: What is African European Studies supposed to mean? What are its research aims, use and limitations? Are there concrete examples where the concept “African European” can be particularly meaningful or problematic?