“Ick bin ein Obama (I am an Obama),” reads the poster at Berlin’s central Ernst Reuter Platz square, in an apparent play on John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. On the poster, a "black" Sonneborn smiles as he raises his arm in the air.
The billboard is the latest in Sonneborn’s campaign for his satirical political party Die Partei ahead of state elections in Berlin this Sunday. It’s meant to make fun of the entire German political establishment and go up to the edge of propriety – another poster is entitled “MILFS against Merkel” and the campaign has also mocked the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party.
But the latest one is upsetting to some because of the racial connotations of blackface theatre, which was widespread in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Based on ugly stereotypes, blackface consisted of white performers painting themselves black for degrading minstrel shows. It it quickly died out in the United States after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
In an interview with The Local on Thursday, Sonneborn, staying in character as the leader of Die Partei, said his billboard wasn’t racist.
He said he was “Germany’s Obama” and added he was mocking the “hype” surrounding the US president. Sonneborn, formerly editor-in-chief of the German satire magazine Titanic, said he wasn’t aware of the history of blackface and didn’t care if anyone was upset.
“No, I didn’t know that,” he told The Local. “If Americans associate it with that, then I’m sorry, but I’m not going to take it down.”
But Tahir Della a spokesman for the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD), which tries to represent the interests of the black community in Germany, called the billboard "unbelievably hurtful."
"This is 2011 and not 1950," he said. "I find it racist through and through."
Quaide Williams, the vice chair of the German chapter of Democrats Abroad, also said the poster was insensitive, although he emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not the organization.
“Do I think that racism is a problem in Germany? Yes I do. I think this shows how insensitive people are to this topic,” Williams told The Local. “It’s kind of interesting to look at how little they recognize racism in their own politics.”
There have been several incidents in recent years involving Obama that have led to charges of racial insensitivity by Germans.
In 2009, a frozen food company released Obama chicken fingers but later said it wasn’t aware some might see overtones of stereotyping blacks with the product’s name. That same year, Dresden’s Zoo renamed a mandrill – a monkey-like primate – it had called Obama after an unfortunate attempt to "honour" the US leader.
The gaffes have not been confined to one side of the Atlantic, however. After Obama’s election as president, the New York Post got in trouble for a political cartoon showing police officers shooting a chimpanzee while saying: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”
But the blackface billboard incident comes on the heels of an open letter by the US Ambassador to Germany, Philip Murphy, lamenting racism in the country after one of his black staffers had to endure abuse following a football game in Berlin.
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The US Embassy said it had no immediate comment on the Obama billboard.