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10 influential Black people who have made their mark on German history

To celebrate Black History Month, The Local has put together a list of some influential Black people who have made their mark on Germany.

Former German women's national team coach Steffi Jones at a friendly between Germany and France in 2017.
Former German women's national team coach Steffi Jones at a friendly between Germany and France in 2017. Photo: picture alliance / Friso Gentsch/dpa | Friso Gentsch

Black History Month takes place every February and is celebrated across the globe – including here in Germany.

It was introduced in Germany in1990 by the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (Initiative of Black People in Germany or ISD).

Tahir Della, of the ISD, told The Local about the importance of recognising the contributions of Black people in Germany throughout history and modern times. 

“Resistance is an important part of the Black movement and also has a long tradition in Germany,” he said. 

“Despite the fact that people of the African Diaspora – including Black Germans – have lived in this region for over 300 years, Germany is still understood by many people as a white nation.

“Black resistance is therefore first and foremost a struggle for recognition. For this reason, Black History Month has been held in numerous cities in Germany.”

Della added that the event is used to remember German history in a more inclusive way. 

READ ALSO: Black people in Germany face widespread racism, survey finds

Participants at a Black Lives Matter march in Berlin in July 2021.

Participants at a Black Lives Matter march in Berlin in July 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

While far from being an exhaustive list, here are 10 Black people who have made their mark on German history and the modern day. 

Louis Brody (1892-1951) was a Cameroonian-born German actor who co-founded and was actively involved with Afrikanischer Hilfsversein (African Relief Organisation), an organisation that spoke out against racial discrimination in Germany during the 1920s. 

His film career was plagued by several racist roles in propaganda films during the Nazi regime which enabled him to support himself financially. Nevertheless, he paved the way for other Afro-German actors, and he continued working in film in Berlin up until his death. 

Cameroonian-born German actor Louis Brody. Photo: Yva/Wikimedia Commons

Theodor Michael (1925-2019), at 18, was forced into working in Nazi labour camps after being declared stateless as a result of his skin colour. He was also often featured in Nazi propaganda films as means of survival. 

After the war, he went on to study political science and became a prominent journalist, notably as head editor of the “African Bulletin” magazine. 

He was also a civil servant and was actively involved in the Black community throughout his life, pushing for the recognition of Black people as Germans.

READ ALSO: ‘Black lives need to matter in Germany’ New project to uncover racism in everyday life

Audre Lorde (1934-1992), although originally from the United States, made a profound impact on the Black German movement and became an influence on many Black German female writers. 

A writer, feminist and civil rights activist, Lorde came to Germany in the 1980s and spent most of her time in Berlin organising community events and bringing Black German women together. 

The award-winning documentary “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984–1992” explores her influence on the movement. 

May Ayim (1960-1996) was one such writer, as well as a poet, educator and activist. She published her thesis as a renowned collection of personal essays under the title Farbe bekennen (English title: Showing Our Colours: Afro-German Women Speak Out), which recounted the experiences of many Afro-German women in German society. She also helped co-found the Berlin chapter of the ISD. 

The May-Ayim-Ufer along the Spree River in Berlin-Kreuzberg is named after her.

Other writers include Ika Hügel-Marshall, who wrote about her experience growing up black in post-war Germany. All were active in the ADEFRA (Afro-Deutsche Frauen) organisation.

Vera Heyer (1946-1995) began collecting and cataloguing the works of African, Afro-diasporic, and Black authors in the 1970s and invited members of the Black community into her small apartment in Mainz, where she created a makeshift library. 

Her vision of turning them into a permanent library came to fruition after her death, with the opening of the Vera Heyer Archive in 2014. 

The collection is now housed in the Each One Teach One (EOTO) Library in Berlin’s African Quarter.

Karamba Diaby (1961-) is an SPD politician who, in 2013, made history by becoming the first member of the German Bundestag of African descent alongside Charles Huber of the CDU. 

German MP Karamba Diaby speaks at the party conference of the SPD Saxony-Anhalt in Magdeburg in September 2021.

German MP Karamba Diaby speaks at the party conference of the SPD Saxony-Anhalt in Magdeburg in September 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Ronny Hartmann

Both politicians paved the way for many other Afro-Germans to make their way into the Bundestag, with four being elected to the role in 2021, including the first Black woman, Awet Tesfaiesus

Steffi Jones (1972-) is former football player who played for, and went on to manage, Germany’s women’s national team. 

She featured in the documentary film Schwarze Adler in 2021, speaking on her experiences as an Afro-German woman in football and bringing attention to the racism she’s faced. She has since become an advocate and role model for women and Black people in sports.

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CULTURE

How Germans are rethinking their way of death

Traditionally a very religious country, Germany is rethinking its way of death. One start-up is even claiming to have found a way of prolonging life - digitally at least - beyond the grave.

How Germans are rethinking their way of death

Youlo – a cheery contraction of “You Only Live Once” – allows people to record personal messages and videos for their loved ones, which are then secured for several years in a “digital tombstone”.

Unveiled at “Life And Death 2022” funeral fair in the northern city of Bremen this month, its creators claim it allows users to have their final word before they slip gently into the good night.

Traditionally, Lutheran northern Germany has long had a rather stiff and stern approach to death.

But as religion and ritual loosened their hold, the crowds at the fair show people are looking for alternative ways of marking their end – a trend some say has been helped by the coronavirus pandemic.

“With globalisation, more and more people live their lives far from where they were born,” said Corinna During, the woman behind Youlo.

When you live hundreds of kilometres from relatives, visiting a memorial can “demand a huge amount of effort”, she said.

And the Covid-19 pandemic has only “increased the necessity” to address the problem, she insisted.

READ ALSO: What to do when a foreigner dies in Germany

No longer taboo

During lockdowns, many families could only attend funerals by video link, while the existential threat coronavirus posed – some 136,000 people died in Germany – also seems to have challenged longtime taboos about death.

All this has been helped by the success of the German-made Netflix series “The Last Word” – a mould-breaking “dramedy” hailed for walking the fine line between comedy and tragedy when it comes to death and bereavement.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich.

An angel figure stands on a grave at the Westfriedhof in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Much like British comedian Ricky Gervais’ hit series “After Life”, which turns on a husband grieving the loss of his wife, the heroine of “The Last Word” embraces death and becomes a eulogist at funerals as her way of coping with the sudden death of her husband.

“Death shouldn’t be a taboo or shocking; we shouldn’t be taken unawares by it, and we certainly shouldn’t talk about it in veiled terms,” Bianca Hauda, the presenter of the popular podcast “Buried, Hauda”, told AFP.

It aims to “help people be less afraid and accept death,” she said.

“The coronavirus crisis will almost certainly leave a trace” on how Germans view death, said sociologist Frank Thieme, author of “Dying and Death in Germany”. He argued that there has been a change in the culture around death for “the last 20 to 25 years”.

These days, there are classes to teach you how to make your own coffin and even people who make a living writing personalised funeral speeches. Digital technology which was “barely acceptable not so long ago” was also beginning to make its mark, he said.

‘Straitjacket’

Historian Norbert Fischer of Hamburg University said they have been a shift toward individualism in the “culture of burials and grief since the beginning of the 21st century.

“The traditional social institutions of family, neighbourhood and church are losing their importance faced with a funeral culture marked by a much greater freedom of choice,” he said.

However, the change has been slower in Germany because “legal rules around funerals are much stricter than most other European countries,” said sociologist Thorsten Benkel, which is at odds with “what individuals aspire to”.

Some political parties like the Greens also want to loosen this legislative “straitjacket”, particularly the law known as the “Friedhofszwang”.

The 200-year-old rule bans coffins and urns being buried anywhere, but in a cemetery. Originally passed to prevent outbreaks of disease, it has been largely surpassed as a public health measure, particularly since cremation became popular.

Germany also had a very particular relationship with death in the aftermath of World War II.

Back in 1967, the celebrated psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich put Germany on the couch with their book “The Inability to Mourn”.

One of the most influential of the post-war era, the book argued that Germans had collectively swept the horrors committed by the Nazis in their name — and their own huge losses and suffering during the war –under the carpet.

Thankfully, said Benkel, mentalities have “changed an awful lot since”.

By David COURBET

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