In the lead up to the 2008 American presidential elections, the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung was itself the subject of international headlines when it ran a cover story featuring a photograph of the White House with the title “Onkel Baracks Hütte” (or Uncle Barack’s Cabin). For left-leaning Germans, those familiar with the overwhelmingly pejorative uses of the term “Uncle Tom” and Die Tageszeitung’s history of using that term in reference to African American politicians, the cover was an embarrassment. In the eyes of Yonis Ayeh, a board member at the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) “the newspaper [was] comparing Obama with Uncle Tom, a subservient slave.…It transmits an image of black people as submissive, uneducated people, which is simply not true” (Smith 1). Responding to such criticism and claiming innocence, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Rainer Metzger said, “’Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is a book that all Germans know and which they associate with issues of racism. The headline is supposed to make people think about these stereotypes. It works on many levels” (Smith 1). Clearly, it did not. Metzger’s dance around Die Tageszeitung’s controversial cover and his feigned innocence is instructive here because it indicates Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s longstanding presence in Germany and takes advantage of the plasticity of its cultural uses. Die Tageszeitung’s use of the term “Onkel Tom” is bound up with a long history of German and American cultural exchange. Onkel Tom’s Hütte itself has always provided an ambiguous link between German and American culture; the novel has been as important for Germans defining America and its social problems as it has been for the formation of German cultural identity.
I use this anecdote about Die Tageszeitung to illustrate the deployment of African American signifiers in German contexts and the weight of what Toni Morrison would term “a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence” (6) in Europe; in other words, to seek out the impact of figurative “blackness” and “whiteness” in transatlantic contexts. I do so in opposition to contemporary understandings of blackness as a relatively new European phenomenon. While studies like Sander Gilman’s On Blackness Without Blacks (1982) have historicized the black (and often Muslim) presence of blacks in Germany and Austria before the advent of German colonialism, Northern Europe is still commonly viewed as an intrinsically white space. (This belief is embedded in the philosophy of right-wing hate groups like Pegida, as evidenced by the rhetoric that has proliferated during their recent upsurge.) In Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1991), Audre Lorde’s former students and colleagues trouble such notions and draw direct connections between Afro-German and African American political movements. In this essay, I also attempt to broaden the understanding of the impact of figurative blackness across American and German cultures.
Speaking of the work of figurative blackness in the area of identity formation in mainstream (white) American literature, Morrison reveals that
through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers people their work with the signs and bodies of this presence—one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americanness. (7)
How it was crucial first to a sense of Americanness, then German-Americanness and Germaness, is my particular concern. I submit that, in spite of significant geographical and cultural differences, American-styled blackness has played an important role in German culture since the mid-nineteenth century, giving Germans a sense of their place in the new world order and their own understanding of relatively new concepts of whiteness. The functions of this Africanist presence have travelled forth from, and doubled back between, Germany and the United States for centuries in a mechanism made possible by, but not limited to, long-standing German American cultural exchanges embedded in German American communities.
Transatlantic performances of blackness that emerge from Uncle Tom’s Cabin are about the fiction of blackness as it is inscribed on the body, in the text and in the world. They are about the ways that this fictive blackness gives birth to politicized senses of self, and modes of reading and seeing. This performance of blackness is a convoluted process that brings whiteness into being across nation spaces while defining its subjects. In light of globalization and imperial efforts at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it becomes clear that the performance of blackness helps “white” people to establish their position in the world as political/politicized bodies and to understand exactly how they are similar to those who look like them, in spite of old animosities and regional anomalies. The milieu into which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was born and became a potent racial signifier for distant German readers and viewers resonates strongly here. One need not be an enslaver or a direct participant in the slave trade to understand that a slave is a subject drained of agency, an abject assembly of consciousness. And yet, the potential uses of this subject and its agency are enigmatic. I borrow from Fred Moten, among others, when I think about blackness as a constant cultural presence that defies expectations and resists containment. In In the Break (2003), Moten gestures towards the polyvalent nature of blackness and its mutually constitutive effects while affirming the sonic qualities of blackness within mainstream culture. For Moten, blackness is the object that possesses. It is the resonant subject-object. Blackness makes and unmakes its subjects and objects through a number of mechanisms, including performance and cultural consumption. For popular audiences, viewers and readers in turn-of-the-century Germany, blackness meant much the same thing…