Book Review: Showing our Colors

One of the first challenges to the idea of black intellectual inferiority came from a German study. Authored by psychologist Klaus Eyferth and published in the 1959 edition of the journal Vita Humana (now Human Development), the study compared the intelligence of two groups of children born in Germany to local women and American soldiers. The first group, however, was sired by white GIs, while the second had black fathers. If the former children proved to be more intelligent than the latter, then white supremacists could make the argument that blacks were indeed genetically inferior to whites, at least in terms of intellectual ability. But no such luck: the two groups’ test scores were indistinguishable. The study was, as expected, vilified by proponents of racial inequality (prompting one commentator to note that left wingers were not the only ones to dislike race research), but it was accepted by the scientific community and, more importantly, replicated by other researchers who reached the same conclusions.

I first read of this study in my first-year psychology class. The existence of a black community in Germany was news to me. But I soon learned that the offspring of black GIs were not the only people of mixed African descent in that country. Germany at one time possessed a number of colonies in Africa, including modern-day Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo and Namibia. Some natives of those places immigrated to Germany, where they established relationships with the locals and produced mixed-race children. In addition, biracial children were born to Germans and immigrants from African countries never under Germany’s control. Until recently, though, I had never come across any first-hand accounts by mixed-race Germans themselves. That is, until I discovered Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out at a small Toronto bookstore.

Showing Our Colors is edited by three women: May Opitz, an Afro-German speech therapist and poet; Katharina Oguntoye, a feminist historian of German and Nigerian background, and Dagmar Schultz, a white woman and publishing house editor. Translated from the German Farbe bekennen, the book contains a history of German imperialism in Africa and of blacks (and mixed-race people) in Germany as well as their portrayal by white society. The English version includes a foreword by the late poet Audre Lorde, who met a number of Afro-German women during a stay in Berlin. The book’s principal attraction, however, lies in the first-hand accounts by fourteen women of mixed black and German descent.

As the editors state in the introduction, the contributors have little in common besides their blackness. The women differ in their sexual orientation (most are heterosexual, but a few are lesbians), educational and professional experience, country of residence (at the time of the book’s publication, what is now Germany consisted of two nations, east and west), and connection with their black heritage. They also trace their ancestry to different sources. Some have a parent directly from Africa, whereas others were born to black Americans, usually GIs. In general, the women with African-born parents have had more contact with their black relatives than did the daughters of African Americans. In addition, almost all the contributors have black fathers and white mothers, except for a seventeen-year-old woman with an Afro-German mother and Italian father and the twenty-three-year-old daughter of an Afro-German woman and Ghanaian man.

Few of the women profiled in Showing Our Colors claim an exclusively black identity. Perhaps because they live in Germany, speak German as their first language, and in some cases have had little contact with other blacks, even their own family members, the women largely identify as German or, at most, as mulatto. One woman, for instance, who was raised by a white single mother, begins her account with “I’m German, and I’m dark.” According to a forty-two-year-old nurse, people who tell her she is lucky to live in Germany do not understand that “I’m German and don’t belong anywhere else.”

The contributors’ tendency to identify more with their German than black side in some instances stems from their inability to integrate into a black community. While they rarely faced rejection or discrimination from blacks as they sometimes did from their fellow Germans (on the contrary, one contributor states that her African boyfriend’s family put her on a pedestal because of what they perceived as her “whiteness”), they often felt that they could never become part of black society. In the case of those who traced their descent directly to Africa, sometimes cultural barriers were too great an obstacle to overcome. One woman, for example, became distressed at what she saw as women’s subservient role in her father’s native Ethiopia. The woman whose boyfriend’s family idolized her supposed whiteness explains that when she was called “white lady” at a beach in Liberia, she realized that in Africa she would always be considered an “other,” even if a privileged “other.” She decided that Germany was her home after all.

Showing Our Colors does not address the question of race mixing per se but rather the lives of African-descended individuals in what was until recently a fairly monoracial country. Nonetheless, given that all the women featured here are in fact biracial, they offer a number of insights into the mixed race experience. One of the first contributors, a sixty-seven-year-old woman who lived through the Third Reich and narrowly escaped sterilization (a procedure mandated by the Nazis for non-“Aryans”), says that when asked once whether she minded being a mulatto, she replied, “No… what I have already experienced because of my background you will never experience in your entire life.” Another woman, forty at the time, tells of having reconciled herself to the “white part of me.” A couple of the younger contributors, though, speak of feeling alienated from both sides of their heritage at some point in their lives. For example, at a younger age one woman “hated mixed marriages, since we children have to live our lives always between two stools.” Another was disappointed that her physical features were not “black” enough.

The contributors not only faced the issue of race mixing in the context of their family background but in their own marriages and sexual relationships. The first woman profiled, the sixty-seven-year-old Third Reich survivor, married a white man. Many of her friends could not understand how she could do so in light of the oppression she and her family had experienced from white society. She always answered that she had no objection to marrying a white man provided he was a “decent person.” She describes herself and her husband as “happy grandparents” whose lives do not differ fundamentally from their contemporaries. Some of the younger women are less sanguine about their relationships with white men. The forty-two-year-old nurse, for example, considers some white men “racist exploiters” and recounts having left a white boyfriend herself after he told her “A model or stewardess I can have any time, but not a Black woman.” She and several other contributors imply that some of their white lovers were interested in them not as individuals but as members of the black race.

Other women formed relationships with black rather than white men (as well, one contributor had a brief affair with a black GI but later married a white German). Sometimes circumstance rather than race was the major factor in their choice of partner. The older sister of the sixty-seven-year-old Third Reich survivor, for instance, married a countryman of her father, but rejection of white men did not seem to play a part in her decision. Some contributors admit to other reasons for preferring black over white men. A young woman abandoned by her American soldier father and raised by her white mother says that for many Afro-German women the “search for a father and the search for Black men often converged.” With regard to herself, she adds that “I never wanted a white boyfriend; blackness and being a man went together… once I realized that, I wanted to get to know my father.”

Some women profiled say that their white mothers, or mother substitutes, did not know how to deal with the racism their daughters faced in white society. For example, one woman describes how her mother refused to discuss problems like racism with her and thus failed to prepare her for the outside world. Another contributor who lived with her African father and his Jewish wife states that her stepmother, having lived as a Jew in the Nazi era, had adopted an attitude of “whatever you do, don’t be conspicuous” and was not willing to “go to bat” for her stepdaughter. On the other hand, the father would not let anyone get away with mistreating his daughter.

The contributors to express differing opinions on various issues. One example has to do with the role of blacks in German films. After Germany’s loss of its African colonies, coupled with its defeat in World War II, German filmmakers tried to re-ignite the spark of national pride by making movies that portrayed the country’s glory days as a colonial power. Many Africans and Afro-Germans were hired as actors and extras on the sets. The two sisters who lived through the Nazi era speak fondly of their small parts in these movies, noting that they had the opportunity to meet other people of African descent as well as earn extra money. The forty-two-year-old nurse, on the other hand, who herself acted on stage as a child, is more critical of the roles offered to Africans in the cinema and theatre. In her view, “the movie scene was not all that nice… either you play the naked wild man or woman, or servants’ roles.”

Some of the limitations of Showing Our Colors? The book primarily profiles the daughters of black fathers and white mothers. It might be interesting to see whether the lives of children born to white fathers and black mothers differed in any way from that of the present contributors. The editors can hardly be faulted for the omission: though many German colonizers in Africa sired offspring by local women, most of these children remained with their mothers and never went to Germany.

Showing Our Colors’ strength lies in its first-hand presentation of the lives of biracial individuals in a largely monoracial European country. Of course the experience of these women might not be identical to that of mixed race women in a multiracial society such as the United States. But Showing Our Colors is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the multiracial experience in Europe.

2 Responses to “Book Review: Showing our Colors”

  1. 1 B Mar 2nd, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Interesting read Emilia.

    I didn’t realize that Germany had some black (half black or how ever they like to be referred) people going that far back. I knew that US soldiers messed with women and had them dropping babies every where they went, but Germany…and black soldiers creating kids was not something I expected to ever hear about. I guess a number of women didn’t share the racial attitudes that many in that country did in those days….or more likely…curiosity got to them and they wanted to test drive a black man the same way US soldiers liked to mess with local women where ever they go.

    As someone who had both parents around, and is not biracial, I still can ID with these ladies somewhat because I grew up in a mono racial environment where I was out of place. I know that growing up in that situation has many effects that are lasting.

    It is interesting to see the difference between those with African fathers compared to American soldiers for fathers.

    Anyways…its always interesting to see peoples situations and struggles in different parts of the world.

  2. 2 Emilia Liz Mar 2nd, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Dear B,

    Thank you for the comment.

    Yes, as I mentioned in my essay, in general the women with African fathers were more likely to grow up in an intact family than those with American GI fathers. Even in one case where a child (the nurse with the Jewish stepmother) was born out of wedlock as a result of an extramarital affair, she ended up living with her father in a two-parent family. On the other hand, the relationships between GIs and German women were often more transient in nature, and some of the resulting children had no contact at all with their Black side.

    You should try to get a copy of the book. I bought it at a bookstore that has unfortunately closed, but you might check Indigo or see if they have it at the public library (or at Robarts U of T library if you have checking privileges there). I have lent my copy to a friend (who ironically is Afro-German herself; she was born in Jamaica but has Black and German ancestors) and I don’t know when she’ll be giving it back to me, but if you don’t find a copy I can mail mine to you to read (and then you can mail it back to me) once she does give it to me.


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