Poetic Visibility: East German Poetry and Blackness in Farbe Bekennen (1986)

In 1986 a group of Black German feminist poets stirred up the West German literary scene. As a result of the encounter with activist and poet Audre Lorde in the mid-1980s in Berlin, May Opitz (later Ayim), Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schulz published Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte [Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1992)]. The anthology is composed of poetry, oral histories, and socio-historical treatises and is especially noteworthy for including material by black artists from East Germany. One of them is Raja Lubinetzki who contributed an interview and selected poetry (Graue Tragik, fragment) to the anthology’s first edition under her alias Katherina Birkenwald. Lubinetzki trained in typography and sculpture art while writing poetry since the age of fourteen. The artist published some of her drawings and poetry in several East German underground magazines before contributing to Farbe Bekennen. With the publication of her work in the founding document of the Afro-German movement, she helped create poetic visibility of an ignored reality: ethnic minorities in the GDR.

Lubinetzki was born in Kropstädt (Sachsen-Anhalt) in 1962 to a German mother and a Cameroonian father. She was abandoned by her mother after birth and grew up with a white foster parent. Her foster mother struggled to financially provide for the small family of two. At the age of fourteen, Lubinetzki learned about her biological mother and two biracial siblings. One of the sisters was given up for adoption, and the other one remained with her mother.

Black Germans are part of East German history but have received little attention from the general public in former East, West, and later reunified Germany. In her 2016 essay Making African Diasporic Pasts Possible: A Retrospective View of the GDR and Its Black (Step-) Children, Peggy Piesche points out that the Black East German minority emerged in the 1960s. Black German children were born as a result of multi-ethnic relationships between German women and young men who came to the GDR for work (e.g. from Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia) or to pursue their studies (e.g. from Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia). What most people do not know is that interracial couples were not allowed to marry or share a home. Foreign workers and students faced many restrictions based on the treaties between East Germany and their respective countries of origin. Additionally, Piesche notes that based on Paragraph 6 of the GDR Ausländergesetz (aliens act) from 1979, a “… foreigner could […] lose his or her right of residence at any time, or it could be limited geographically, as well as in duration” (232). Because of these circumstances, Black German children mostly grew up with just their mothers or they were given up for adoption. These children were GDR citizens but due to their skin color most of them were perceived as “Others-from-Without” (Wright 190). Similar to Black German experiences in West Germany, those children were viewed as exotic foreigners in the GDR.

East German blackness also signifies a sense of invisibility that results from a colorblind ideology within the state. In his 2015 essay Social Chromatism: Race, Racism, and the Racial Rainbow in East Germany, Quinn Slobodian points to the paradoxical nature of race discourse in East Germany. “On one hand, East German authorities officially denounced ‘race thinking.’ On the other hand, they continued to rely on stereotypes of phenotypical and folkloric difference to illustrate themes of internationalist solidarity” (26). In East German society, such views became modes of operation that helped to reinstate the dynamics of white superiority. The majority of Black German children and adolescents lived in white families, had white grandparents and German names but had no contact to the black side of the family and no one who would talk to them about their experiences of racism or othering they surely had experienced. According to a study by Jeanette Sumalgy, Black German adolescents in the GDR experienced a lack of support from their social environments during crucial periods of their identity formation (“Afro-Deutsche Jugendliche” 24-25). The limited availability of information about the history and culture of the African diaspora, as well as the clichés associated with blackness, hindered the parents in recognizing and supporting their biracial children.

To come back to Raja Lubinetzki: her poetic fragment geburt combines moments of destruction and creation with Black German experiences and creates a poetic prominence to East German blackness. The material quality of poetic expression, namely the Black German existence it calls into being, disrupts the power of invisibility and simultaneously exposes a colorblind discourse.

fragment

geburt                                                                                       

spiegel barsten, gewohnheitshäute platzen                            

pigmente entsetzt übergestrichen                                          

mittelmäßige augen lynchen, böshassende sprüche reißen   

stempel geprobte worte bäume, blutschlingende gräser reißen

mulatte ist geboren

mulatte ist da

krausgewellte haare brechen

negroeuro rhythmen sich schämen

notverlassene lieder schweigen

mulatte ist geboren

mulatte ist da

The poem reflects that workings of colorblind racism weigh heavily on biracial children and the public discourse, as well as define the notion of East German blackness. As such, blackness is met with denial and rejection: “pigmente entsetzt übergestrichen“ and “mittelmäßige augen lynchen, böshassende sprüche reißen“ (pigments appallingly covered, mediocre eyes lynch, evil hateful remarks tear, 2-3) [1]. The birth of a biracial child calls East German blackness into being, “mulatte ist geboren/ mulatte ist da” (5-6). At the same time, the use of the term “mulatte” in reference to a biracial child illustrates the reliance on racial classification and physical difference within East German public discourse. Racializing practices continue and cause more damage over time as “krausgewellte haare brechen / negroeuro rhythmen sich schämen / notverlassenene lieder schweigen” (frizzwaved hair breaks / negroeuro rhythms are embarrassed /abandoned songs keep silent, 7-9). The harmful tension between black minority and white majority is marked by a chain of crippling actions: “brechen,” “sich schämen,” and “schweigen” (break, to be embarrassed, to keep silent). As harm and neglect intensify, the presence of a biracial child breaks and ends the vicious cycle.

Lubinetzki interweaves poetic moments of destruction and creation with minority experiences. Her work reveals that Black East German poetry utilizes the potential of poetic expression for effect. Its transformative power is generated by exposing colorblindness in East German society and by giving Black East Germans a presence and a voice. Lubinetzki’s fragment geburt evokes dynamic poetic visibility. It makes East German blackness visible and in a general sense, contributes to advancing a broadened definition of East German cultural identity.

Works Cited

Birkenwald, Katherina. “geburt.“ Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte, by Katharina Oguntoye et al., Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1986, p. 223.

Piesche, Peggy. “Making African Diasporic Pasts Possible: A Retrospective View of the GDR and Its Black (Step-)Children” Remapping Black Germany: New Perspectives on Afro German History, Politics, and Culture, edited by Sara Lennox, University of  Massachusetts Press, 2016.

Slobodian, Quinn. Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World. Berghahn Books,  2015, pp. 23- 39.

Sumalgy, Jeanette. Afro-Deutsche Jugendliche im Schulsystem der ehemaligen DDR – unter Berücksichtigung ihrer bi-nationalen Familiensituation und die Bedeutung für ihre weitere Lebensplanung. 1996. Katholische Fachhochschule Berlin, Diplomarbeit.

Wright, Michelle M. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora. Duke UP, 2003.


[1] This and all subsequent translations are my own.

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