What does it really mean to be black in Germany? A multimedia project takes a closer look at a touchy subject and concludes that it’s time to get rid of prejudices and tackle racism.
Marie Nejar is a slender, elegant, dynamic 85-year-old lady with a pronounced Hamburg accent. She wears a black dress with a white lace collar, just like many other German women her age.
“I’m a typical German, I was raised like a Prussian by my dear grandmother,” she says with a mischievous smile. Marie Nejar is one of the 10 Afro-Germans the filmmakers Laurel and Jermain Raffington portray in their “Black Red Gold” project.
Nejar’s grandmother fell in love with a Creole man from Martinique, and her upper-middle-class family cast her out. Marie Nejar’s father was a ship steward from Ghana. She grew up in Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood, and thanks to many Germans who accepted and protected her, she survived the Nazi era.
On the orders of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Göbbels, Nejar played exotic bit parts in propaganda films; after World War II, she worked as a nurse.
What’s beneath this skin?
Not being considered “German” because of the color of his skin is nothing new to Theodor Wonja Michael. He was born in 1925, the son of a German mother and an African father from the former German colony of Cameroon.
“I look black,” he says. “But what’s underneath this skin?”
He experienced racism at an early age. After the death of his mother during the Weimar Republic, he was forced to participate in exotic presentations and join a traveling show.
“I call it my grass skirt era; we were putting on ‘Africa,'” recalled Michael. Later on, he worked as an actor, a journalist, and for Germany’s BND intelligence service.
Taking a highly sensitive and astute approach, the “Black Red Gold” project portraits trace racism through the decades.
Even today many people still find it difficult to accept that it is not the color of one’s skin that makes a person German.
“You’re not different, but you are perceived as being different!” Michael says in his 15-minute portrait. “That’s what makes it so dangerous is that you start seeing yourself they way others see you.” And no dark-skinned person will come away from that unscathed, he adds.
Cross-section of German society
Afro-German culture has been a part of German history for generations. It’s something the white social majority is barely aware of – one of the reasons why director Jermain Raffington initiated this project. Another reason is more personal. The son of a German and a Jamaican, he grew up in Hamburg and became a professional basketball player.
Often asked “where he was actually from,” the young man began to question his identity. “I was looking for role models,” he says, adding that with his project, he wants to “create positive role models beyond the stereotypes.”
Ten portraits are planned, and five are already finished. They show successful, prominent Afro-Germans who could easily be role models for young people because of their intriguing biographies.
Soccer pro Jerome Boateng agreed to join the project, and so have filmmaker Mo Asumang, Kevin John Edusei – chief conductor of the Munich Symphony Orchestra -, a municipal politician from Freiburg, a professor, and a Bundeswehr military officer.
We are all German
“Blue, yellow, green or black, – we’re all German because we live here,” says Patrick Mushatsi-Kareba, who heads a major music label.
Mushatsi-Kareba grew up in Frankfurt’s Goldstein district, a blue collar neighborhood that was a melting pot even in the 1980s, “before the term became popular in Germany,” he says.
His Burundian father left the family when Patrick was still a boy. His Italian mom remarried, so her son grew up in a “typical Italian working-class family.” Despite his multi-cultural upbringing and surroundings, he also experienced rejection and hostilities, a range of subtle to open day to-day ostracism.
The political scientist feels that education is the only way to change that. “No society today can afford to say, we’re tolerant, but….,” says Mushatsi-Kareba.
He and Jermain Raffington agree that Germany is right on track. “Black Red Gold” is sponsored by Germany’s Foreign Ministry, the media board of Berlin-Brandenburg and the DeutschPlus initiative. Laurel and Jermain Raffington have come up with haunting personal portraits that show a slice of German society the majority takes much too little notice of. The films have the potential to shake things up.
“Rightwing radicalism is not the only problem, it is the society that puts up with it,” argues Jermain Raffington.
“What can I do,” Marie Nejar declares with a cheerful laugh, and in her best Hamburg accent: “I’m German through and through.”
Who would want to contradict the charming elderly lady? It’s a good thing that she, like all the others, is a part of this country.