Last month, I saw a number of Black bookstagramers criticizing the ubiquitous #BlackHistoryMonth stacks white people shared on Instagram. The critique is valid: Too often this sudden Black history focus in February is merely performative, and too often people only read books by/about Black people during the shortest month of the year. February reads often are well-meaning but unfortunately empty gestures, like too many “blackout” squares by influencers and brands last summer.
Still, my reading in the month of February was also focused on Black history. I read three great books, each literally and explicitly about Black history in Germany and the US, respectively. My February was a continuation of my January reading.
Farbe bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren Ihrer Geschichte, edited by May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz
(Translated into English as “Showing Our Colors: Afro-Women Speak Out”)
First published in 1986, this is a seminal book that helped develop an Afro-German community and movement, The book is a combination of academic-historical work (based on May Ayim’s thesis) on the history of Black people and anti-Black racism in Germany, interviews with Afro-German women of many generations, and poetry. The book is also the publication with the first written use of the term “Afro-German”.
“Ich finde eigentlich den Begriff “afro-deutsch” oder “afro-europäisch” ganz gut. Ich bekenne mich dazu, dass ich anders aussehe, vielleicht mich anders bewege, auch aufgrund meiner Herkunft und der dadurch bedingten Lebenssituation in mancher Hinsicht anders denke oder anders fühle, aber ich möchte nicht in eine weiße oder schwarze Schublade gesteckt werden.”
“I actually think the term “Afro-German” or “Afro-European” is very good. I avow that I look different, maybe move differently, also think or feel differently in some respects because of my origin and the life situation that comes with it, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed in a white or black box.”May Ayim
The book is fascinating, enriching and frustrating for the same reason:This book gave us – and not only the Afro-German community but all Germans – early on so much experience, input and language. We could be so much further along if we had only paid more attention to and understood the work of the editors (or that of Audre Lorde, who was a great influence). The book feels – unfortunately – downright contemporary. A must read.
Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War, edited by Joseph P. Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland
A more conventional academic-historical volume than the other two books I read in February. Freedom’s Soldiers, published in 1998, is an excerpt of the greater project Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, led by Ira Berlin. This slim book includes an essay on the experience of Black soldiers during the US Civil War and in the Union army, and the implications:
“The successes of Black soldiers in the war against discriminarion within the army, however limited, politicized them and their families, preparing all black people for the larger struggle they would face at war’s end.”
Perhaps most interesting, the second half of the book is a collection of images, letters, petitions and other documentary evidence.
Eve L. Ewing is a poet, writer and sociologist of education from Chicago, and 1919 is her poetic reflection on the 1919 Chicago race riots. As you’d expect, 1919 is based on Ewing’s research for her second book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, and each poem is put in context (or in coversation?) a 1922 report by the Chicago Commission on Reace Relations on the riots. Ewing’s book is incredibly impactful, reflecting on the migration of Black Americans form the South to Chicago, the conditions that lead to the riot, the (race/racist) riot itself and the way these elements reverberate throughout recent history to today.
“The Great Fire already lives next foor
and hides in the daytime.
The Great Fire knows they don’t want it here.
The Great Fire is going to burn the city they built
and we will watch from the stone tower
and we will wait for it to finish
and we can wait a long time
and the Fire can too.”
The slim book accomplished what all great poetry does: Condensing the great, historic, epic complexities of life into brief, impactful language. Sometimes speculative, sometimes heartwrenching, sometimes didactic. I can highly recommend this one, too.
Farbe bekennen is a collection on an aspect of German history that was almost untold before the book (especially from the perspective of Afro-German women). Both Freedom’s Soldiers and 1919 are books on elements of US history that are too often overlooked if not forgotten in public discourse. Farbe bekennen and 1919 narrate history that feels to contemporary. All three books will have an impact on me beyond Black History Month as I work on not making that reading merely performative, and to incorporate what I learn from these great books into more anti-racist practice.