A Message from the Harvard Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures

June 25, 2020

“Die Arbeit in weißer Haut kann sich nicht dort emanzipieren, wo sie in schwarzer Haut gebrandmarkt wird.” – Karl Marx, Das Kapital

The Harvard Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures joins millions of Americans and people across the world in condemning the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the countless murders of Black men and women that preceded them. We support the protests that were catalyzed by Floyd’s murder. We remember that Floyd was only the most recent in a long list of Black lives lost to police violence in this country and that for Black citizens of the United States, the past weeks have not represented a “wake-up call” to something new, but the continuation of a longstanding crisis. Racial violence and race-based discrimination in America have a history that is centuries long. We condemn all forms of racism and we are committed to providing a supportive environment for all students and faculty.

Both the kinds of racial thinking that instigate that violence and the kinds of radical thought that inspire resistance to it also have a long history in Germany and Austria. W.E.B. DuBois said simply “It was in Germany that my first awakening to social reform began.” It was in Germany that he “began to see the race problem in America, the problem of the peoples of Africa and Asia, and the political development of Europe as one.” It was also in Germany where he heard a notorious professor assert that “Mulattoes are inferior; they feel themselves to be inferior.” For DuBois, Germany was an escape from the personalized racism he encountered in the United States, but it and much of Europe in general were centers of racial thinking around the turn of the 20th century. And Germany would then, a few decades later, commit some of the most atrocious racial crimes in the history of humanity.

The contributions of Black and other underrepresented minority thinkers to German history and literature have not received as much attention as they could, and that gives us the opportunity to do more. As citizens, we support social justice movements that address systemic racial bias in the criminal justice system. Individually, we incorporate into our teaching references to, contribute to, or work together with those pursuing the growth of social justice, including, for example, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), civil rights lawyers such as Bryan Stevenson and Michelle AlexanderCritical ResistanceRuth Wilson Gilmore, and the Movement for Black Lives. As teachers and scholars, we support the work colleagues at other institutions have already begun to diversify the German curriculum both in language teaching and in German Studies more broadly, including the study of the Black German diaspora and the expansion of bibliographies to expand representation of underrepresented authors and themes. Projects like these not only draw attention to well-known Black thinkers with ties to Germany, such as DuBois and Audre Lorde, but also have the potential to bring new names to light and new works into the canon. As colleagues, we welcome and encourage young Black scholars and artists engaging with German literature and history — such as Kira Thurman (University of Michigan), Jennifer Allen (Yale University), Vance Byrd (Grinnell College), Priscilla Layne (UNC), Philipp Khabo Koepsell (Berlin), and Tiffany Florvil (University of New Mexico) — and we are eager to engage with the work of many more.

This juncture also affords the opportunity to recognize those of our own students and colleagues who have been bringing to light the mutual relevance of German literature, Black lives, and Black thought. That work is represented by publications such as Imagining Blackness in Germany and Austria (Cambridge, 2012) as well as by undergraduate theses, including Preston Scott Copeland’s “Toxi Grows Up: A Changing Appraisal of the Afro-German Cinematic Image in Post-Reunification German through Branwen Okpako's Dreckfresser” (2011), Jasmine Ford’s “Kein Ausländer und doch ein Fremder: The Construction of Contemporary Afro-German Identity through Hip-Hop” (2010), and Daniel Menz’s “Mobilizing Memory: Social Movement Activism on Remembrance of the Holocaust and Nazi era in 1980s West Berlin” (2019).

To those on the front lines of the battle for social and racial justice, we say, borrowing another line from W.E.B. Du Bois, “[Your] triumph is a triumph not of [yourselves] alone, but of humankind.”