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From Farbe Bekennen to Showing Our Colors. Re-reading German Postcolonial Studies

The 1986 anthology Farbe Bekennen has a legendary status in Black German activism and scholarship. In terms of German engagement with its colonial past, however, it has not nearly gained the attention it deserves. Reading the publication in terms of its transatlantic history helps to question this imbalance.

By Rita Maricocchi

The anthology of essays, conversations, testimonies, and poetry titled Farbe bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf die Spuren ihrer Geschichte, edited by May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz and first published in 1986, is undeniably a paradigmatic text for Black German history and literature. Farbe bekennen traces Black histories and experiences throughout German history in the lives and families of the fourteen Black German women contributors, establishing an understanding of contemporary Germany as shaped by colonialism. The anthology’s reception as the founding text of Afro-German thought has been critiqued for overlooking or even marginalizing other sources of Black and postcolonial knowledges in the German context, such as by Philipp Khabo Koepsell, who, while underlining the significance of the volume, notes that »[m]igrant and â€ștemporaryâ€č Black communities [
] have been active and running years before this particular publication« (44). And yet, while clearly an important text for Black German knowledge production about the colonial past, Farbe bekennen is absent in prominent surveys of German postcolonial studies. At the same time that Natasha Kelly convincingly argues that the anthology (belatedly) opened up a postcolonial discourse in German scholarship (Afrokultur 11) and EncarnaciĂłn GutiĂ©rrez RodrĂ­guez notes how Black German feminists, such as Ayim and Oguntoye, have illustrated colonial continuities within Germany in their work (18), overviews like Postkoloniale Germanistik and the Handbuch Postkolonialismus und Literatur cite texts such as The Imperialist Imagination (1998) and Paul Michael LĂŒtzeler’s Der postkoloniale Blick (1997) as representative of what they call the first phase of postcolonial studies in »Germanistik« (DĂŒrbeck 38). Such genealogies overlook both Farbe bekennen and the activist work of the »quotidian intellectuals«, as Tiffany Florvil has called them (Mobilizing 6), who made early efforts to confront race and colonialism in the German context. This is part of a pattern of disregard for knowledge produced by Black and PoC German communities as well as the appropriation thereof, which Fatima El-Tayeb points out is ongoing in current debates about German (post)colonialism (»Undisciplined« 38).

Original Cover of
Farbe Bekennen (1986)

The following essay proposes to trace a reframing of German postcolonial studies through the transatlantic literary history of this simultaneously prominent and overlooked anthology. What would it mean to place Farbe bekennen more centrally within a genealogy of German postcolonial thought? How would it change and diversify the narrative of postcolonial studies in Germany? Picking up on Gianna Zocco’s thoughts in a previous article on the blog about Black Transatlantic Literary Studies and the »field of â€șinvisibleâ€č communications« and »protagonists«, which she argues needs further attention, this essay will briefly explore the translation and reception history of Farbe bekennen and offer thoughts on the transatlantic formation of postcolonial studies in Germany. Scholars whose work is rooted in the histories and legacies of British, French, and American empires have certainly shaped the canons of postcolonial thought in Germany. Thinking with one such scholar, namely Stuart Hall, I suggest a â€șre-readingâ€č of German postcolonial studies, noting that the particularities of Germany’s empire and its aftermath have resulted in what Lora Wildenthal has called a »stubbornly non-postcolonial postcolonial […] identity« (147). In his 1996 essay »When Was â€șthe Post-colonialâ€č?«, Hall writes about what the postcolonial continually »obliges« us to do, namely to »re-read the very binary form in which the colonial encounter has for so long itself been represented [
] to re-read the binaries as forms of transculturation, of cultural translation« (299). I thus understand postcolonial to mean revisiting the binaries of scholarship/activism, academic prose/poetry, national/transnational, then/now, which have structured the traditional, hegemonic ways in which Germany and its colonial history have been (un)represented. In doing so, I explore the processes of exchange, adaptation, and translation across the Atlantic which inform the genealogy of postcolonial thinking in Germany today.

Farbe bekennen notably has its origins in the transatlantic exchange of Black feminist thought. In her monograph, Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement (2020), Florvil demonstrates how Black Germans made use of »diasporic resource[s]« (27), making connections with transnational and diasporic Black thinkers and activists. American Caribbean feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde was one of these resources, famously invited to teach at the Free University of Berlin in 1984 by Dagmar Schultz. As May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye write in the introduction to the original publication, they created the term â€șAfro-Germanâ€č together with Audre Lorde during her time as lecturer (10). Indeed, it was also Lorde who brought together Black German women through her teaching and engagement, and who encouraged them to collect and write down their experiences in what was to become Farbe bekennen, a multi-genre »queer« (Florvil »Writings«) anthology. Through the interviews with Afro-German women from multiple generations, including several women whose fathers immigrated from the former German colony Cameroon to Germany, the anthology collectively remembers German colonialism and its legacies throughout the twentieth century in multiple forms, including historical essays, memoirs, interviews, and poetry. At the same time, Farbe bekennen played a key role in the founding of activist organizations like ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland) and ADEFRA (Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland) (Florvil Mobilizing 56), which have been and continue to be active in calling for Germany to address its colonial past and thus contribute to the production of knowledge around it and its continuities into the present, through projects such as street renaming, the annual Bundestreffen, and the Homestory Deutschland traveling exhibition.

Audre Lorde and May Ayim in Berlin-Schöneberg.

While there has been much focus on Audre Lorde’s role in the creation of the self-designation â€șAfro-Germanâ€č and in Black German community building of the 1980s, additional aspects of Farbe bekennen’s transatlantic entanglements, especially the ways it has impacted understandings of and research on Black and postcolonial Germany back in the United States, have been neglected. The anthology was translated into English by African American literary scholar Anne V. Adams in cooperation with May Ayim, Tina Campt, and Dagmar Schultz and published by University of Massachusetts Press in 1992. A look at Ayim’s papers in the archive at FU Berlin shows that work on the English translation already began in early 1987 when the editors wrote to the World Council of Churches for funding to support a translation, arguing that an English translation would »reveal an unknown aspect of German history and presence«, as well as »contribute to the development of an Afro-European consiciousness [sic]« (Letter from Dagmar Schultz to Jeanne Sindab Jan. 3, 1987).

The reader reports largely echo these sentiments, convinced an English translation would broaden the audience of the volume and be of great use to Black Studies scholars, feminist scholars, and general readers interesting in minority cultures within Europe (Letter from Bruce Wilcox to Dagmar Schultz Feb. 3, 1988; Letter from Bruce Wilcox to Dagmar Schultz Feb. 29, 1988). Interestingly the reports suggested a number of changes that sought to conform the volume to a more traditional academic publication, suggesting the editors modulate the »political« tone of the original introduction, include statistics on the Black German population (which as the original editors point out, are unavailable in Germany, Letter from Dagmar Schultz to Bruce Wilcox Feb. 10, 1988), as well as take out some of the poetry (which, in the end, did not occur). The correspondence reveals such misunderstandings and negotiations between the translator, publisher, and editors which delayed the publication, indicative of the process of transatlantic exchange which took place in order to make the anthology legible to the linguistic and cultural context of the United States, and more specifically, targeted to a broad readership interested in Black Studies. This transatlantic mediation process thereby aided in reinforcing Farbe Bekennen’s relevance for Black Studies rather than for postcolonial studies or German colonial history. 

At the same time that the co-editors of Farbe bekennen were eager to translate the book into English, a number of U.S. German Studies and African American Studies scholars and students wrote to the Orlanda publishing house expressing their admiration of the book and interest in an English translation. For example, African American professor of German Studies Leroy T. Hopkins expressed his intentions to spread the word about the volume in the U.S. in a letter to Dagmar Schultz (Letter from Leroy T. Hopkins to Dagmar Schultz Oct. 9, 1986). Hopkins reviewed Farbe bekennen in the Spring 1987 issue of the journal of the American Association of Teachers of German, writing, »Students interested in Germany or Western Europe need to know that they are pluralistic societies with all the inherent problems and benefits such diversity creates. Farbe bekennen is a step in the right direction and should be required reading for Germans and Americans alike. Both need to reflect on the nature and implications of their pluralistic societies« (145). Resoundingly positive, Hopkins’ impressions of the text speak to the relative enthusiasm for the anthology in U.S. German Studies circles and indicate an interest and commitment to representing Black German histories and realities in German Studies curricula at U.S. universities.

The English translation Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out directly addresses the American reader and makes a case for the transnational relevance of the text. Reviews of the English translation in publications such as The Black Scholar, The Women’s Review of Books, Explorations in Sights and Sounds, Feminist Review, SAGE, New German Critique, and Publishers Weekly build on Hopkins’ invocation to the American reader, calling for action and engagement. Melba Joyce Boyd writes that »These Afro-German women […] warn us that silence is complicity« (84). Sara Lennox asks »Might American feminist Germanists play some role in the struggle against racism in Germany?«, listing suggestions of how American Germanists can intervene, such as by »integrating the presence and accomplishments of people of color in Germany into our teaching at all levels, attempting to transform the canon of German literature, […] exploring to what degree German national identity and culture might rest upon ethnocentric and white supremacist first principles« (228). These ambitions formulated in 1993 have largely paralleled what U.S.-based Germanists have been doing within the growing field of Black German Studies, in contrast to the general reluctance to combine activism and scholarship in German academia, which the very form of Farbe bekennen provokes.

And what is the legacy of the translation’s reception today? Florvil cites the anthology as having »established« Black German Studies in addition to »catalyz[ing] the larger Black German movement« (»Race« 208). Similarly, Kelly contends that the English translation of the anthology in the early 90s led to the institutionalization of Black German Studies in the United States, while such a process has yet to occur in German academia (»Black Studies«). As Kelly argues, owing in part to the Civil Rights Movement and institutionalization of Black Studies in the 60s and 70s as well as to the more interdisciplinary make-up of German Studies as a discipline at U.S. institutions, Black German Studies has become an increasingly established academic field in the United States academy. This is evidenced by volumes such as Tiffany Florvil and Vanessa Plumly’s Rethinking Black German Studies: Approaches, Interventions and Histories (2018), special issues of Callaloo »Reading the Black German Experience« (2003) and The German Quarterly »Black German Studies« (2022), the »Black and Diaspora Studies« interdisciplinary network of the German Studies Association, and the Black German Heritage and Research Association, founded by Rosemarie Peña. 

To take this a step further, I would argue that this interest in and scholarship on Black German history, literature, and activism in the U.S. now returns to Germany today in the form of Black German Studies. Tracing a similar path as, or perhaps rather a loop with, Lorde’s influence in the 1980s, Black German Studies houses much of the research being done into colonial legacies in present-day Germany and how they are addressed in contemporary and historical cultural productions. This includes work by Priscilla Layne on white German appropriation of Black popular culture, Kira Thurman’s research on Black classical musicians and their reception in German-speaking Europe in the nineteen and twentieth centuries, Jamele Watkins’ and Vanessa Plumly’s respective work on Black German theater, Adrienne Merritt’s analysis of language and colonialism in the translation of Black German writing, and Onyx Henry’s research into anti-Black racism in German colonial novels, among many others. This research has the potential to invigorate postcolonial thinking in Germany, insofar as it is read, received, and cited in the German academy and taken into the growing canon of German postcolonial studies and Germanistik more broadly. Broader engagement with this research and its questions in Germany-based academia has the potential to also transform Black German Studies and research on the colonial histories and legacies of Germany into an area of research intimately invested in, more increasingly conducted by, and in further partnership with Black German communities, in the tradition of Farbe bekennen. These steps are absolutely necessary for the future of the field. As El-Tayeb writes in a 2022 forum on Black German Studies: »What is Black German studies if there is still no Black studies at German universities (not to mention schools)?« (412)

To conclude, German postcolonial studies must also take Black German Studies and Black German knowledge production into account. A genealogy of German postcolonial studies that includes Farbe bekennen centers Black German knowledge production and creates pathways that divert from the canons of postcolonial theory to scholarly work being done in fields such as Black German Studies. It also emphasizes and highlights the transatlantic exchange of postcolonial thought between the United States and Germany in the late 20th century, continuing into today. Yet, as Koepsell and others warn, the anthology is not the only nor by far the earliest text critically considering Germany’s colonial history. Re-reading the disciplinary development of German postcolonial studies reveals numerous strands of transcultural and transatlantic exchange, work which is continuing to be done, and is part of what I work on in my dissertation. Indeed, Zocco’s reference to the influence of James Baldwin on Afro-German poet Raya Lubinetzki, who writes about the impact of Baldwin’s writing on her own thinking on Black identity in Farbe bekennen (Ayim et al. Showing 218) as an example of intertextual relations between African American and Afro-German writers also demonstrates additional pathways for tracing Black diasporic thought, writing, and production through the history of German postcolonialism. Re-reading the archives of German postcolonial studies and Black German Studies is sure to yield further entanglements and dialogues between writers, thinkers, and readers who have engaged critically with colonialism and its legacies and should be embraced within the canon of German postcolonial thought.

Rita Maricocchi is a researcher and lecturer at the Chair of English, Postcolonial and Media Studies at the University of MĂŒnster. Her research and teaching are broadly interested in multilingual literature and translation theory, Black European writing, and museum studies. Rita co-organized the 2022-2023 lecture series »Black German Studies: Transatlantic Perspectives« at University of MĂŒnster, which included seven talks by scholars, artists, and activists from both sides of the Atlantic. Her article examines an aspect of her dissertation, which studies representations of German colonial memory in contemporary anglophone and multilingual texts.


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I: Original Cover Farbe Bekennen (1986), via: blackcentraleurope. CC BY-SA 4.0

II: Audre Lorde and May Ayim in Berlin-Schöneberg. Digitales Deutsches Frauenarchiv via American Academy. CC BY-SA 4.0

Recommended Citation

Rita Maricocchi: “From Farbe Bekennen to Showing Our Colors. Re-reading German Postcolonial Studies.” Transatlanticism. Feb. 19, 2024. URL: DOI:

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Lizenziert unter der Creative Commons Namensnennung 4.0 International Lizenz.




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