AMHERST, Mass.—In an effort to recognize a relatively young academic discipline that many in the academy have never heard of before, nearly a hundred students and scholars gathered at Amherst College over the weekend to discuss their research and ideas for how to grow Black German Studies.
This marks the third year that the Black German Heritage & Research Association sponsored the international conference, which highlighted a variety of interdisciplinary topics ranging from Black Germans during the Third Reich to their ongoing presence in German theater.
Like African American, Women and Queer studies, Black German Studies has an admitted social justice focus, says Dr. Sara Lennox, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an early founder of the Black German Studies movement in the U.S.
“We’ve made the field legitimate. You can now do this work and get tenure,” says Lennox, who was chiefly responsible for jumpstarting the Black German Studies concentration at UMASS Amherst. “It’s kind of a burgeoning field and movement. The other thing that’s really cool is there is a pretty strong connection between activism and scholarship and a really strong connection with the experimental … Black Germans talking about their stories.”
Housed in the German and Scandinavian Department at UMASS, the program has attracted doctoral students like Kevina King and Jemele Watkins who have found a place to pursue their scholarly interests.
King, 27, who was born in Berlin but immigrated to the U.S. in 2002 at the age of 16, received her bachelor’s degree in German and psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas but enrolled at UMASS to pursue her current research on transnational and national constructs of Blacks in German literature.
“The program at UMASS is very dear to me,” says King, who chose the graduate program in part to study with Lennox, who has retired from her teaching duties at the university but remains active in the program and advising students. “This is one of the best programs in the country.”
At UMASS, many students earn the Graduate Certificate in African Diaspora, a program that is currently housed in the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. The certificate, according to John Bracey who chairs Afro-American Studies, introduces students to the current scholarship on the African Diaspora and provides a basic grounding in the historical, political, literary and cultural responses of African peoples to their diasporic conditions.
Like King, Watkins also attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas as an undergraduate where she was president of the German club and majored in German and history. After spending six months working in a library in Berlin, she decided to enroll in the doctoral program at UMASS where her current research explores Afro-German theater.
Lennox said that she’s thrilled to learn that Black German Studies has now gained traction at other institutions across the country in the past decade.
“I think UMASS is really the birthplace, but it was clear from listening to the young scholars, graduate students and faculty who attended the conference that Black German Studies is happening at other places,” she says.
And that’s a good thing, she adds.
“My real hope for the field is that it has an impact on Germany. In some ways, for reasons that has to do with cultural imperialism, whatever happens in the U.S., Germans feel like it has to be important,” says Lennox, adding that most universities in German have few Black German academics and offer virtually no courses on Black Germans. “I want this to be a legitimate field in Germany and challenge racial definitions in Germany. White Germans cannot conceive that there could be Germans that are Black and that’s got to change. With the increasing visibility of the field in the U.S., it’s bound to have an impact in Germany.”