In May 2015, Afro-Italian activist Vittorio Longhi published an essay in the New York Times entitled “On Being African in Europe.” In it, he argues that one of the greatest hurdles that Black European communities confront is the problem of denial. For many white Europeans, the fact that Europeans of African descent exist at all is a contradiction, an ahistorical paradox that does not fit their pre-existing definition of the nation and who belongs to it.
They dismiss, in other words, the presence of Afro-Germans in contemporary German spaces or Black French communities in cities such as Nice as outliers or outsiders to Europe. “In the United States,” Longhi writes, “there has been a comprehensive cultural construction of African-American identity, and a movement that responds when there is injustice or violence. We Euro-Africans still lack our own positive, inspiring symbols and leaders, our Martin Luther Kings, our Rosa Parkses, our Barack Obamas.” Although there are currently more than eight million people of African descent living in Europe, Black Europeans lack the constructed narratives of their own pasts that are vital for community building. Their histories and their communities are rendered invisible.
In fall 2015, after attending a digital mapping workshop in the History Department, I realized that I could wield these technologies to create new historical narratives and confront what European public memory frequently denies. At first I had planned to create a digital map of Black people in European history on my own. But my decision to include my undergraduate students in this endeavor not only helped to ease my own workload—it ultimately transformed my entire approach to pedagogy.
Since 2015, I have launched two courses—“Germany and the Black Diaspora” and “Europe in the Black Diaspora”—that feature digital mapping as the students’ capstone project. Each semester, my students and I use a mapping software called carto.com to pin approximately one hundred different historical black figures in European history dating back to the medieval era. In doing so, we take invisible histories in Europe (the Black diaspora) and make them visible.
Students are responsible for researching and selecting five pins that detail a historical figure, event, or object (like a painting), each from different time periods: before 1800, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, and 2000 to present. Their additional pin is a “wild card,” meaning they can choose the historical era in which they would like to pin their last figure, event, or object. At the end of the semester, we compile the data we’ve collected over the past fifteen weeks and create a general map to display for public viewing at blackcentraleurope.com, a public history website sponsored by the German Historical Institute.
Creating this assignment has made me a much more innovative and compassionate teacher. During that first semester, my students and I possessed approximately the same level of knowledge on mapping—struggling together with a software glitch was definitely a humbling experience at times!—and I was forced to recall what it feels like to learn something completely alien to one’s own way of thinking. Thankfully, data visualization expert and digital mapping librarian Justin Joque has been involved in my teaching since the map’s inception. He and other librarians on campus have shepherded me through the learning process and continue to answer any questions that my students have that I don’t know how to solve.
Involving my students in digital mapping also taught me that they are hungry to become involved in an assignment that reaches beyond the classroom and out into the world. However cliché it may sound, they really do want to make a difference. And our maps of Black Europe have had an impact: thousands of viewers have seen them and shared them on social media, including prominent Black European activists and organizations.
Tellingly, the more students in my course learned about histories of marginalization in Europe, the stronger their commitment to creating a digital map of Black Europe became. Switching from a close reading of a primary source to preparing students for their digital maps during class time became a seamless process because, we all realized, the two were interconnected. By the end of the semester, my students had read through dozens of historical documents detailing Black experiences in European spaces. They were ready to take what they had learned and make the same primary sources legible in digital form.
Projects referenced in this article:
- Black Germany Map (compiled over three semesters)
- Black Germany Map, Winter Semester 2019
- Black Germany Map, Winter Semester 2017
Interested in creating your own digital mapping project? The Stephen S. Clark Library offers consultation and digital mapping workshops. Some materials are available online, including Learning GIS, a one-stop resource for GIS (Geographic Information Systems) training. Nicole Scholtz (Spatial and Numeric Data Librarian) is available for research consultations.
About the author:
Kira Thurman is an assistant professor of history and German at the University of Michigan.