Fragmented, isolated, and marginalized. In Kira Thurman’s estimation, this describes the more than eight million people of African descent living in Europe.
They are a small but sizable minority who trace their roots to a multitude of countries, including former colonies. Some measure their time on the new continent in terms of days or years; others can look back upon a multigenerational heritage spanning centuries. They share no common language. Some were driven to Europe by violence and poverty, others by opportunity. Some followed family members north.
“Black Europeans lack constructed narratives of their own pasts that are vital for community building. Their histories and their communities are rendered invisible,” says Thurman, an assistant professor of German and history.
Her mission: To return people of African descent to the narrative of European history, to make the invisible visible.
Students in Thurman’s course, History/German 396, “Germany and the Black Diaspora,” would help. In lieu of a term paper, they would create an online map depicting the history of Blacks in Germany, a public resource extending beyond the classroom and living online long after the course concluded.
In February, Thurman and her students met with university librarians Mara Blake and Justin Joque, who introduced the digital tools for the job.
Each student was responsible for placing five digital pushpins on the map. The markers—each with descriptive text and an image—could represent an event, an organization, where someone lived, or anything that could inform the public about Black German history.
It’s impossible for the map to capture the stories of the estimated hundreds of thousands of Afro-Germans who currently reside in the country or who lived there in the past. But the map presents an undeniable representation of their presences, a visual symbol of a different kind of European history than what the public usually sees.
The students came up with nearly one hundred pushpins spanning one thousand years and reaching almost every corner of Germany. Some pins were specific to Afro-German history; others spoke to a greater history of Black travel to Germany in general. A marker in Cologne represents krauselocke.de, “a knowledgebase and support network for underrepresented Afro-German women with kinky curly hair.” In Berlin, there’s one for Ella Sheppard, a former African American slave who performed in the city as a Fisk Jubilee singer in 1871.
In April, the students presented the map to a group of peers, faculty, and members of the campus community.
Amanda Nilsen, a neuroscience major, remarked on the fact the students were “making something that is beyond a one-time project or grade.” The map is now public, and it’s part of a larger, multidisciplinary and multi-institutional project at blackcentraleurope.com. Thurman’s future students will have the opportunity to add to the map.
“The project not only develops new approaches to understanding European history, but also makes the history of Black Europe accessible to the people who need it—Black Europeans and those who would deny their history,” said Thurman.