Reflections of the Other: Being Black in Germany by Ethel Morgan Smith on the Independent Author Index
This is a mindful travelouge that is a beguilling mediation on what it means to be a deep traveler–one open for receiving displacement as a gift, and travel as an opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth. The author complicates her travel and the reader’s responses to it with honesty and intelligence.
Before I arrived in Tübingen I knew what my teaching schedule would be. I had proposed to the Council on International Exchange Commission to research the political momentum of Afro Germans. The only Afro German I met was Tina Bach, a student in one of my classes, who was the only person I saw, who looked anything like me. Berlin or Cologne would have been better venues to work on such a project. I kept good records about my experience, and trusted the writer in me to know that I would have something to write about after my years’ experience.
In the meantime I wanted to write. Writing is different when you’re away, and I couldn’t have been more away. Since Germany was in the middle of Europe, I was free to travel and see the new world I had been awarded. And Tübingen is about 30 minutes from Stuttgart, which is considered a gateway to the world by many Germans.
My host professor had telephoned me early one Friday morning, six months before I was to arrive. It was 8:00 a.m. for me and 2:00 p.m. for him. “Hallo, this is Bernd Engler, the person you’ll be working with in Germany.”
“Oh. Good morning.” Hoping I didn’t sound as sleepy as I was.
“Did I wake you?”
“No. Not at all. You see, I live alone and you’re the first person I’ve spoken to. That’s why I sound sleepy.”
He laughed. At least he had a sense of humor. All I’d been told was that Germans were orderly and arrogant. Although my old boyfriend, Helmut had been orderly, but he wasn’t at home in Germany, instead he had been in the States trying to fit into American culture.
“I am calling to introduce myself and say welcome. I also wanted to see what your needs are with regard to housing.”
“I am looking forward to being there. Thank you.” He didn’t sound German. His accent was only slight, more international. What did Germans sound like? Helmut hadn’t sounded German either, unless we got into a fight.
“After this call, we can then communicate via email.”
“That would be fine.”
“Your needs,” he said.
“I need a bathtub.”
“Sure, but that’s a main need.”
“What about a kitchen?”
“I figured there would be a kitchen.”
He laughed again. Did I have a better sense of humor than I thought? I didn’t think asking for a bathtub was such a big deal, at least not laughable.
With that phone call, my life had changed. I would work and live in Germany for a year. I had begun a new chapter in my life, for I was a Fulbright scholar.
My German students were older than my students in the States, thus making it possible for us to become friends. Once they got to know me they invited me to Bier Gartens near the Neckar River where ancient chestnut, linden, and sycamore trees stood guarding the magnificent medieval town. The German beer was wasted on me. A Radler, a drink made up of half lemonade and half beer, was the closest to drinking beer I got. The verb rad means to paddle a wheel or a bike. In essence you can drink Radlers and still peddle your bike home, or in my case walk up the hill.
More than half of my students had studied and/or spent periods of time in the States; as a result they spoke good English. And there was the handful who believed that the Queen’s English still reigned. They were well read and sophisticated, but lacked some of the nuances in African-American literature. For example, because of anthologies, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is one of the most popular American short stories taught in German high schools and universities. In the short story, Walker alludes to quilting as a basis for “high art.” Further, during 1960s she criticized the tendency among some African Americans to give up the names their parents gave them—names which embodied the history of their recent past—for African and Muslim names that did not relate to a single person they knew. Hence the mother character in “Everyday Use” is amazed that her daughter Dee would give up her for the name Wangero. Dee was the name of her great-grandmother, a woman who had kept her family together against great odds. Wangero might have sounded authentically African, but it had no relationship to a person she knew, nor to the personal history that had sustained her family.
Because of that short story, German students assumed that changing one’s name was an African American tradition. I never tell students they are wrong, so with the Germans, I concurred with them to a point, but observed that changing one’s name was as American as jazz. I used Cher, Gary Grant, Bob Dylan and Marilyn Monroe to make my point. I talked about how immigrants had come to America and changed their own names in order to become more American. Sometimes the custom agents misspelled names of individuals, and those names were often kept. But Alice Walker’s short story offered me an opportunity to open up a discussion as to why African Americans had and continue to change their names. This discussion led the class into the institution of slavery.
Later that week I walked to the Rathaus/city hall to learn about the conditions under which Germans changed their names. The Rathaus is graced with graffito paintings on the façade that speak of important men who put their minds and lives at the city’s service. But I found most impressive, three female paintings, representing—Justice, Agriculture, and Science that were amiably displayed on the front facade. On the decorated tympanum, the astronomical clock testifies to the mathematician Johannes Stöffler’s love for experiments and success. The Maenad expresses the importance of grape growing and the wine trade in the region.
I was told that changing one’s name was not encouraged. In fact Germans offered a list of suggested names to future parents. To change your name a fee of 1500 DM, or about $700 was imposed; and the person had to write a 1500 word essay expressing why such a name change was necessary. Afterwards, the request had to be approved by a committee. No wonder, Germans don’t change their names very often; it was too complicated.
Bernd Engler told me my classes were full, and the students were excited. I was pleased. Excited wasn’t language I had ever heard when speaking of students and my classes. He suggested that I not allow anyone else in the class since it was supposed to be a seminar. I listened and thought it wouldn’t be a problem. The class already had more than 25 students, which couldn’t be much of a seminar. At home I would’ve simply allowed students in the class who asked on the first day. There would always be students who never showed up. When Germans signed up for something it was like giving their word; they stuck to it. All students showed up for registered classes.
I arrived to my first class a little early and a lot anxious. When I first started my teaching career I had a recurring dream that I would show up for class on the wrong day, wrong time, or wrong place, and everyone laughed at me. In Germany I didn’t have that dream, but I did dream that all of my high school classmates spoke German and were laughing at me because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and couldn’t speak German. But in real life on that autumn morning, no one was there. Did I have the right room? I doubled-checked; I was in the right place. After waiting for about ten minutes, I walked upstairs to see what the problem was. Tina, the secretary laughed; and then informed me that professors had a 15-minute grace period. I didn’t think it was funny since I thought someone should have told me. After that glitch the first day went well.
The following week an excited American woman showed up in my office wanting to know if I would allow her to audit my “Slave Narrative Tradition” class. I said of course. Then she wanted to chat about where I was from. Where had I gone to school? Did I come from a wealthy family? She was in Germany, the typical way, followed her husband. They had two precious children and were glad to be raising them out of America, since there was too much consumerism.
When Bernd Engler learned I had allowed an extra student in my class he stormed into my office and told me I was making a mistake. “That woman is trouble, I promise you that.” He paced up and down my office like he was lecturing.
“What kind of trouble?” I was confused and surprised at such a reaction. “Do you know her?”
“No, but if she were in the States, do you think she’d be so interested in you?” He took off his glasses and continued to pace in front of me.
“But I’m not in the States. Maybe she would be nice to me.” Plus I was trying to shed myself of automatic assumptions. Of course, I wouldn’t have allowed a woman without credentials into my class, but it was only for auditing. I wouldn’t have to read her paper since she probably wasn’t interested in writing one. I didn’t know how else to explain my decision without being rude, so I just listened to him.
“Mark my words, there’s going to be trouble.” He put his glasses back on and left my office. Even though I am two years older than my host professor, he was very parental toward me. I thought it was charming unless I was disagreeing with him.
Copyright© Ethel Morgan Smith. All rights reserved.