Professor Priscilla Layne did a recent interview with Kira Thurman, Assistant Professor of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan about her new book White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture. The interview was published by the AAIHS. Here is an excerpt of one of the questions asked and followup from the interview. Read the whole interview here.
Kira Thurman: Your book, White Rebels in Black, addresses something that at first glance appears benign but in actuality is insidious: white Germans’ hearty embrace of African American popular culture after 1945. What have you found to be problematic about white Germans’ fascination with African American popular culture?
Priscilla Layne: My interest in Germans’ fascination with African American popular culture began when I noticed during my graduate studies that while white artists made frequent references to African American culture and history in their texts, usually there was no acknowledgment of Black Germans. I found this odd because I felt that if white Germans truly were interested in the experience of Black people and fighting racism, why wouldn’t they just start at home and listen to the Black Germans in their midst? This made me suspicious. I began to question why white Germans would be so invested in African Americans’ struggle and so blind to the struggle of the Black citizens around them. The process of writing my dissertation and then this book led me to conclude that 1) Following World War II, white Germans liked to focus on African American culture because that allowed them to condemn racism without acknowledging their own implications in racism or their own white privilege (Sabine Broeck discusses this in her essay “The Erotics of African American Endurance”). 2) Part of white Germans’ interest in African American struggles came from their elevating African Americans to a particular status of cool to which they aspired. 3) This association between Blackness and coolness did not allow for an engagement with Blackness that recognized the full spectrum and humanity of Black people. 4) When Blackness is posed as “Other than” German, even if it is meant in a positive way, this is not only essentializing, but also negates the existence of Black Germans. 5) Black Germans often bare the brunt of this white German Afro-Americanophilia, because they are either seen as “not Black enough” to be interesting or to experience racism, or not German because they are Black.