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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

African Americans: ‘Race’ and/in War

‘If it’s a game of colors you want to play’:1 Contemporary Literary Representations of African-American GIs in Germany

Christine Vogt-William


Despite contemporary tendencies to celebrate diaspora as a descriptive trope for global modernity and transnational mobility, it would be necessary to distinguish between diverse diasporic experiences (see Huggan 2010, Clifford 1997). Diasporic experience has significant ramifications for the formation of identity, the negotiation of difference and the articulation of ethnicity in a diasporic community as well as that community’s relationship to other local or diasporic groups of the host country. Racial climates in the USA and in Germany post-World War II will bear some scrutiny when considering how diaspora figures in discussing African American experience in Germany. Could Germany, despite its problematic history, perhaps still furnish a ‘black space’ that could perhaps function metaphorically and emotionally as a substitute for a longed-for homeland? This paper proposes to examine literary representations of the diasporic experiences of African-American GIs in Germany. The novels to be analysed here include Michael Dorris’s multi-perspectival fictional piece Cloud Chamber (1997) and Donald Vaughn’s autobiography Color My World (2011). The protagonists Elgin and Donald use their conscription into the US army to actually move from racially fraught American spaces to Germany (an equally difficult space) to negotiate their own raced identities while pursuing their dreams. Intersectional and diasporic approaches among others will address how race, masculinity and homosociality are negotiated by these African-American protagonists in their attempts to understand the spaces they come to occupy in German landscapes, where they engage with questions of home and belonging, which have been sources of discomfort for them back in the US.

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  • 1 This is the first sentence in a set of lyrics composed by Donald Vaughn to express his own personal (...)
  • 2 Here I keep in mind Claire Alexander’s remark: ‘How can we speak of “the black diaspora” or “the Af (...)
  • 3 Transcripts and videos of interviews with former African American GIs who had been stationed in Ger (...)

1The experience of the African American GI in Germany provides a particularly fraught Black diasporic2 narrative, which involves reflection on the racial climates in the USA and in Germany post-WWII. Germany became a special place for African American GIs3 after American occupation officially ended in 1949 and the US military undertook to protect and reeducate the young Federal Republic in matters of democracy in order to root out the Nazi virus. At first glance the African American GIs were confronted with a cultural space and a society that was free of Jim Crow-era segregation that entailed, among other things, poll taxes, segregated slums, lynchings and race riots in the US; these elements were part of the cultural baggage that most African American GIs carried with them on their sojourns to Germany.

  • 4 There are several works of sociological and historical bent that focus on this particular experienc (...)
  • 5 The novel also contains autobiographical elements from Dorris’s life, more specifically his search (...)
  • 6 Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke describe the historical context that forms the political backdrop for (...)

2In what follows, I will examine how this particular diasporic experience is addressed in two contemporary literary texts by two American writers4: one is a multi-perspectival novel entitled Cloud Chamber by mixed-race Native American writer Michael Dorris5 published in 1997, and the other is an autobiography entitled Color My World, by Donald Vaughn a former African American GI living in Frankfurt, published in 2011. Both narratives address the African American experience in Germany grounded in a military context—which to all intents and purposes is still predominantly informed by ideals of white heterosexual masculinity. While both these protagonists came to Germany in the wake of the Korean War in the 1950s6, they were not actually engaged in military action.

  • 7 I have addressed African-Native American mixed-race experience in this novel in another piece entit (...)

3Cloud Chamber interweaves six different narrative perspectives and provides the prequel and sequel to Dorris’s 1987 novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water7 which tells the story of a young African-Native American girl Rayona, who is abandoned by her Native American mother and African American father. Among other narrative strands, each told from a first-person perspective, the novel addresses Rayona’s father’s own mixed-race background and family history. Elgin Taylor has an African American father who is said to have died in Germany while in military service. Growing up in Kentucky with his white mother, grandmother and aunt, Elgin perceives his father’s absence as a lack that exacerbates his feelings of rootlessness as a Black man in the Jim Crow South. Thinking to emulate his father’s military valor, Elgin elects to go into the army in the 1950s. His unit is sent to Germany, where he visits the place where his father was thought to have died and makes some surprising discoveries that affect his self-perception as an African American man, after which he returns to the US.

4Donald Vaughn’s autobiography Color My World, a factual narrative written in journalistic fashion, tells the story of the protagonist’s life growing up in Detroit and moving to Germany with the US army in 1956. Donald’s main motivation to join the army was to get an education. Marrying a German woman and setting up his own family, Donald is very perceptive of the political situation in postwar Germany for foreigners, more specifically in the urban space of Frankfurt, where he encounters both acceptance and racism. A notable feature in Vaughn’s narrative is the regular correspondence he had with his family in Detroit, showing a closeness to his father, which in turn enables him to be conscious of his own paternal responsibilities, including creating a home for his mixed-race children in Germany.

5The African American experience in Germany after WWII, in my opinion, does bear scrutiny with regard to diaspora since this constellation articulates transnational and transcultural negotiations to different extents among African American GIs with regard to race, segregation practices and the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Paul Gilroy’s observation about the Black Atlantic has particular relevance to my understanding of this experience as one of diaspora:

The history of the Black Atlantic [...], continually crisscrossed by the movements of black people—not only as commodities but engaged in various struggles towards emancipation, autonomy and citizenship— provides a means to reexamine the problems of nationality, location, identity, and historical memory.
(Gilroy 2003: 63)

6Here I read African American GIs as having been deployed as ‘commodities’—a military labor force in order to assist in the post-WWII US military agenda of reeducating German society in democratic ideals void of anti-Semitism. At the same time, African American GIs developed a new sense of themselves as American citizens who reflected on their own positioning in relation to historical collective cultural memories of slavery and the realities of racial segregation. Gilroy’s reading resonates here with Avtar Brah’s understanding of diasporic spaces, where imaginaries and sensibilities are shaped by multiple locations of home and abroad as well as by contested relations among a range of subject positions and histories of migration:

Diaspora space is the intersectionality of diaspora, border, and dis/location as a point of confluence of economic, political, cultural and psychic processes. [...] Diaspora space is the point at which boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, of belonging and otherness, of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are contested.
(Brah 1996: 208–9)

7The problems of ‘nationality, location, identity, and historical memory’ as enumerated by Gilroy are very much embedded in the African American experience in Germany, where diaspora is articulated through productive tensions set up by the translation of histories, cultures and representations, as noted by Stuart Hall (qtd in Alexander 2010: 115). The tension in this particular diasporic instance is evident in the manner in which African American soldiers seem to have initially experienced more acceptance in postwar Germany than in the US, where segregation and denigration were part of the social order. The articulation of black diasporic experience emphasizes both the space of arrival and the space of origin, i.e. the African American GIs did not idealize their home spaces in Jim Crow America. Instead they contrasted their natal spaces in the US with their German spaces of arrival where they were treated as social equals—at least when they first arrived:

Germany retained its reputation as a special place for black soldiers even after the American occupation ended in 1949 and the US military took over the task of protector for the young Federal Republic. [...] Their encounter with a society free of Jim Crow-era segregation prompted many of these soldiers not only to demand equal rights while stationed in Germany but also to join the civil rights movement once they returned home to the United States. Their experiences in postwar and Cold War West Germany thus proved pivotal in the struggle against racial discrimination in America.
(Höhn and Klimke 2010: 1)

  • 8 Höhn and Klimke describe this development: ‘ [...] African American GIs came to know and in many ca (...)

8The African American soldiers’ encounters with a society that seemed to be free of racialised perceptions and interactions that were rampant in American culture seem to have had an empowering effect on these soldiers, in that their political commitment to civil rights in their home space of origin was rejuvenated. Those who returned to the US demonstrate how diasporic experience reshapes and reinvents identities to produce more politically aware and active identities.8 This then allows for an understanding of the African American GI experience in Germany in the light of Stuart Hall’s argument that diaspora should be thought of ‘metaphorically as well as literally’ (Hall 1993). Such a reading, according to Hall, allows for complexity in cultural imaginings, experiences and positionings of people in ways that contest simplistic narratives of displacement and arrival (see also Alexander 2010: 115). The diasporic identities in this context are defined then ‘by a conception of identity which lives with, and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity’ (Hall 1993: 244). This living with and through difference would also pertain to W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness—of being ‘an American and a Negro [...]: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder’ (Du Bois 1995 [1903]: 45). This consciousness describes a precarious self-perception that cannot seem to conceive of a coherent identity as an African American, due to the realities of racial discrimination and persecution, as well as the history of slavery. Du Bois’s double consciousness here is extended to the concept of diaspora in Gilroy’s observation that ‘the cultures of diaspora blacks can be profitably interpreted as expressions of and commentaries upon ambivalences generated by modernity and their locations within it’ (Gilroy 1993: 117). Such ambivalences are evident in the case of African American GIs in Germany, where racist and nationalist discourses informed and manipulated political relationships and positions in the US and Germany. An example of this ambivalent position for African American GIs is demonstrated in Donald Vaughn’s reflection on German reactions to his presence:

Being new in the army and in a foreign country at the same time requires a major adaptation to both cultures, beginning with the language. Words and gestures took on new meanings. I soon learned that certain expressions in German sounded similar to English, but didn’t have the same meaning, for instance, ‘Neger’ meant Negro, which was too close to ‘nigger’ for my taste. My negative reaction to this word was a typical example of the culture shock I was going through. The subconscious defense mechanisms that had protected my ego from injury no longer worked. I found myself split between two worlds and searching for new codes.
(Vaughn 2011: 68)

9Following Gilroy’s observation that ‘ [s]triving to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness’ (Gilroy 2003: 50), I read Donald’s commentary on his in-betweenness and his search for ‘new codes’ to manage his new home space, as an instance of a Black diasporic consciousness that is complicated through experiences that contest simple celebratory accounts of diasporic relocation from one racially fraught space and experience to another equally fraught space.

10Similarly, when Elgin reaches Passau (accompanied by his friend Paul), where his father was supposed to have died, he is put out by the stares that come his way, when entering a restaurant:

Ever since we came in we’d been getting fishy looks. Several of the locals would glance at us, look hard, then dart their eyes away fast.
‘It happens over here out in the sticks’, Paul said. ‘They are not used to seeing... Americans’.
Americans?’ He did make me smile.
‘Americans of a certain hue.’
(Dorris 1997: 230–231)

11Here, although actual racial hostility is not expressed, Elgin is disturbed by the curiosity evident in the stares of the local people. Paul attempts to explain this behavior by pointing out that their obvious difference due to their skin color is the reason for the attention they receive. One notes that Paul qualifies his explanation by investing it with a certain irony demonstrating his awareness that in German perception in certain regions, there is an inability to conceive of Americans of color. Paul’s insight here is also symptomatic of a diasporic double consciousness with regard to the sense of self-doubt on the part of African Americans and their claim to American citizenship and identity. As Elgin engages with one of the locals, he discovers that there are other mixed-race people of color in the vicinity, who resemble him. It is in the ensuing encounter that Elgin discovers that his father had not died in the war, as he had been told, but had married a white German woman and had a family—whereupon he meets his half-sister Veronica, who reveals: ‘My father was American. In the army like you at first but then he settled here when he married my mother. He didn’t want to return to the... racistisim [sic] in America. [...] His original name was Earl Taylor before he changed it here, to Hans’ (Dorris 1997: 232). It becomes too clear to Elgin that his father did not want to return to the US and reunite with his family in Kentucky—the acceptance Earl encounters in Germany leads to this particular rewriting of his own diasporic narrative, where racism apparently has no place.

12The actual physical relocation to and experience of this space can be read as a diasporic moment that articulates the African American GIs’ double consciousness of the US home space as being informed by institutionalized and socially sanctioned racism and the new German space as not having officially sanctioned segregation. While initial reactions to the African American GIs may have evinced friendly acceptance and curiosity, one notes that the US military did transport and attempt to impose the very same policies of segregation onto the German cultural landscape in order to police their African American GIs—a practice that soon provoked resistance:

During the closing years of World War II and increasingly thereafter, African American GIs complained about the military’s discriminatory practices, the brutality of the overwhelmingly white military police force and the lack of black officers. They protested loudly when military commanders, in order to preserve ‘racial peace’, instructed local pub owners to observe American-style racial boundaries, thus bringing Jim Crow segregation into German communities that bordered on military bases.
(Höhn and Klimke 2010: 2)

13Such forms of protest demonstrated clear discrepancies between the ideals of the American way of life, (including democracy) which the US military was to implement in rebuilding Germany society—and the realities of Jim Crow America. Indeed civil rights activists contrasted America’s ambitious goals abroad with a distinct lack of urgency for change at home, begging the question: ‘Since a segregated army was in charge of the reeducation effort over there, could the Germans “learn to be democratic from gentlemen who only practiced confederate democracy”?’ (Höhn and Klimke 2010: 71).

  • 9 See also Daniel Burland’s entry on ‘Military Masculinity’ (2008).

14Both Cloud Chamber and Color My World comment on these realities of segregation in the military context which reinforced feelings of unbelonging and displacement. The military, R.W. Connell notes, is a significant site for the definition and articulation of hegemonic masculinity in European and American contexts, where the figure of the (military) hero is central to Western cultural imagery of the masculine: ‘Armies have freely drawn on this imagery for purposes of recruitment’ (Connell 1995: 213). A salient point to note however is the construction of black masculinity in the military during the Jim Crow era, as unable to carry out the responsibilities required of military service. African American GIs were seen as lacking in the ideals put forward by hegemonic models of masculinity such as toughness, unemotional logic, endurance, courage, discipline—qualities which are generally read as white.9 In line with the adage that military service makes ‘men’ out of ‘boys’—one notes that African American GIs were often given assignments that resonated with the epithet of ‘boys’ in the slave and Jim Crow context (e.g. waiting tables, working in kitchens, chauffeur duties and other menial jobs—generally tasks in the service sector). Hence the black masculinities that are articulated in these narratives seem relegated to subordinate forms, which do not seem to allow for active citizenship in an American context.

15In Cloud Chamber, Elgin Taylor considers the option of reinventing himself in the army, thinking to follow his father’s example in living a form of masculinity that ideally allowed for respect and recognition for serving one’s country. Elgin longs for a masculine role model that he can relate to and might have helped him negotiate his home space—since whiteness unhomes him, despite all his efforts to belong:

I could be anyone, my own floating definition, a walking collection of expectations that I didn’t have to choose to complicate. [...] I had been so busy trying to escape the shadows of my past I didn’t pay enough attention to the future I was buying into. When I had declined my deferment, rejected the only legacies besides a death pension and a bronze star my father left me, I only vaguely looked ahead. I was prepared for geographic dislocations, a loss of control over my movements. I had absorbed all the sitcom and old TV movie stereotypes about loudmouthed sergeants, pompous protocol, the antics of barracks life. I was ready to shout ‘Sir! ’ at the slightest provocation, ready to make a bed that could bounce a dime, ready to crawl under barbed wire during basic training. I think based on my father’s example, I was even ready to die.
(Dorris 1997: 218)

16Elgin charts out a trajectory that might allow him to root himself, through actual geographic dislocation congruent with his embracing what he felt was the only tangible legacy left to him by his absent father. He prepares himself for the grueling routine designed to shape a new form of masculinity which would provide him with a space to claim as his own, free from complications that, in his opinion, were due to his mixed race identity. His expectations however are disappointed:

What I wasn’t ready for was being sent to Germany and assigned to wait tables at the officers’ club. I had no skills, it was explained to me, no special talents, no killer instinct. [...] What I had, the powers that be finally decided were good manners. [...] I’d listen to black soldiers from Detroit, or New York or DC, feel the anger that steamed [...] listen to their stories of mistreatment and racism, of brutalities on the street and off them [...] The truth of the matter was, I had a confusing past, painful to me in small ways [...] Pissed off was about as bad as I got, and that didn’t qualify me as mean, lean, fighting machine material. Finally the only camouflage I got was a starched white shirt, black pants and patent leather shoes. The only weapon at which I was expected to be an expert was a carving knife, the only strategies had to do with matching the right wine with the right entrée, the only infiltration maneuvers involved refilling the water glasses without interrupting table conversation.
(Dorris 1997: 219)

17Here Elgin’s mixed-race identity translates into some kind of acceptability that allows him to serve white officers at their club. His masculinity was not considered military material—indeed he appears to have been feminized ostensibly by the Southern gentility inculcated in him by his white mother, aunt and grandmother while growing up in Kentucky. The ironic descriptions of the work he is made to do allude to tasks that ‘boys’ and women were made to do in Southern plantation homes, if they were house slaves.

18In Color My World, Donald Vaughn too becomes aware of how Jim Crow had been transported into the military space in Germany, when he realizes that his qualifications as squad leader due to his university degree and his marksmanship were to no effect in working against how black soldiers were treated in the army. On reaching his space of deployment in at the 97th Medical Detachment General Hospital in Frankfurt am Main, he notes:

It didn’t dawn upon me until the next day that all the guys in my room were black but that there were only white guys in the other rooms. It was as if I had not left America. [...] All the guys in my room either worked driving trucks in the motor pool or worked on the wards as male nurse assistants.
(Waughn 2011: 63, 65)

19As in Elgin’s case, Donald and his group were relegated to chauffeuring or care-taking duties, which ultimately marginalized them within the military context—and like Elgin, they are devalued as men in the military sense—rather they too, seem to be reduced to the status of ‘boys’.

20Höhn and Klimke observe that ‘Something had happened to black GIs “over there” [in Germany]. They had become “men” and were no longer willing to be treated as “boys”’ (2010: 32). Many African American GIs who did fight in WWII mark their experiences in Germany as a time of transformation in their self-perceptions, where they become men ‘who know how to fight’ and who believe in the things they should fight for, when they return to the US—as one GI put it: ‘I went into the army a nigger; I am coming out as a man’ (Höhn and Klimke 2010: 32). This acquiring of manhood led in many instances to active participation in the Civil Rights movement in the US. Here it would be of import to note the dynamics of hegemonic masculinity at work based on race relations, which demonstrate interaction patterns among men that engender subordinate and marginalized masculinities (see Connell 1995: 76–81).

21The two protagonists in the narratives are preoccupied with more immediate concerns that raise questions about their home spaces, which were informed by issues of family structures and constructions of their identities as Black men whose German experiences leave profound impressions. In both narratives Elgin and Donald articulate different modes of black masculinity. Both their journeys involve reflecting on themselves as African American men who undergo salient experiences in Germany that more or less coerce them into interrogating the double consciousness of their diasporic situations; in Elgin’s case as the mixed-race son of an African American soldier, and in Donald’s case, as an African American soldier and later the father of a mixed-race son.

22Elgin’s military sojourn leads to the discovery of his father’s life in Germany—a truth that would affect his own self-perception as an African American man. Thus his experience of Germany is very much colored by his quest for his father, who had abandoned him in order to start a new life in that country. His half-sister Veronica fills in the details of his father’s life hitherto unknown to him, leaving Elgin feeling cheated:

Veronica [...] could comprehend the news that the once upon a time Hans Earl Taylor was my father before he was hers but she didn’t know how to ask the questions that came to her [...] So mostly we just looked at each other, shocked and sad [...] she fished a photograph out of her purse [...] Not a bit like the picture of him in uniform that had sat on my dresser the whole time I was growing up. [...] Not at all the same man, and yet... the same man. [...] But didn’t he wonder about us all, I wondered. Didn’t he wish he knew how we were?
‘Do you want to meet my mother?’ Veronica asked. [...] Did I? The woman Earl left my mother to be with? I shook my head. [...]
‘It must be a good thing to live in a place where you are not so...’ She gestured to herself. ‘Unusual’.
[...] ‘I wouldn’t know’ I said. ‘I’ve always been pretty unusual too’.
‘I mean, here I am the wrong colour’, she explained.
‘Blame it on Earl’, I told her. ‘That was his thing, wrong colours’.
She didn’t get it and I didn’t want to spoil her memories. [...] Let Earl be who everybody needed him to be, to have been. That was my return gift to him for my life.
(Dorris 1997: 234–235)

  • 10 About 7000 mixed-race Afro-German children were given up for adoption into African American familie (...)
  • 11 See Michael Dorris’s 1987 novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water for Rayona’s perception of her father’s (...)

23Elgin is confronted with his father’s duplicity and his obvious preference to stay on in Germany to create a new life that does not seem to be influenced by a color line. And yet, race, indeed mixed-race identity is an issue here for Elgin and his half-sister, which sets them both apart as ‘unusual’ and ‘the wrong color’—both in Germany and the US.10 Elgin sarcastically addresses his father’s penchant to transgress the color line in both contexts (‘That was his thing, wrong colors’), angry and disillusioned that this preference for wrong colors has consequences for his son’s self-perception. Elgin experiences his father’s self-fulfillment as an accepted citizen in Germany as a betrayal of himself—he returns to the US but not to his white family in the South—he elects to stay away from them when he is discharged. Like his father, Elgin later becomes an absent father11 who is incapable of providing his mixed-race daughter Rayona with any form of emotional security during her childhood that might help her root herself in her African American identity—alongside her Native American identity, which is aligned with her mother.

  • 12 During a musical project in 1963, the Burg Waldeck Festival, Donald meets Black German singer-songw (...)

24In Color My World, Donald soon becomes aware of German forms of racism that were not necessarily congruent with the ones that he had experienced back in the US. This is despite the initial positive acceptance that he encounters in Germany, which allows him to pursue a career in singing12 and meet his wife Maria. As a mixed-race couple in Germany, both Donald and Maria encountered hostilities in German society. Donald describes what this meant for them:

We were sometimes lucky enough to be able to get an appointment to visit a vacant apartment, but when I appeared at the door with Maria, we were always told that it had already been taken. Once a building owner was going to accept us, that is, until other tenants in the building saw us leaving and said to the owner, ‘You’re not going to set a “Neger” in the building are you?’ The next day the owner called and canceled the agreement. Maria had never personally experienced discrimination before and wasn’t prepared for it. She thought that people could see that we were a normal family with kids who were well behaved and that our needs were no different from other Germans. From that day on, she left me waiting in the car while she introduced herself to the building owner or real estate agent. She was deeply hurt and she didn’t want me to see it. With animal instinct she began protecting me and the children from further embarrassment, ready to react to any signs of possible rejections or racially slanted comments that I might not recognize. Only years later did she tell me how much she had suffered under such racism, under being labeled by the general public as a prostitute or some benighted Fraulein. At the same time, I also felt powerless in this society, even more so than in America. There at least I knew the rules. In Germany there were no rules, and also no such thing as anti-discrimination laws. I was an outsider like the thousands of other ‘guest workers’ in the country. [...] Inevitably, the question was asked, ‘When are you going to your country?’—meaning that foreigners came to Germany to work or study but they didn’t make it their home and certainly didn’t marry their women.
(Vaughn 2011: 174)

  • 13 In her book GIs and Fräuleins, Maria Höhn explores how German anxieties over widespread Americaniza (...)
  • 14 Ika Hügel-Marshall’s 2008 book Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany tells the story of the (...)
  • 15 When African American poet and feminist activist Audre Lorde came to teach poetry at the Free Unive (...)

25In his attempts to literally set up a home space for his family, Donald is confronted with the German construction of people of color as ‘outsiders’, who could not be included in the German cultural imaginary. Maria is maligned by association, as a woman of loose morals connoted in the word ‘Fräulein’ because of her relationship with an African American. Registering the disadvantage in which Donald finds himself in, Maria is galvanized into action necessary to provide a home for her family; she develops a sensitivity to racist behavior in order to protect her husband and children. Donald’s own sense of diasporic unbelonging here is contingent with the construction of white German women in the contexts of interracial relationships in Germany as ‘benighted Fräuleins’ or ‘Negerhuren’.13 Commenting on such misogynist and racist violence that mixed-race couples and their children often experienced in postwar Germany, Donald remarks: ‘This racial theory of German blood seemed to have survived within the society, and thus children of black American soldiers and German mothers were also outcasts in Germany, many of them hidden away in orphanages and youth homes’ (Color My World, 146).14 The postwar generation of mixed-race children of African American and white German unions thus were unhomed: they were referred to as a ‘human and racial problem of a special nature’ (Ayim 1992: 80), which prevented them from integrating into their maternal cultural spaces and claiming their German heritage, since German society could not envision the idea of non-white German citizens (see Opitz 1992: 78–100).15

26Despite such difficult encounters and experiences of diasporic unhoming through racism, Donald and Maria set up their own family and become involved in political activities for migrants and bi-cultural couples, which allowed them to be pro-active in constructing their own home space and bringing the issue of racism to public attention (see Vaughn 2011: 210–225). Becoming a father also contributed to Donald’s shaping of his home space—his son Namé helped cement his relationship with his own father, who remarked in a letter that ‘Namé may be the one to solve some of the world’s problems some day’ (Vaughn 2011: 127). Here Donald’s role as a father was influenced by his own father’s hopes for a future that can surmount racial difficulties. That Namé was an important factor in Donald’s sense of home in Germany can be found in the father’s extensive monitoring of his son’s life experiences, his battle with cancer and subsequent death at the age of 41: ‘ [...] I am the father. I have never felt more responsible for him in my whole life than at that moment, because I am in danger of losing him [...] He became my mirror’ (Vaughn 2011: 251, 254). Donald’s hyphenated sense of being an African American-German was very much embedded in his identity as a father of his mixed race children—one notes however that the protagonist focuses more on his relationship with his son rather than his daughter.

27Both narratives demonstrate to different degrees the double consciousness that African American GIs negotiate in their specific diasporic context in postwar Germany, with regard to constructing black masculinities that address the politics of making home.

28Elgin’s discovery of his father’s experience of crossing the color line in both the American and German contexts and electing to make Germany home articulates an unwillingness to confront Jim Crow back in the US, where mixed-race relations were frowned on. What is striking here is that Earl Taylor chooses to cultivate a Black German identity contingent with his identity as an African American father of mixed-race Black German children, while neglecting and abandoning his American family. His absence in Elgin’s life demonstrates a neglect of his parental responsibility that might have enabled Elgin’s acceptance of himself as a mixed-race American.

29This is in direct contrast to Donald’s construction of his diasporic situation in Germany, which seems to have been more successful in light of his efforts to create a home for himself and his family. Donald’s experiences demonstrate how he accesses his African American cultural contexts—in the form of music and singing, as well as through his regular and detailed correspondence with his family back in Detroit. This provides him with a mode of belonging—mobile roots as it were—to negotiate what it means to be both African American and German in the space he has chosen to call home.

30Thus I see both these texts (one factual, one fictional) articulating black diasporic formations that actively negotiate forms of double consciousness which oscillate between contexts that are intimately informed by race and histories of two geopolitical spaces of the US and Germany. In my readings of these diasporic narratives, I have focused on the places of arrival, where the place of origin is never far from the protagonists’ fractured processes of homing, which address the tensions between history and culture, differences, power structures. Here as Claire Alexander has remarked: ‘diaspora is used to open up spaces and imaginative possibilities’ (Alexander 2010: 115), where forms of engagement, with their different degrees of success or failure, mark the being and becoming of diasporic identities. These identities are still fraught sites of ambiguous identification with regard to kinship, race, class and gender ideologies in the context of black diaspora.


Works Cited

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Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. New York & London: Routledge. 1996.

Burland, Daniel. ‘Military Masculinity’, in The Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, Jodi O’Brien, ed. Online pub. date: January 26, 2008. Accessed 3 October 2013.

Campt, Tina. Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Connell, Robin W. Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

Dorris, Michael. Cloud Chamber. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Dorris, Michael. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. St. Louis, MO: Turtleback, 1987.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Signet Classic, 1995 [1903].

Edugyan, Esi. Half Blood Blues, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2011.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.

Gilroy, Paul. ‘The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity’, in Theorizing Diaspora, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, eds. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003; 49–82.

Hall, Stuart. 1993. ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, in Theorizing Diaspora, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, eds. Malden: Blackwell, 2003; 233–246.

Höhn, Maria and Martin Klimke. A Breath of Freedom. London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Höhn, Maria and Martin Klimke. GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany. London and Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

gel-Marshall, Ika. Invisible Woman. Growing Up Black in Germany. Trans. Elizabeth Gaffne. New Directions in German-American Studies. Vol. 5. New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien: Peter Lang, 2008.

Kirst, Michaela. Brown Babies. Deutschlands verlorene Kinder, ARTE, 2011.

Massaquoi, Hans Jürgen. Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

‘Michael Dorris: Native American Novelist and Poet’. http://native Accessed 9 June 2013.

Vaughn, Donald. Color My World: A Life’s Journey. Frankfurt am Main: Amani Verlag, 2011.

Vogt-William, Christine. ‘” Black Indian” Women and Blood Rules: Gender, Mixed Race and Hyphenated Hybridities on the Margins of America’, in Indigenous Knowledge: Language, Literature, Arts, Ganesh Davy, Geoffrey Davis and K.K. Chakravarthy, eds. Vol. 3, Routledge, India (forthcoming).


1 This is the first sentence in a set of lyrics composed by Donald Vaughn to express his own personal social situation with regard to the US and Germany—a position that he attributes to the influence of Malcolm X (Color My World 169).

2 Here I keep in mind Claire Alexander’s remark: ‘How can we speak of “the black diaspora” or “the African diaspora” without conjuring notions of race?’, where the term ‘diaspora’ has at its crux the elements of dispersion, homeland orientation and boundary maintenance, i.e. the matter of relationship to the place of origin and the place of arrival (Alexander 2010: 114). Especially the last factor—boundary maintenance is salient in identifying difference and ‘enabling the political and social mobilization of diasporic “communities”’ in the new chosen home space (Alexander 2010: 114).

3 Transcripts and videos of interviews with former African American GIs who had been stationed in Germany post-World War II can be found on index.php/oral-histories-6/\#1. The website ‘The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs and Germany’ was a collaborative project set and directed by Maria Höhn (Vassar College, New York), Martin Klimke (GHI Washington) and Maggi Morehouse (Coastal Carolina University).

4 There are several works of sociological and historical bent that focus on this particular experience, among them: Tina Campt, Other Germans (2005), Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke, A Breath of Freedom (2010), and Maria Höhn, GIs and Fräuleins (2002). As for literary representations, I had found out about two texts that addressed African-American experience: one is Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues (2011) and Afro-German writer Hans Jürgen Massaquoi’s autobiography Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany (1999)—both of which focus mainly on black civilian life in Germany during the 1920s and the 1930s. May Ayim’s and Katharina Oguntoye’s Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1992) and Ika Hügel-Marshall’s Invisible Woman (2008) provide historical and autobiographical accounts of Afro-German women’s experiences which are embedded in the sociocultural contexts of Germany itself—where diasporic situations and sensibilities can be detected.

5 The novel also contains autobiographical elements from Dorris’s life, more specifically his search for a father he never knew—a central quest in Elgin’s tale. Dorris published Cloud Chamber three months before he committed suicide in 1997. See ‘Michael Dorris: Native American Novelist and Poet’. html/. Accessed 9 June 2013.

6 Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke describe the historical context that forms the political backdrop for both protagonists’ movements to Germany: ‘ [...] in June 1950, the Cold War had escalated [...] and in June 25, the Korean War broke out. The United States had been warning of communist aggression in Korea, prompting Truman to make his “Troops to Europe” decision. This shift in policy brought an activated 7th Army to Germany and replaced the remaining occupation troops with heavily armored combat troops’ (Höhn and Klimke 2010: 79).

7 I have addressed African-Native American mixed-race experience in this novel in another piece entitled ‘ “Black Indian” Women and Blood Rules: Gender, Mixed Race and Hyphenated Hybridities on the Margins of America’ (2014).

8 Höhn and Klimke describe this development: ‘ [...] African American GIs came to know and in many cases form friendships with local residents. [...] Shared interests in American musical forms, such as jazz and blues, and the burgeoning civil rights movement in the United States, encouraged such relationships. [...] African American GIs in Germany intensified their collaboration with local university students to fight racism both in the U.S. military and in German communities. [...] African American GIs and their activism in Germany played a vital role in the broader struggle against racism and for civil rights. Their experiences abroad convinced many of them to join the struggle once they returned home [...] To a considerable extent, it was the protest activities of African American GI activists stationed in Germany that transformed the U.S. military into the most integrated institution of the United States by the mid-1970s’ (Höhn and Klimke 2010: 3–5).

9 See also Daniel Burland’s entry on ‘Military Masculinity’ (2008).

10 About 7000 mixed-race Afro-German children were given up for adoption into African American families in the US—some of them are engaged in researching and finding their roots and surviving relatives in Germany (see Michaela Kirst, Brown Babies, 2011).

11 See Michael Dorris’s 1987 novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water for Rayona’s perception of her father’s absence from her life.

12 During a musical project in 1963, the Burg Waldeck Festival, Donald meets Black German singer-songwriter Fasia Jansen (Color My World, 150), whose nephew was Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, author of Destined to Witness (2001), a memoir of how Massaquoi comes of age as a black German in Nazi Germany after World War I.

13 In her book GIs and Fräuleins, Maria Höhn explores how German anxieties over widespread Americanization pertained to debates over proper gender norms and racial boundaries, in a context where the American military had brought democracy as well as Jim Crow: ‘In all garrison communities, conservative observers [...] denounced as shameless the numerous prostitutes who arrived in their towns to pursue the American GIs and their seemingly never-ending dollar riches. Even more troubling than the prostitutes were the many German women from respectable backgrounds who nonetheless associated with American GIs. Their Americanized demeanor and behavior evoked much consternation, and their willingness to live in common-law marriages with white and black GIs marked them as sexual as well as racial transgressors. [...] Germans negotiated [...] relaxation of sexual mores by vilifying as unacceptable the sexual relationships between African American men and German women. When Germans, in both East and West read about the American garrison communities during the 1950s, the focus was increasingly on the “many” black GIs who met “sexually unrestrained” women in the bars that Eastern European Jews made available to them’ (Höhn 2002: 10, 12).

14 Ika Hügel-Marshall’s 2008 book Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany tells the story of the author’s own removal from her white German mother’s home and her exile in a children’s home near Frankfurt run by Catholic nuns. Besides descriptions of living in German as a Black German woman, the autobiography also traces the author’s quest to locate her African American father and her reunion with him in the US. The novel won the Audre Lorde Literary Award in 1996, when it first appeared in German. Michaela Kirst’s German television documentary (on ARTE) entitled Brown Babies (2011) tracks the efforts of three African American women to find their German mothers who had given them up for adoption in the US immediately after the war.

15 When African American poet and feminist activist Audre Lorde came to teach poetry at the Free University in Berlin in 1984, a positive self-designation and claiming of political agency by Black Germans was made possible through Lorde’s coining of the term ‘Afro-German’, which she posited would allow for transnational alliances to be forged on a global level in the black diaspora (see Audre Lorde’s Foreword to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, 1992 [1986]).

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