Upon her arrival in Berlin, author Edna Bonhomme found a familiar yet uncanny sense of home in German Afro shops. In this text, she shares how the complex history of Black presence in Berlin complicated her own understanding of what an African diaspora means and entails.
Article published in The Funambulist 29 (May-June 2020) States of Emergency. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
When I first moved to Berlin from New York City, there were several things that I missed; in particular the break dancers, fried sweet plantains, and the street music. Black-majority spaces from Manhattan’s neighborhood of Harlem to Brooklyn’s historical Bedford Stuyvesant were gentrifying yet, these Afrocentric spaces showed the sensorial richness of the diaspora. These sites were saturated by the smells, sounds, and activities of the long-term African diaspora community in most parts of the city’s cultural life. Berlin was different. I settled in Neukölln, a working class multiethnic community with a smaller Black population. Similar to New York City, various Berlin neighborhoods have been subjected to gentrification, resulting in increased rents, modernization of former flats, and the decline of cooperative houses. Although white Europeans and Turkish heritage people are often the center of these conversations of gentrification, it is important to note how other groups feature into the composition and spatial modes of interaction of Berlin’s neighborhoods. How does Blackness get articulated in German spaces?
Nestled within this vivid neighborhood were several of Berlin’s Afro shops — venues where people could find African and Caribbean inspired food, hair products, and clothing. This is one of the many Berlin-based diasporas that complicate Berlin’s gentrification along racial and class lenses. Since the late 1990s, Black migrants from the Continent have implanted themselves in the former East and West Berlin setting up Afro shops. These places show something different from the standard gentrification story in Berlin — it is a workspace, a makeshift hair salon, and sometimes bar. It begs asking: how does the Afro Shop recreate the space for people to care for themselves in a city that was not designed for them? It points to the recent migration and lineage of Black migrations in Berlin who are not bound to one nation-state, instead, they represent a globalizing African diaspora who create a “Third Space” attuned to the internationalization of Afrobeats and the popularization of shea butter.
When I first encountered them, I was intrigued by what these spaces offered and pondered about their place in Berlin. As the Mischa Honeck and colleagues have noted in Germany and the Black Diaspora, Blackness has a long and entangled history that includes people born on the continent, mixed heritage Black people, and Black people from the Americas — thus contributing to a multinodal, ever evolving and dynamic perspective of Blackness. Given this diversity of ethnic and national origins, it is worth asking: what does it mean for such diverse groups of Black people in Berlin to find spaces that are attentive to such disparate aesthetic and culinary desires and how do we connect with the places and situations we call home? Afro shops in Berlin are pertinent within a context that people come to face one’s identity and this is grounded on the sights, sounds, and smells that bind the community. The kola nuts that invite us to the space, the palm oil that functions as the foundation for our meal, and the cocoa butter that allows our skin to glow. Some function as a specialty grocery store with lime, habanero peppers, and yuca. Other Afro shops have a wide range of West African clothing prints and decoration. While the space might be reduced to a trading space, the existence of Black spaces in Germany provides a physical contestation to the German national narrative oblivious of the country’s colonial past.