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.
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.
Germany is grappling with its colonial history on the African continent, leading to an international debate about how the country provides restitution and reparation for the descendants of Africans who were subjected to genocide and forms of systematic violence. While activists with the Committee for an African Monument in Berlin have called for a visual amends in Europe, to this date, Germany has not created a monument to commemorate the African victims of slavery and colonialism. In some ways, the Afro shop counters the spectre of German colonialism in Africa. On the one hand, the Afro shop opens up the social space and visual marker for Black people to engrain themselves within Germany’s bony history, but it also lays out an intricate dimension to class and national identity. For some white Germans, the space can be interpreted as a small business venture developed by hardworking migrants, yet it presents another dimension: a place where a wide range of working class communities of the African diaspora travel to get their latest body and food oils. This space exists within the context of a dynamic mélange of Black identities.
Extrapolating the complexity of African diasporic formations is key to revealing the depths of the Black people who (throughout the diaspora) find themselves co-existing within a broader German community, while honoring their linguistic and ethnic differences. The history of the Afro shop doesn’t act in isolation; for this reason, the particular representations of memory, space, and history, especially outside of official institutions, shows how Black migrants and post-migrants foster spaces for their bodies and hair.
One difficult part of being a Black person in Europe, or in any, lies in the choices and decisions we make with regards to finding our space in a city that is haunted. In the German context, this creates, what the late Afro German survivor of the Holocaust, Theodor Wonja Michael, once remarked that Black communities were “highly globalised, relational matters that cannot simply be grasped or analysed within rather simplistic white western-centric patterns of perception and reason.” From this vantage point, it begs the question: how do Black people in Germany fit into the transnational and experimental histories that situate the community with another reason, another story, another curation of self? Against the backdrop of a city that is reckoning with its past, Afro Shops can be a point for differentiating the range of African diasporic experiences. It can provide the possible and intelligible way where Blackness is constituted.
The processes of racial formation in Germany are paradoxical insofar that the national memory often obscures or erases Black (German) subjects, and as Tina Campt argues in Other Germans, this effacement was part of the Nazi socialist regimes general program of dispelling non-Aryans. Black bodies and communities have had a complicated relationship to Germany but it has not always been one of victimhood.
Berlin is a city where the African diaspora weave through political groups, such as the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative for Black People in Germany), which seek social justice for Black people or groups like Generation Adefra, which provide a safer space for Black women living in Germany. These are groups that are entangled into associations, universities, and community groups, and they establish their own creative voice within the context of Germany’s two million Afro-German & other African descended inhabitants. The Black German historian Fatima El-Tayeb argued that prior to her publication of Schwarze Deutsche there were few historical texts acknowledging the contributions of Black people in German history.
Stories mark the core of African diasporic experiences in Berlin, especially as they are interwoven by people who purchase foods and goods from these spaces, and for those of us who try to adhere to a domestic artform to reckon with our past while provoking and improvising a social space for our new home, it is important to reconnect with our brethren. While the online shopping industry has provided some ways for people to Afrocentric goods and spices, going to a physical space reminds me that I am not alone.
Afro Shops in Berlin are the nexus of leisure for working class Black migrants from the African continent, with people often producing their own roadmap for their economic freedom. This is a place where Black bodies and African culture are being care for in a structurally racist society that has yet commemorated the victims of slavery and colonialism. It is not done alone but within an active constellation of the Black diaspora in the city who find themselves seeking the culinary riches not found in mainstream spaces. Why is it important to have venues that advocate for Black beauty regiments? For one, it is to counter the over ways that Black skin has been unapologetically and perennially caricatured by white Germans. In Germany, there is a persistent use of Blackface during the annual festival known as Karneval and or through claimed “acts of solidarity” as exercised by a local football team. These occasional reminders of anti-Black racism is part of why first and multigenerational Black people develop their own poetics of relations, an experimental point of contact that exists outside of the damaging practice of gentrification.
Afrocentric spaces in Berlin are enshrined in the survival of our identities, often a pilgrimage site to care for our hair, or to enliven our palettes. In our attempt to create community, we use this site to do a culinary and beauty form of healing. ■