German author Ika Hügel-Marshall will speak on campus today in an effort to shed some light on the realities of 20th century Germany and the country’s struggles with race and racism.
Hügel- Marshall will lecture and read from her autobiography at 4 p.m. in room 1001 of the Life Sciences Building. The event is free and gives attendees a chance to listen to Hügel- Marshall recount her experiences growing up with racism in 1950s Germany, said Elizabeth Weber, chair of the German, Slavic and Semitic Studies Dept. She said Hügel- Marshall, the daughter of a German woman and a black U.S. soldier stationed in Germany, was forcibly separated from her family by the German government because of her race.
“It gives insight into German society of the 20th century and of today that is very unusual, and at the same time very important,” Weber said. “It says something about how people deal with people from other backgrounds, which has confronted Germany since the unification [of East and West Germany]. This is the first time this kind of unique voice has been heard here.”
Dagmar Schultz, who translated Hügel-Marshall’s autobiography, Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany, will also introduce and show the film he produced about Ghanaian-German poet May Ayim. Ayim founded the Black German Movement, an organization Hügel- Marshall became involved with that supports black communities in Germany.
Hügel-Marshall was living with her mother after her soldier father returned to the United States, Weber said. The German government then decided to take custody of her, citing racial problems she might encounter later in life.
“[It’s frightening that] people would take a child away from a family that doesn’t want to give her away,” Weber said. “The basic argument was, ‘This child is going to have problems later in life.’ So they decided to prevent it by taking her away from a loving family, and [threatened to] use force if necessary. One would think a loving family would be just the strength to combat [those problems]. This was done to a lot of children.”
Weber said Hügel-Marshall spent most of her life wanting to be white, which stemmed from her being taken from a family that would have cared for her and being placed in a state-run institution.
“The terrible thing about her childhood is that when she was seven years old the government pressured her family to give her up to state [care],” Weber said. “Although she had a loving family, she was torn out and lived with brutal Catholic nuns. They beat her practically every day, robbed her of her self-esteem and taught her to hate her color and the way she was, and that she was evil and bad. ”
Weber said Hügel- Marshall was taken to the city of Hamburg as a child to have the devil exorcized out of her, and she was also labeled a “nigger-whore” by German society at the time. Weber said Hügel-Marshall’s autobiography describes the racism she encountered, but also tells how she became more accepting of her color.
“This was the level of bigotry [she faced] in the ’50s in Germany,” she said. “So, the book tells that story, but also focuses on how she overcomes the hatred of her ‘blackness.’ It’s really a harrowing story of her childhood. … It’s very deeply damaging to read what happened to this child. ”
Weber said both Hügel-Marshall and Ayim did not want to be seen as women whose entire experience is based on racism. When Ayim did poetry readings, she said, the audiences mainly wanted to hear the poems focusing on racism and ignored poetry about the rest of her life.
“Both don’t want to be reduced to Black German women whose only experience is racism,” she said. “They don’t want to be locked in that category. They can share [their experiences] in all their richness.”
The talk is sponsored by the German, Slavic and Semitic Studies Dept., and received support from the Black Studies, French and Italian, Film Studies, Comparative Literature, Women’s Studies and History Depts., the Center for Black Studies, the College of Creative Studies and the New Racial Studies Project.