February is Black History Month, not only in the United States, but also in Germany's capital. While the black community here is significantly smaller and less cohesive than its American counterpart, organizers are expecting thousands of participants in the 10th annual celebration of black heritage in Berlin.
With theater and dance performances, seminars, and concerts, blacks in Berlin are presenting the culture and history of an often overlooked minority in a still overwhelmingly white country.
Unlike Britain or France, which held vast colonial possessions in Africa, Germany experienced an overseas empire only briefly. As a result, German attitudes toward race and nationality have lagged far behind.
"The common denominator is that you're black, but the only reason that's important is because other people make it that way," says Paulette Reed-Anderson, an African-American historian who has lived in Berlin since 1983. In reality the black community here is diverse, consisting of Afrodeutsche (literally Afro-Germans), Africans, African-Americans, and Caribbean blacks.
No statistics on the black population in Germany exist, though the number is estimated to be about 250,000. Ms. Reed-Anderson says that since German unification in 1990, Berlin's number of Africans alone has doubled to 13,500.
Germans first established commercial relations on Africa's Gold Coast in the 17th century and for a short time were involved in the slave trade. But it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that Germany reappeared on the continent, making a late bid in Europe's imperial scramble for Africa.
At the same time, several prominent African-Americans visited and studied in Berlin. W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist and writer, began working on his doctorate at the university here and Mary Church Terrell, an early suffragist, spent a year studying German in Berlin. Says Reed-Anderson., "Both Terrell and Du Bois wrote in their memoirs that it was relieving to be here, because they were not under the same pressure as they were at home."
What followed the easy-going cosmopolitanism of Berlin in the roaring '20s, when African-American musicians brought jazz to receptive German audiences, was the vicious racism of the Nazi regime. An uncounted number of black Germans perished in the death camps. Only with the Allied occupation of Berlin did blacks return to Berlin - as African-American servicemen.
Later, in the wake of decolonization, African students began arriving in both East and West Germany in the early 1960s. The many layers of the African presence here mean that some black German families are in the fifth generation, says Reed-Anderson.
STILL, blacks in Germany have had a particularly hard time changing attitudes. While sizable black communities in the US, Britain, and France fought discrimination, anchoring their demands for civil rights in citizenship, even blacks in Germany who are citizens and speak the language as their native tongue are confronted with odd looks at best, blows at worst.
"I'm tired of always having to explain myself," says Ricky Reiser. "The typical questions are: How long have you been here? How long are you staying? When are you leaving?" The daughter of a German and a black American soldier, Ms. Reiser runs the European-African Cultural Center in Berlin and is editor in chief of Afrolook magazine.
Although events like Black History Month and the increasing presence of Afrodeutsche in the German media and music scene are encouraging, Reiser remains skeptical. Racial discrimination in housing and employment is commonplace and not punishable by law, and the current debate on dual citizenship has renewed the question of what it means to be German.
"Little has changed in the attitudes of Germans," says Reiser, "with the result that our children are growing up with latent racism."