The Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA) and Black German Studies in the United States
By Dr. Rosemarie Peña, Founder & President of the BGHRA
The following is a shortened version of the keynote address Rosemarie Peña delivered November 5, 2020, for the annual Women in German Studies in the UK and Ireland Conference.
My interest in transnational adoption and child migration is inspired by my life experience as a German born, transnational adoptee. It is informed by my early career in adolescent mental health treatment and my service as founding member and president of the Black German Heritage and Research Association (BGHRA). I am also honored to serve on the steering committee of Diversity, Decolonialization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) scholarly collective, and as co-chair of the Executive Committee of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC). As noted on its website, “ASAC promotes understanding of the experience, institution, and cultural representation of domestic and transnational adoption and related practices such as fostering, assisted reproduction, LGBTQ+ families, and innovative kinship formation.”
My research focuses on the epigenetic and intergenerational impacts of maternal separation trauma and the complex identity development of persons displaced as children away from their first families and countries of origin. Both my MA thesis and doctoral dissertation are analyses of visual representations of transnational adoption. I approach the multidisciplinary fields in which my work is rooted—Childhood Studies, Adoption Studies, and German Studies—from a social justice perspective. My training in computer networks and web development have proven to be an invaluable asset not only for online community development, but also for my research. I have been an administrator and participant observer in countless adoption-related bulletin boards and virtual forums long before Facebook. Family search resources and genealogy databases preceded the graphical interfaces of the operating systems that are on our computers today. We adoptees have been searching for our first families and origin stories for a very, very long time. In the process, we’ve come to know each other.
Many adoptees reacted viscerally when they learned about the children who were separated from their mothers at the US border. We mourn with the more than five hundred whom we anticipate may never be reunited with their families—at least not during their childhoods. The intensity of the trauma these children are experiencing is irrefutable, and adoptees understand well that no matter the outcome, their lives are forever changed. There will always be a life as it was before and now after separation. It is likely that these Black and Brown children will be funneled through a colorblind adoption process and they will grow up in white families. Adoption is an industry and transnational adoption is lucrative and highly political. The public will certainly demonize the Black and Brown parents and the white adopters will be heralded as saviors. When/if this happens, the children will grow up without racial and cultural mirrors. They will forget their mothers’ faces and voices over time. BUT—their bodies will always remember. When they have lost all cognitive memory of the traumatic separation event, and many will, their limbic systems will never forget.
If adopted, the children will become privileged migrants. They will be naturalized as American citizens and variably assimilate into their adopted families and communities. They will grow up with a rescue narrative rather than their mothers’ recollections of their births and early childhoods. They will learn to be grateful for their adoptive parents and the advantages afforded to them that would not have been possible had they had remained with their genetic kin. The children will adapt differently, depending on how and where they are nurtured in their new families, and in accordance with many other factors including each child’s age, temperament, and emotional constitution. In the best-case scenarios, resilient children will develop healthy attachments within their adoptive families, positive senses of self, and the coping skills necessary to manage the immanent existential shift and their unfathomable grief. They will come to terms with their complex losses. In the worst-case scenarios, the children will develop disorganized attachments. They may suffer physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse in their new families—or, they may simply never feel like they fit in. While the children’s futures have been collectively altered at this moment in history, each child’s experience and response will be unique. Individual cases will inevitably fall somewhere in between the best and worst-case scenarios.
In adolescence, adoptees negotiate their identities differently than their non-adopted peers and many will wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that adoption effectuates and struggle to find their place in the world. Many will long to see themselves reflected in the faces of others who physically resemble them. Though, statistically, adoptees are four times more likely than non-adopted persons to attempt suicide, most fare well by external markers, meaning they will do well in school, go on to live productive lives, and enjoy satisfying social relationships. In adulthood, many will embark on their reunification journeys by searching first for their mothers. When and if they ever reunite with their first families, or return to their countries of origin, they will no longer feel at home there and neither will their children. So much they will have lost is irretrievable.
Though we might quibble about material and contextual distinctions, I argue strongly that the trauma that the children separated from their mothers at the border are enduring is analogous to the Black German or any other adoption context in many important ways. Adoption is not a one-time event, rather it is an ongoing phenomenon with ubiquitous and lifelong implications for the adopted person and their bifurcated family constellations. Today’s adoptees and their families have important advantages over the postwar generation. We understand adoption much better now and contemporary families have the benefit of educational, clinical, and social support services that were unavailable to us and our African American parents during the postwar years. Black German adoptees were early pioneers of transnational adoption and many ideas about what was in children’s best interest in the postwar era are now understood to be harmful. In this regard, the Black German adoptee cohort has been significantly disadvantaged and we are not alone.
Much of the existing literature about transnational adoption, generally, focuses on the Asian contexts, primarily Korean. Kori Graves and Lucy Bland are among if not the first to write about our Black generational peers from the UK and Korea. It is probable that Black Germans have half-siblings in Korea, since the African American GIs were sometimes transferred from Germany to Korea just because they had fathered children. Younger generations of Black adoptees who grew up in the US and Europe, who come from various Asian, Caribbean, and African countries, are also beginning to share their experiences. There are many similarities, especially with respect to how it feels to be Black and adopted with family and cultural roots in other countries.
Most transnational adoptees are social orphans. What this means is that the children had at least one living parent at the time of transfer and possibly siblings. The children were orphaned via juridical processes in the interim between relinquishment and adoption. I am the first to examine the psycho-social aspects of Black German adoption and transcultural reunification through the lens of adoption psychology. I echo Dr. Fatima el Tayeb’s sentiments, as she remarked in her keynote at the 2018 BGHRA Toronto conference that her work is primarily concerned with how it feels to be Black German. My standpoint, however, is that of a Black German American adoptee. So, keeping the postwar cohort’s concerns in mind, in the following I will share my thoughts on:
- Why Black German Studies from an international perspective is important NOW.
- Why subjectivities and positionalities matter.
- The BGHRA Vision and Restorative Justice.
Why Black German Studies from an International Perspective is Important NOW
Black German Studies, as it emanates from the US, primarily focuses on the life experiences of Black people in Germany. Black German Americans benefit from this knowledge production, and even more so when the books are written by Black people in Germany and are translated into English. Nevertheless, I argue that the burgeoning discipline’s narrow scope is harmful as it perpetuates the myth that Black Germans are fewer in number in diaspora than we are, and it simultaneously erases those living outside of Germany from the discourse. The postwar war generation to which the adoptees belong, comprises not the first, but the largest cohort of dual-heritage children born in the wake of war to German women and Black men on German soil. Many grew up in adoptive families in Denmark, the US, and in the Caribbean. Many non-adopted Black Germans also grew up in the US after the War, and still others immigrated as adults. Black German American children are born every year and adoptees are reconnecting with their families all the time. The Black German diaspora is multicultural, and its members often lead transnational lives. There are Black Germans in the UK, for example, and Black persons with families and cultural roots in the UK who live in Germany. There are Black Germans living elsewhere in Europe, Canada, Africa, and in the Caribbean. We meet local community members at every BGHRA conference in the US, and we met Black Germans in Toronto.
Many people who are socially coded as Black and who are living in the US have recent ancestry and close relatives in Germany. We have no distinctive characteristics or physical attributes, so you may not even recognize those of us who are in your midst. In the US, we are multigenerational and have disparate family backgrounds and cultural roots. We also have children and grandchildren who have interest in their German heritage. Importantly, not all Black Germans living in the US are adopted; and not all of the adoptees were fathered by African American GIs. All Black German Lives Matter to the BGHRA and, for the adoptees, Black German Studies has a special meaning. The field documents a history we were never supposed to know—and one from which we have been effectively and deliberately erased. Yet, here we are, we’re still here. For more than two decades we are collectively in reunion with our first families and in discourse and actuality with Black Germans having a myriad of life experiences in many geographical contexts. The adoptive cohort emerged as a topic of scholarly interest concomitantly with and in response to the transnational community development initiated by Black Germans living in the US. A brief overview of my work thus far will be helpful to explicate further.
In my article published in the journal Genealogy I explain how before WIFI and Facebook William Gage’s archived newsletters offer early insight into the search and reunion activities of German born adoptees, Black and white. Leonie Boehmer, a search consultant and frequent contributor to Gage’s newsletter, warned Black Germans in advance that reunification would not be easy for them. The newsletter also featured stories by and about Black Germans who were adopted or fostered in Germany and who were searching for their fathers in the US.
Dr. Marion Kraft’s edited volume, Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration (2015), which was later translated into English as Children of the Liberation: Transatlantic Experiences and Perspectives of Black Germans of the Post-War Generation (2020), is the first and only transnational anthology devoted solely to the postwar generation. The life narratives coming from the US are few in Kraft’s text and these are neither exemplary nor representative of a collective experience. My chapter, “Stories Matter-Contextualizing Black German American Adoptee Experience(s),” contextualizes Black German adopted childhoods located in Civil Rights era and the Cold War years by contrasting the experiences of the adoptees who grew up on military campuses with those who grew up in civilian communities. My forthcoming essay, “Black Germans: Reunifying in Diaspora,” in Silke Hackenesch’s Making Families Across Race and Nation: The Histories and Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, brings the discussion forward into the postwar generation’s present. My contribution to Hackenesch’s book chronicles the development of an international Black German counter-public over the past twenty years. It is noteworthy that this highly visible counter-public is virtually absent in the flourishing literary canon and is rarely mentioned in German Studies conferences outside of BGHRA. Non-adopted Black German Americans and those who were born in Germany and later migrated to the US are rendered invisible in the field. Nevertheless, many who teach Black German Studies or contribute to the literature have attended and/or presented at our BGHRA conferences. This is active erasure. The adoptive cohort and their generational peers are indeed living history and our reunification after more than half a century is worthy of acknowledgment.
My friend Maria’s story will help me to further illustrate the urgency with which I advocate for a more inclusive Black German Studies. Maria was born in Auerbach, Bayern, in 1948. Her mother died right after childbirth. Maria and her older brother Hermann were left in the care of their grandparents. Relatives convinced the elderly couple to relinquish Maria for transnational adoption. In 2012, I received an email from her cousin Brenda asking if I would help to locate Maria. Hermann missed his sister and wanted so badly to hear from her.
Brenda and I found Maria on her birthday, May 21, 2012, and it meant the world to her that her German brother was looking for her. She had no idea how to search, so she never tried. We became good friends and when Hermann wrote his first letter to Maria, in German, she asked me to help her translate. Maria’s failing health prevented her from attending our conferences, though she was anxious to meet and learn about other Black Germans. So, I sent her books and journal articles. When Hermann couldn’t wait any longer to see his younger sister, he sent her an airplane ticket. Maria had a bad heart and found navigating all the bureaucracy necessary to obtain a passport to be daunting, so she procrastinated. At the age of seventy-one, in June 2019, Maria passed away without ever meeting Hermann or her cousin Brenda. Brenda was the first to notify me of Maria’s death and according to her, Hermann was inconsolable. Though they had been legally dekinned for more than a half century, in Hermann’s heart Maria never stopped being his sister and Maria felt the same way about him. After she passed away, Maria’s granddaughter Tiffany called me to ask what I knew of Maria’s adoption journey. She is determined to write Maria’s biography, and Maria had already advised me that this was her wish before she died. Tiffany also wants to learn German and hopes to study abroad in graduate school someday. I promised I’d help Tiffany to the best of my ability. As Maria’s unrequited reunion and subsequent death explicitly reveals, time is of the essence; the postwar generation is aging. We and our children deserve to know and to be included in our German history during our lifetimes. We are eager to learn about our Black German siblings and the extended family and heritage we left behind.
Why Subjectivities and Positionalities Matter
Over the past two decades I have observed and facilitated many family reunions and have worked tirelessly to engage and reunify the Black diaspora that was ruptured in the postwar years by German racism via the juridical processes of transnational adoption. While the BGHRA encourages the ethical study of Black German life, history, and cultural production, we unequivocally privilege Black German voices as experts of our own life experiences. It matters significantly to us who is conveying our stories, and how we, our families, and our ancestors are being portrayed in them. In German studies, as it is also the case in adoption studies, tensions arise because too often those who shape the academic discourses that have the potential to influence public opinion are not the subjects themselves. In this regard, my work and the work of many other Black German scholars is necessarily political.
It is imperative to note here that three generations of dual-heritage Black German children were already the subjects of twentieth century state-sanctioned research projects that defined us as aberrant beings who are innately inferior to white Germans. The social anthropologists concluded that by virtue of our so-called tainted blood, we are genetically predisposed to mental illness, promiscuity, and criminality. We were depicted as a threat to German society and to ourselves. These ideas contributed to the German mindset that led to the sterilization of many after WWI, and later precipitated our adoptions. It makes perfect sense, then, that Black Germans are deeply concerned about the interpretations of our lives put forth by non-Black German scholars, journalists, and filmmakers—even those who may look like us but are not us. Too often, these well-intentioned efforts don’t correspond to what we are interested in learning about one another and only serve to rub salt into festering wounds and reify old stereotypes and stigma. In the end we are left questioning, “what’s really in all this for us?”
One of the primary reasons I pursued my doctorate was that without a PhD, I knew I would only be research subject. I would never be taken seriously as an expert within the academy. The best I could ever do would be to publish my memoir. But, if I had published what I wrote in the early 2000s, I would surely be ashamed and embarrassed today. If you’ve googled me before attending this talk, at least half of what you think you know about me is false. Much of my story challenges the existing narrative of Black German Adoption, and I reiterate with emphasis that each of our origin, adoption, and reunification stories is unique. There is no collective Black German adoption experience.
Adoptees are often emotionally vulnerable, especially when they are searching. Our knowledge about our early lives in Germany and our feelings about our adoptions are subject to change over time. I have considerable regret, for example, about sharing so much of my personal life publicly, and I am thankful that my families are as supportive as they are. Videos and interviews in which I have participated were sometimes edited in ways that distorted what I intended to convey, what I would really want the world to know—or want my grandchildren and nieces and nephews to read someday. But not everyone is able to earn a doctorate, nor has the time and inclination to write their memoirs. Yet many of us do want to share our stories and to hear those of our peers. This presents an ethical dilemma; one that prevents me from taking on an ethnographic project and also why I no longer speak to the press about my personal life. I ignore requests from anyone who writes to the BGHRA asking for referrals to subjects for their projects, because I firmly believe that my fellow adoptees should own their own stories and that we shouldn’t be collectivized.
Too often adoptees’ experiences are sensationalized for public consumption and only the most heart wrenching stories make the news. We call this adoption porn and the narratives often follow the typical orphan tropes. For example, reunion stories often have either a storybook ending or a tragic one. Family reunification is far more complicated than it is generally portrayed in journalism and media. Once a reporter from the Military Times asked me to help her find four or five interviewees from the postwar generation and I complied. I referred her to both adoptees and non-adoptees, who were delighted to share their positive life experiences. Maria was one of them and, at the time, she was in the honeymoon phase of her reunification. She had just received several albums with dozens of photos of her German family and was anticipating her trip to Germany to visit Hermann. The Military Times article was never published, and the journalist never responded to my requests for a status update after the interviews were completed. I’m sure the responses conflicted with the narrative she had in mind. You can’t begin to fathom the number of offensive requests I’ve received from journalists and scholars over the years, who clearly hadn’t read anything I’d written or much else authored by Black Germans, for that matter. In these requests the writers often refer to the adoptees in derogatory ways and their project proposals, in my estimation, would be more harmful than beneficial to Black Germans and our families. Some of the questions that come through our email simply make no sense at all. For example, I was recently contacted through the BGHRA website by a high school German teacher who wanted to feature Black Germans during their classroom celebration for German Unity Day. They thought it appropriate to ask me what Black Germans eat so they could prepare an authentic meal. Obviously, this person has not yet received a response.
As an accidental gatekeeper, and as an adoption scholar, I prefer to err on the side of over-protection when it comes to our adoptive cohort. My concern is not only for the adoptee, but also for the wellbeing of our cohort and international community. Many of us are family after all. My role models have always been the Black scholars and activists from Germany who precede me, not necessarily in age, but in their scholarly activism. When I was contemplating my dissertation proposal, for example, I mentioned to my friend Noah Sow that I was curious about Black German children’s identity development and was planning to apply for funding to do research in Hamburg. Noah asked me if I planned to move to Hamburg and work with the children, and if not, if I could explain to her exactly how the children in Hamburg would benefit from my study. From then on, my research interest has been pointedly focused on adoptees and Black Germans in the US, my own community within our diaspora.
The BGHRA Vision and Restorative Justice
The BGHRA conferences, therefore, intentionally create a space for multilayered conversations among Black Germans and with the scholars whose academic careers are built around analyzing our collective, individual, and often intimate life experiences. Since described as a watershed event, the inaugural BGHRA conference was attended by many who had been virtually acquainted for over decade on the various social networks. As reflected in the conference theme, “Strengthening Transatlantic Connections,” the event symbolically celebrated the rekinning of Black Germans in diaspora. Scholars Priscilla Layne and S. Marina Jones authored the conference report commemorating the auspicious occasion. The report, photographs, and videos of the keynote and presentations are since archived on the BGHRA website.
On the first morning of the three-day event, a delegation of Black Germans representing the US, Germany, Nigeria, and South Africa met with representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus. The multicultural delegation of persons having diverse relationships to Germany was invited to Capitol Hill by Congressman Alcee Hastings of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Policy Advisor Dr. Mischa Thompson facilitated a conversation about earlier interventions into anti-Black racism in Germany. I spoke to the group about the obstacles confronting those seeking original birth and adoption records. Adoptees were hoping for a centralized mechanism for finding families that would mediate for language, economic, and bureaucratic barriers. Though fully aware that this was not the appropriate forum through which we could realistically expect any direct intervention, I noted then that many adoptees had also expressed a desire for an unfettered path to dual citizenship—US and German—without any complicated legal procedures or economic penalties. We were determined to be acknowledged and wanted Germany to apologize, though I doubted that any of us actually planned on uprooting away from our families in the US and moving back to Germany. These first moments on Capitol Hill defined the political ethos within which the diaspora community officially made a unified public debut. Black German scholarship and activism emanating from Germany in the 1980s indeed paved the way for the adoptees’ voices to be included for the first time in such an important forum. The conversation among the delegates and officials affirmed that the social justice concerns of the Black community in Germany and those of the transnational adoptees are inextricably intertwined.
Predictably, my friend Noah Sow, who also happens to be a well-known activist and author, was our first keynote speaker. The title of her talk was Geteilte Geschichte. She explained to the adoptees in the audience that it is our shared history, which also divided us. Sow explained how the mass deportation of Black German children in the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the isolation of our siblings and peers who were challenged in the aftermath with negotiating a collective identity in a hostile white German society. She said:
You were expelled from your own country because Germans cannot be Black, and you just happened to be: Black Germans. Step by step, we are coming to understand that there is a reason, a link to why our older generations in Germany grew up isolated, alienated from other Black people—with the same pain and the key question that could not and cannot be safely enunciated, ‘You all do not identify with me. Where can I find somebody who does? And whom I can identify with?’ We are coming to understand why this has been so. Why most of the Black German kids in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t have anybody to turn to. Because they had taken you away. You would have been our sisters, our mothers, our aunts. Our teachers, our deans, our doctors, our librarians, our social workers, our judges, our pilots, our nurses, our neighbors. We’ve been missing you a great deal.
Many of us still wonder what Germany would be like today had we not been sent away—if family preservation was prioritized and Germany could have imagined itself as a multicultural nation after the War.
Our most recent conference planned for April 2020 at my home institution, Rutgers University–Camden, was postponed due to the pandemic, but we hope to convene in person when it is safe to travel. It is essential for us to be together in person. Locally, many of our fathers retired from the military at Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base and purchased their homes in the surrounding area in Southern New Jersey. We were so looking forward to introducing our local community to our friends who always travel to be with us. Several of us adoptees attended high school here in New Jersey together, but the secrecy and shame surrounding our adoptions prevented us from sharing our stories when we were teenagers, when we were grappling with our identities. Today we are happily sharing our reunion experiences. I hope they will be present with their newly found siblings so they will be able to share their stories with us and learn more about our history and cultural production when we are again able to convene.
Our plan is also to honor Retired Sgt. 1st Class James Thompson, the 24th Infantry Regiment Association National President, Buffalo Soldiers, and his wife Maria Thompson. This week the couple are celebrating their sixty-fourth anniversary. Mr. Thompson has devoted his professional career to protecting and serving the people of the United States. A proud Buffalo Soldier, he has earned many honors including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his 21 years of military service. The Thompsons and my daughter’s godparents, Mr. and Mrs. Milton and Charlotte Johnson, were featured in Dag Freyer’s Documentary, Breath of Freedom, upon my introduction. These two met in Absam, Tyrol, Austria after the War, where Charlotte was born and raised. Sadly, Oma, as we affectionately call her, passed away shortly after the filming, and Opa is in poor health now, so it is doubtful that he will ever be able to attend our conference. However, we are also inviting Cathy Thompson to share her testimony about growing up Black German and the experience of participating with her family in Freyer’s film. We now look forward to honoring her for her service on the front lines as a nurse during Covid-19. As a dedicated public servant, she is following her father’s footsteps. In one segment in the documentary, the two families, the Thompsons and the Johnsons, appear together around the pool in Thompson’s back yard. Cathy and Patricia, the Johnson’s daughter, are present in the documentary but are never actually interviewed. They are only part of the mise-en-scène: clearly visible but ignored, like so many of us in German Studies. The BGHRA wants to change this.
We, who are institutionally based in the US, are fully aware that we are privileged to do this work in ways that our brothers and sisters in Germany are not and that Black German Studies in the US is yet problematic. The flourishing field is dominated by voices not our own that speak for us and about us. They decide which stories matter and which aspects of our lives are worthy of exploration. Our invisibility suggests that location, and the juridical processes of transnational adoption and migration have magically stripped away our Black German identities. Reclaiming our first families and our erased German heritage is just one of the ways in which US adoptees are now demanding restorative justice. There is much more to come—stay tuned. It is not we who are confused about our identities; it is they who are in denial, who refuse to acknowledge us for who we are, in all our cultural and experiential diversity.
If you followed the German Studies conference season this year, in the US and the UK, which was mostly virtual, you might have noticed that there were several events about Black Germans and Black Germany in the time of Black Lives Matter. Many academic organizations in the US posted statements in support of Black Lives on websites. The BGHRA did not. We exist because Black Lives Matter, so for us it is implicit in our founding. We felt it more appropriate to hold weekly meetings to support Black Scholars in German Studies, whom we were concerned may be struggling after the heinous murder of George Floyd. We plan to reconvene these meetings soon. If you attended these German conferences, you might have also wondered why Black German scholars are so in the minority at these events. My response would be to ask if German Studies is or has ever been a safe intellectual space for us to thrive? We at the BGHRA hope one that day it will be, and that our young people, our children and grandchildren will feel like they belong in your classrooms—wherever you teach. We hope they will soon be learning about our Geteilte Geschichte, our shared and divided history. In closing, however, I implore those of you who do not identify as Black Germans and who are already publishing and teaching about us to thoughtfully consider whether your work is complementing or complicating our reunification in diaspora.
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—. “Black Germans: Reunification and Belonging in Diaspora.” Adoption & Culture: The Interdisciplinary Journal of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture, vol. 6, no. 1, 2018, pp. 26–30.
—. “Black Germans: Reunifying in Diaspora.” Making Families Across Race and Nation: The Histories and Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, edited by Silke Hackenesch. Ohio State University Press, 2021.
—. “From Both Sides of the Atlantic: Black German Adoptee Searches in William Gage’s Geborener Deutscher (Born German).” Genealogy, vol. 2, no. 4, Oct. 2018, pp. 13–20.
—. “Stories Matter- Contextualizing Black German American Adoptee Experience(s).” International Adoption in North American Literature and Culture, edited by Mark Shackleton. Palgrave, 2017.
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—. Geteilte Geschichte. Conference, Black German Heritage & Research Association, 21 Aug. 2011.