UMASS Recognizes Growing Interdisciplinary Study of Black Germans in Academia

Doctoral student Kevina King (far left) on a panel this weekend with Jemele Watkins (far right) at the third Black German Heritage & Research Association International Conference held at Amherst College.

Doctoral student Kevina King (far left) on a panel this weekend with Jemele Watkins (far right) at the third Black German Heritage & Research Association International Conference held at Amherst College.

AMHERST, Mass.—In an effort to recognize a relatively young academic discipline that many in the academy have never heard of before, nearly a hundred students and scholars gathered at Amherst College over the weekend to discuss their research and ideas for how to grow Black German Studies.

This marks the third year that the Black German Heritage & Research Association sponsored the international conference, which highlighted a variety of interdisciplinary topics ranging from Black Germans during the Third Reich to their ongoing presence in German theater.

Like African American, Women and Queer studies, Black German Studies has an admitted social justice focus, says Dr. Sara Lennox, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an early founder of the Black German Studies movement in the U.S. “We’ve made the field legitimate. You can now do this work and get tenure,” says Lennox, who was chiefly responsible for jumpstarting the Black German Studies concentration at UMASS Amherst. “It’s kind of a burgeoning field and movement. The other thing that’s really cool is there is a pretty strong connection between activism and scholarship and a really strong connection with the experimental … Black Germans talking about their stories.”


Finding A Brother Across An Ocean Of Time

The airport isn’t a very happy place right now — grim-faced business travelers trudge in from another gloom-and-doom meeting, families fret over fares, airline workers seem jumpy and glum. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that a crowd of total strangers gathered around Angie Scurlock at the Dulles international arrivals gate to watch as she nearly burst out of her skin to meet her half brother, Hans Engel.

At 49, Scurlock was laying eyes on one of her three siblings for the first time. Five months ago, Scurlock didn’t know she had siblings.

Now, thanks to determined detective work by an American woman in Germany who devotes herself to reuniting adoptees with long-lost relatives, a black woman who was raised by the owners of a D.C. liquor store would find out just what she had in common with a German truck driver who grew up in an orphanage.

How would Scurlock even know which passenger was Hans, asked her friend from work at the U.S. Patent Office in Alexandria.

“I’ll know,” Scurlock said.

She did, instantly. So did everyone else in the hall. The color of their skin was different, but pretty much everything else about sister and brother seemed eerily familiar — eyes, nose, shape of the face, build, and their instinct about what to do first. They hugged and they kissed. They caressed each other’s cheeks and nestled against each other’s shoulders.

On the basis of a visit from a stranger bearing adoption records, Engel, 59, and his son, Benjamin, had gotten on a plane, making Engel’s first trip to the United States, to see a woman who was his first link to the mother he had never known.

The story begins, like so many of this sort, with war and love. Germany at the end of World War II was chockablock with American soldiers. Over the course of the decade after the war, Inge Engel, a German whose father had been killed in the war, had four children by four different men, two of them U.S. servicemen. Inge left one son to be taken into the German foster-care system at birth; another son was adopted by a German family. Her two daughters, both biracial, were adopted by black American military couples.

Inge eventually married another American soldier and moved to the United States. But aside from one quick visit when Angie was 3 years old, there was no contact between the mother and her children.

Angie didn’t find out that she was adopted until she was 11. One day at home in Southeast Washington, as they watched “One Life to Live” on TV, a friend of Angie’s adoptive mother asked the girl: “Do you know what ‘adopted’ means?”

In the vaguest terms, the friend told Angie that her parents weren’t who she thought. But not a word about adoption ever passed between Angie and her parents. “I had a good life,” Scurlock says. “I had a pony, I had a minibike. I didn’t see the need to rock the boat.”

Only decades later, after her adoptive parents had died, did she act on that shred of information.

In 1995, she found her biological mother’s sister in Colorado. But the sister wouldn’t divulge details, telling Angie only that “you were a one-night stand.”

Then, this year, over Memorial Day weekend, Scurlock got a call. “Hi,” a woman said. “I’m your sister.”

Deborah Bufford, 51, was calling from Oklahoma, where her adoptive family settled after their time in Germany. Bufford had always known she was adopted from Germany, but she knew little else. “I kept asking and asking, but my adoptive parents were reluctant to give anything out,” she says.

Three years ago, Bufford contacted Angela Shelley, a researcher who specializes in connecting American adoptees with their German relations. Shelley hit a dead-end when German authorities refused to open Bufford’s adoption files. Only after Inge died did the archives open up.

This June, after many months of calls and letters, Shelley obtained enough of the file to determine that there were four half siblings, none of whom knew of each other’s existence. She found one half brother, Hans, and visited him with the documents; the other half brother, Werner, has not been located.

Meanwhile, Bufford used the German records to find Scurlock on the Internet. But after that Memorial Day call, Scurlock wanted to be certain. “I made Deborah take a DNA test,” she says. “So many lies had been told to me, I just had to know for a fact. We did the test and she is my sister.”

Sadly, Bufford says, “finances and circumstances” prevented her from coming to Washington to meet Hans.

She’s missing a White House visit, a limousine tour of the monuments and a week at Scurlock’s home in Charles County. But mostly, she’s missing a brother’s smile and a lifetime of stories — and the answer to the question that most plagued Scurlock.

“I always longed for a family, especially around the holidays, my own family,” Scurlock told me before Hans arrived. “But I am very nervous. I don’t know what he’ll think when he sees me. I mean, when he sees what I look like.”

At the airport, Hans saw the sister he had always dreamed of. Four years ago, he says, he put himself under hypnosis and suddenly perceived two sisters.

“Until two weeks ago, I only knew that my mother left me lying in the hospital where I was born,” he says. “My father visited me a couple of times when I was very young, but we lost contact by age 8 or 10, and I never saw him again.”

Angie and Hans have no common language, so, over chicken wings in Reston, I translated stories back and forth. But Scurlock tapped me on the arm: “Ask him,” she said. “What did you think when you first saw me?”

“Oh, such joy!” Hans replied.

“But what did you expect to see?”

“My sister who looks like me.”

Angie wasn’t satisfied. “Ask him specifically,” she told me.

I translated her words: “Is it OK to you that your sister is black?”

Hans grabbed onto Angie by both shoulders. “As a child,” he said, “in the orphanage, I was with the guest workers” — the German term for immigrants brought to the country to do manual labor — “from Italy, Africa, everywhere. Those were my friends, and I saw how they were treated. I have no problem with black or yellow or any color. Seeing you answers my greatest wish. You are my greatest wish.”

Angie Scurlock turned to face her brother. They hugged for a very long time.

From the Washington Post…