Category Archives: Virtual Museum

Black German Saint

Julius Caesar himself brought Black Legions to Germany, many of which remained and never returned. Even as early as the tenth century Emperor Otto I (962-973) brought the remains of a Nubian Black African Legionnaire named Maurice to his royal territories of Saxony.

It is almost certain that Maurice was not the first African soldier to be interned upon German soil, but his name continues to ring throughout history. His life was not long but venerated and can be encompassed within a few short sentences. Born around 250 AD he converted to Christianity when Christianity was a threat to the dying, and still officially pagan, Roman Empire. But he did not allow religion to get in the way of his career, or more importantly career advancement. Maurice joined the Roman army, moved quickly through the ranks, and was eventually promoted to lead the Theban legion, which consisted of 6,600 solders.[i]

During the course of a revolt his legion was called to Gaul, a region encompassing large parts of Western Europe and pieces of what would later become Germany on the west bank of the Rhine. The act of bringing Black Roman soldiers to quell pockets of resistance within the crumbling empire was not uncommon. What was uncommon was that when the Theban Legion was ordered to harass a pocket of local Christians they refused. Or so it was later written by Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon (c. 434-450). Every tenth soldier was killed, but under the encouragement of Maurice the legion still refused, until each one of the 6,600 solders was executed.

Maurice would later be recognized by the Christian Church as a martyr and venerated as St. Maurice, one of the most prominent saints within the Holy Roman Empire (encompassing huge regions of central Europe including modern day Germany). The sword and spurs of Saint Maurice would become part of the regalia used at coronations of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors until 1916; between 962-973 Emperor Otto I laid his remains to rest in the Magdeburg Cathedral. If you go there now you can still find the sculpture of a Black Roman legion soldier carved in stone.

Many early representations of Saint Maurice dating from the 13th century or even earlier often depict him with a noble dark face in rich shades of brown and ebony. But as time passed these depictions shifted. The color of his skin faded. What was once a rich deep brown whitened; by the 16th century, St. Maurice was no longer Black and no longer African. In paintings such as “Martyrdom of St Maurice and the Theban Legion” by Jacopo Pontormo (1531), and “The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice” by El Greco (1580-82), St. Maurice has become startling white, European, bleached. He has, in other words, been whitewashed by the desires of the painters and the societies they served.

So why, you might ask, is a long-dead saint important? Because Black European History, especially Black German history, has so often been whitewashed, and Maurice the soldier, Maurice the martyr, Maurice the venerated German saint, is a beautiful example of the little white lies history has been whispering for far too long. As the ancient sword and spurs of Saint Maurice proclaim, Black German history did not spring from the wreckage of the First and Second World Wars, or even German colonization, as it was once believed. Black history has been here far longer and yet, like the body and face of Maurice, has been actively whitened and negligently forgotten over time. But we forget history at our own peril.[1]

[1] For more on the subject of Black German History across the centuries please read: Not So Plain as Black and White: Afro-German Culture and History, 1890-2000, edited by Patricia M. Mazón, and Reinhild Steingröver; Eine afro-deutsche Geschichte: Zur Lebenssituation von Afrikanern und Afro-Deutschen in Deutschland von 1884 bis 1950, by Katharina Oguntoye; and Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, edited by May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, with a forward by Audre Lorde.


[i] “Our church celebrates Saint Maurice Feast on October 5.”, Saint Maurice Coptic Orthodox Church, diocese of Los Angeles, CA





Reflections on Black German History

Arriving In The Future

“Unsere Geschichte nicht erst nach 1945 begann. Vor unseren Augen stand unsere Vergangenhait, die eng verknupft ist mit der kolonialien und nationalsozialistischen deutschen Geschichte.” Our history did not begin after 1945. Before our eyes stands our past, closely bound with colonial and national socialist German history.

–      Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Fraunen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte Showing Our Colors: Afro German Women Speak Out


For centuries people of African descent have been born and raised in Germany. The Black experience in Germany has been documented for over 300 years with the first known research on the African experience in Germany presented in Latin by the West African scholar Anton Wilhelm Amo, in his dissertation “The Rights of Moors in Europe” (De jure Mauro in Europa) written in 1729. He was a Ghanaian brought to Germany in 1703 ‘as a present’ form the Dutch West India Company to count Anton Ulrich von Wolfenbuttel. The count despite all expectations would eventually send Amo to the University of Halle to receive and education in Enlightenment philosophy where Amo would later teach before being appointed a member of the State Council of the Prussian crown by Fredrick William I. Amo was not alone. There are records of Black African legions being brought to Germany by Julius Caesar. Many Africans were shipped to Germany as “tokens” by German merchants during the Middle Ages. More would arrive during Germany’s colonial period, many of their own independent agency as the son’s of wealthy and powerful African families. French African solders would be stationed on German soil after the First World War only to be followed by the African American solders who would be stationed there after the Second. Students from the African Diaspora would study at German Universities. Countless refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, professors, academics, scientists, artists, writers, workers, performers, and more, much more from the African Diaspora would come to live, work, study, and be born upon Germany’s soil. Yet despite their presence Afro German stories are still unnoticed within Germany’s dominant society and literature and stereotypical clichés continue to dominate images of the Black Diaspora within greater German society.

In the 1980’s the first organized political Afro German movement was born with the stories of individuals like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, and more, through the publication of Showing Our Colors: (Afro German Women Speak Out), a collection of narratives, personal experiences, and perspectives claiming above all things Afro German existence. For Black individuals living in Germany – for those living in isolation – this publication became undeniable proof of the validity of their personal experiences and the texts written published offered a foundation for numerous other publications and further literary expression. Their work was joined by the work of Hans Massaquoi, Fatima El-Tayeb, Olumide Popoopla, Grada Kilomba, Noah Sow, Manu Ritz, Grada Kilomba, Sharon Otoo, to name but a few names which would continue to shed light upon the experience of growing upon and being Black in Germany.

In the early 1990’s the acceptance of Black individuals within German society took a turn for worse with the firebombing of refugee homes, and the reoccurring presence of neo-fascist mobs. With the unification of Germany the white German masses found a new sense of “oneness” that excluded any and all that did not fit what they considered the white German norm. A sudden mainstream acceptance of exclusivist rhetoric and a new idea of the white German “self” vs. “the other” left undeniable traces across the German landscape and within the writing of Black German authors.

“[E]s ist nicht wahr/ daß es nicht wahr ist/so war es/ erst zuerst dann wieder.” So reads the beginning of May Ayim’s poem Deutschland im Herbst, drawing disturbing parallels between the fascist Kristallnacht of November 9th 1938 and the murder of Angolan immigrant Amadeu Antonio Kiowa in 1990.

Parallel to the desire for societal acceptance a different question arose in the aftermath of this violence and rejection. Being a member of the African Diaspora within Germany, how does one define home? For many people with African roots the concept of home and belonging appeared fragile. In the late 1990s, many Black German authors negotiated this concept by depicting Africa as exile, utopia, or potentially a new/old place of belonging.

“I’m not at home/ still not at home/ not my country/ just my origin/ one of my origins” writes Olumide Popoola in her poem Nigeria – partly resigning, partly equivocating the concept of home.

Then in the late 1990’s TV celebrities like Arabella Kiesbauer, Mo Asumang and Mola Adebisi would slowly make it possible for Black individuals to be regarded as part of German society by the white majority. Yet how fragile the concept of Black Germaness remains became obvious in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The term Migrationshintergrund (migration background) gained new popularity and is still being used as footnote for the description of all Germans deviating from the 1930s image of the “Ideal German.”

Now the writing of the new millennium shows a new paradigm shift: The desire to be part of something much bigger. Black writers are again embracing the term “Diaspora.” Accompanied by the academic discourse of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic new alliances are being forged that stretch across the continents. Poetry is brimming over with Pan-African references from Ancient Egypt to the transatlantic slave trade all the way to 1960s Black power rhetoric.

“Dreihundert Jahre alte Seelen/ über den Ozean geweht”, writes Angela Alagiyawanna-Kadalie. While Chantal Sandjon lyrically dreams of “revolution in red black & green,” (the colors of Garvey’s Pan- African flag).

The process, however, of Afro German identity growth and self-discovery does not end here. It is ever growing, ever expanding. New layers are forever being added, and old layers continue to be discovered. Each new generation adds its own voice and paints its own color upon the canvas of Black German identity. And as the work of Audre Lorde continues to remind us, diversity and texture have been and continue to be at the core of Black identity, for to be human is by definition to be complex.


Asoka Esuruoso & Philipp Khabo Koepsell