The Modern Black History of Berlin

A few years ago in Word Power books in Edinburgh (now Lighthouse Books), I picked up a full run of 5 issues of the Berlin-based “Journal of Letters and Arts in Africa and the Diaspora”, Isivivane.


It is named after the Zulu word for a “pyramid-shaped heap of rough stones and earth”:


As this mission statement makes clear, they are interested in African culture in Africa and across the diaspora. The magazine includes an interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, two articles by the Egyptian artist Hamed Abdalla and a strong focus on South Africa.


Their editorial is written in English, German and Spanish by the publisher Vusi D. Muchunu. In it, he expounds his avowedly”Third-World” orientated politics.


However, perhaps the most interesting thing about the short 5-issue life of this publication is what it tells us about the African diaspora in Berlin in 1990-1992. Isivivane features adverts for African businesses in Berlin, from bookshops to restaurants.

It also primarily included work from people based in Berlin or nearby. Here, for instance, is the first Stanza of a poem by the African-American Opera singer and poet Cullen Maiden, who was based in Berlin in the early 1990s. He later moved to London and his archive was recently acquired by the British Library).


They also featured this great poem by the Swedish-based Lefifi Tladi:


As well as just publishing African authors based in Berlin they were also deeply involved in the anti-racist movements in post-unification Germany.

They published a full page memorial for the Pakistani PhD student, Mahmud Azhar, who killed in a racist attack.


And their 5th issue focused largely on what they saw as growing racism in Germany:


They did not only limit their activities to fighting racism in Germany but attempted to promote African culture in Germany. In 1990 they formed the Black Unity Committee, whose aims included “conduct[ing] research and document[ing] racist attacks and incidents in Germany”, “creat[ing] a lively discussion forum for blacks in Berlin” and “invit[ing] all people of African descent in Berlin to join forces with us.”

In 1990, Black Unity Committee also joined with the Initiative for Black Germans, the Black Arts Movement and the Foreigners Committee of the Students’ Parliament of the Free University of West Berlin to start a Black History Month in Berlin. In 1990 this event coincided with the Independence of Namibia.

The next year, 1991, saw Black History Month grow in Berlin. The Initiative for Black Germans organised workshops and talks on subjects such as “Education for Liberation – a way to decolonise the mind in South Africa”, “Afro-German History” and “The contribution of Blacks to European History”.

The 1992 festival was the biggest yet and Isivivane published a statement of intent:


They concluded their 3 page statement with this paragraph:

“Our message to people of African descent in Berlin is: get organised now. Claim your rightful place in this society. Make it a point to belong to a Black study group, students group, national organisation, economic society for upliftment, a sports and cultural group. Be part of formulating and debating the strategy and tactics to satisfy Black political economic, social and cultural aspiration in Germany. Time is long overdue for a parents of Black children movement concerned with the education of their children. The watchwords should be self-reliance and solidarity. Do not allow others, even our friends, to intervene and set up programmes on behalf of Black people. Our goals should be autonomy, freedom, justice, equality and democracy in Germany and in our home countries.”

This was printed in the last issue of Isivivane, which stopped publication after no. 5. However, Black History Month and the Initiative for Black Germans are still going strong. (Curiously the Initiative for Black Germans’ website says that the Berlin Black History Month started in 1991 but Isivivane makes it clear that there was an at least an informal Black History Month celebrated in 1990). These five issues of Isivivane are a fascinating record of Black activism in a newly re-unified Germany.


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