Professor Rozena Maart

Rozena Maart’s Open Letter to the German Association of American Studies.

 An Open Letter to the German Association of American Studies, also known as Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien 

Date: 7th June 2020 

Re: Your recently posted statement on racism 

I shall forego the expected formalities in my open letter to you; these are generally reserved as a means of courtesy to the person or persons whom one is addressing. Since I do not know any of your Executive and Advisory board members who may or may not have penned the statement on racism unashamedly exhibited on your website where an image of Abraham Lincoln sits boldly, I see no need to address you in a manner fitting an expected cordial exchange. There will be no cordial exchange. You disgust me, and I will tell you why, exactly. 

Let me start by saying that I am writing to you from Durban, South Africa. I came upon your statement on racism as I was perusing the internet to ascertain how scholarly associations are addressing the current global protests against racism, police brutality, most of which are also organised around the broader movement of #Blacklivesmatter. 

I am appalled, sickened and repulsed that an association that has, on record, more than one thousand (1000) members participating in, what you broadly call American Studies, has the gall, the absolute nerve, the audacity, to offer its members, scholars who work in the area of American Studies, the global community of scholar-cum-activists who draw on American Studies, and the world at large, four sentences of crude, dissociative, out of touch crumbs clothed as words! This is your official position on racism, murder and the killing of Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour around the world where protests have emerged in support of recent events in the United States but also to draw attention to similar acts of injustice in their own countries? Your statement, composed of four sentences, which reeks of a gross lack of historical, ethical and social responsibility, let alone intellectual integrity, is nothing but a slight of hand, a dismissal, a cowardly passive-aggressive gesture of your own complicity as members of this advisory and executive board of the very racism you can barely speak of, hence the four flimsy lines parading as sentences. 

Let me restate your words to you here, in blue: 

The German Association for American Studies (GAAS) notes with concern the resurgence of racism and racially motivated violence in the United States, and also in Germany and Europe. 

Let me say from the outset, firstly: American Studies, in my view, means all of the Americas not only the United, States, which you seem to be prioritising but which none the less, you seem to know little about. Secondly, there is no resurgence! What we have witnessed around the globe, and I do not wish to focus on one killing, is a continued onslaught of the killing of Indigenous people, Black people and people of colour in the United States, the rest of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany and many parts of Europe, let alone and around the world, for centuries! Have you not paid attention to the protests of racism that Germans of African-American descent have staged for decades in your country which is also their country? Which resurgence? Wake up and smell the blood dripping on your streets above your fancy coffeehouses. 

We consider it one of the most basic civil rights to publicly protest a citizen’s death at the hands of a police officer. 

You do? Why are you telling your members this? You call this a statement? This is the second sentence in your statement, and here you lecture, offer permission for the brutalised and humiliated to protest. 

Peaceful protests are the political and cultural backbone of any democracy that is worth its name. 

Are kidding me? Again: is this seriously all you could come up with as a group of educated people, calling yourselves “advisory” and “executive”? You are so completely and utterly ill-advised on all grounds that it is embarrassing, mind-blowingly disgraceful, and yet, you state this as though you are speaking to your ilk in a manner and tone as if there is an agreed upon code of etiquette: speak down to the natives and the Blacks and show them how to behave! I can think of several profanities that would be suited to hurl at you for forcefully forgetting, for your foggy memories, and your feeble, I repeat, feeble, announcement of how to address the current world crisis on racism and police brutality. 

We support peaceful demands to address the injustice that is racism, and we urge governments to respond to those demands by taking strong measures against racism in the name of democratic civil society. 

First you start with a declaration: you tell us who you are and note your ‘concern’ with the ‘resurgence’. Then, you continue with your consideration – how noble of you – wherein you speak of basic civil rights and how to proceed in the face of racism, murder and police brutality. Thereafter, you move to instruction – telling people how to address systemic, structural and institutionalised racism, which has led to murder and genocide. Last but not least, you offer you conditional support – how terribly sweet of you! You instruct on peace, urging protestors to act in a manner that has historically not borne any results except more racist attacks and more brutalities, then you urge governments to respond in the name of democracy! 

Have you forgotten about the atrocities of the First Reich in Namibia, between 1904 and 1908 where Germany sought out an African country as testing ground for what you would later inflict upon Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s? And, before you throw your textbooks at me that stink of colonial amnesia, do not tell me that it only happened in the 1940s! Germany started and is responsible for the first genocide of the twentieth century and yet you lecture us on peace! Remember, how millions of Nama and Herero people were massacred despite the inaccurate numbers noted on wikipedia, at the hands of your forefathers, the monetary value of which were inserted back into Germany for your benefit, and whose African skulls were held as trophies for gleeful photo opportunities to parade the delights of your conquest! Have you not learnt anything from Karl Jaspers, on Metaphysical Guilt? You write of “racially motivated violence” like inept, politically unaware, ignorant and arrogant neo-colonials, whose violence is not only strongly embedded in your passive aggressive four sentenced execution of a false consciousness beaming with White pride – what I call the violence of the colonial letter – but one that forgets that your careers are based on the very acts of violence that are committed upon the bodies of Indigenous people, Black people and people of colour, toward which you show no dignity whatsoever. There is toilet paper that is stronger and weightier than what you offer your members. 

Let me tell you a little bit about your history and why you have no business telling protestors against racism and police brutality to be peaceful, let alone how to dismantle systems of oppression: it speaks volumes about your lack of agency: 

Remember, how Germany colonised the Americas between 1528 and 1546? I speak here of Venezuela, St Thomas, Crab Island, Trinidad and Tobago, Southern Brazil and Guiana, among others? Four thousand (4000) enslaved Africans were brought to those regions, by force, with violence I might add by your forefathers and foremothers, which you are now against, to work on the sugar plantations they established to shove money into Germany and grow its early empire building mechanisms. When these acts of usurpation, enslavement and occupation, all with violence threaded through each and every act, brought financial benefits, more Germans were brought in to occupy Chile, Nicaragua, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Paraguay and Chiapas Mexico? The position you put forward as scholars from Germany leaves the imagination little to offer; since I find your position so offensive I have allowed myself the mental picture of you as the Lady Macbeths of Europe: constantly washing your hands, believing that it is clean. 

Remember, how during the 1670s, Germany continued to usurp, violate, massacre and kill Indigenous people and Black people in the United States after “winning over” from the British, in other words, murdering as secondary usurpers, in Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia, among others, setting up homes like you would later do in Namibia, remaining completely composed and distant from the very crimes you committed, with calmness, and with raised noses just in case you could smell the blood of the very violence you now seem to suggest is not the proper road to democracy? Can you still smell the blood of the massacres you committed and as such, feel compelled to tell the colonised and the oppressed not to fight back against regimes who continuously seek to dehumanise us? 

Remember, how in 1884, your forefathers sat around tables at the Berlin conference, and with papers filled with sweet little special requests from their wives and lovers in the Fatherland, as they made decisions about which African countries they should usurp, violate, enslave, massacre, kill and maim, for land, minerals, and the prospect of a better life for people like you who know serve on scholarly American Studies Executive and Advisory boards, telling colonised and oppressed people not to be violent towards colonisers, racists and regimes who are violent towards us? Oh, and least I forget: what were the rewards for your efforts? Namibia, East Africa, the Cameroon, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, the South Pacific! Where you invited by people from the abovenamed countries to come over and violate us, usurp our land, kill us, massacre us, take our wealth . . . I mean usurpers and colonisers did not come to Africa because we were poor – you were. We were rich, and you usurped, killed and maimed around the world, accumulating our wealth as you went along. Good heavens, at one-point Germany had histories of violence, usurpation and enslavement in twenty-two (22) countries where you had massacred and murdered in order to control and take charge of the humanity of others in order to give yourselves one. Where is your record of peacefully protesting your own poverty of mind, soul and stomach? Where? 

So, remove your pathetic four-sentenced statement and get a grip! If you cannot write something substantial that speaks to centuries of oppression, usurpation, racism and police brutality then don’t write it at all. You’ve made your position very clear – you are group of spineless, motionless, educated people who have no education whatsoever except contempt for oppressed people who are now fighting, in the best way we can, against regimes of violence, which much like the violence of thought you uphold, we have to fight! You are completely ill-equipped to serve the scholarly community of American Studies and have no business calling yourselves advisors and executives of an association purporting to study the Americas. You have betrayed hundreds and thousands of scholars who have put decades of good, critical, solid work into American Studies in Germany, and in other parts of the world, and to which I have only one demand – that you resign from the Executive and Advisory Board immediately. 

Rozena Maart, 

Durban, South Africa