Modern Languages

Black German: The moving and illuminating story of Theodor Michael – An interview with Eve Rosenhaft

Learn more about Black German, the compelling memoirs of Theodor Wonja Michael, translated into English for the first time by internationally acknowledged expert in black German studies Eve Rosenhaft. Here she explains a little about Theodor Michael, and why these powerful memoirs continue to draw people in. 

For those new to the subject, could you introduce Theodor Michael?

Theodor Michael is a member of the first generation of native-born Afro-Germans – possibly the last surviving one.  He was born in Berlin in 1925. His father was the Cameroonian Theophilus Wonja Michael, one of a substantial number of men who travelled to Germany from what were then German colonies in Africa, and who remained in Germany after it lost its colonial empire following the First World War. His mother was Martha Wegner, a white German.  Theodor Michael lived through the social and political upheavals that Germany experienced in the twentieth century – the rise of Nazism and its ‘racial state’, the Second World War, post-war reconstruction in West Germany and reunification after 1989.  He experienced the hurts of racism, but he also benefited from the opportunities offered by the post-war world to develop a career as a journalist and Africanist, and he was ‘present at the birth’ both of the pan-African movement of the 1960s and of Afro-German activism since the 1980s.

How did you become aware of Theodor Michael and his memoirs?

I have been researching the history of black people in Germany since the late 1990s; in 2013 my colleague Robbie Aitken and I published a monograph on the subject, Black Germany. The memories of Theodor and his surviving brother and sister, captured in print and in film documentaries, are among the most frequently cited sources for that history, so I’ve been aware of him for some time. We consulted him directly when we were researching our book.

Why are the memoirs so important?

The story of Theodor Michael’s generation, and of their parents, is an important chapter in global black history and also in German history, as we come to acknowledge that Germany was involved in the European colonial project of the 19th and 20th centuries and that the colonial experience left its mark on Germany even though it was relatively brief.  But we have very few memoirs or other forms of testimony from the individuals themselves. Theodor Michael’s autobiography is particularly valuable because of the breadth of his experience and because, at the end of a long life, he is quite self-conscious in reflecting on the politics of race and identity.

What made you decide to do this translation? 

In the last ten years or so there has been an upsurge of interest in the lives of black Germans and the experience of black people under Nazism.  Novels like Esy Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, or Amma Asante’s new feature film Where Hands Meet are examples of rising popular interest.  In British and American universities, the black German experience is increasingly on the syllabus in both German studies and history.  I proposed the translation to LUP very much in the spirit of making a key text available to teachers but also to a wider public that can’t (alas) read German.

Were there any particular challenges that arose in translating the text?

Theodor Michael writes in a style that is mainly pretty transparent. As a trained social scientist and journalist, he sometimes adopts a rather academic voice, and sometimes his German is quite conversational.  I had to decide whether to leave those ‘two voices’ as they were or go for a conversational style – the easier read – throughout.  In the end readers will find both styles in the translation.  Another challenge for me was translating into American rather than British English (for the bigger market!).  I’m a native New Yorker, but I’ve been in the UK for over 40 years, and it was sometimes a struggle to remember the differences of vocabulary; I’m afraid a couple of Britishisms got through: prizes for readers who spot them and let me know.

You’ve added a lot of editorial material.  What have you added and why?

Theodor Michael has included quite of lot of explanatory background material in his own text, but I’ve added a chronology of historical events at the back of the book, so that readers who don’t know the details of German history can situate particular episodes in the wider history.  I’ve also added some explanatory notes, drawing on the archival research for Black Germany. Among other things, I hope these help readers to see Theodor Michael as part of a generation rather than an isolated individual, and also to understand better the wider context for his experiences as a ‘Black German’. There’s a bibliography of English-language texts for further reading, too. My foreword offers some suggestions as to how this autobiography relates to other personal accounts by Afro-Germans and its key political messages.

Who do you think will be most interested in this book?

As I said, I hope it will be useful for teachers and students, but most readers interested in history – black, German, or just good stories – should find it a good read.  It offers a fascinating insight into the life of a man whose warm personality and courage really shine through.

What do you hope readers will learn from the book?

Like most historians, I think that what makes the past interesting is the complexity and variety of events and experiences.  Theodor Michael experienced ‘history’ in many dimensions: he was the son of an African ‘prince’, a working-class boy in Berlin, a foster-child in a loveless household, a ‘circus kid’, a film extra, a Mischling and forced labourer in Nazi Germany – all before he was 19 years old. And he went on to be a husband, father, actor, journalist and activist. He would agree that his story tells us much about the origins and trajectories of racism, and how they can culminate in what we call the Holocaust, but what is more important is that it gives us an inside view of how racism works as well as how it can be challenged and more than survived.

What are your favourite parts of Theodor Michael’s story?

I love the leitmotif that he adopts to characterise himself ‘a German in a grass skirt’ – reflecting on his very earliest experiences in ‘show business’, when he performed as an African native in ‘human menageries ’with other members of his family.  In terms of the overall narrative, I am most fascinated by his life before and after the Second World War: Before the war he worked in his foster-parents’ circus, and he gives us a fine inside view of how circuses operated.  In the post-war period, the story he tells with great candour of how his marriage to a (white) refugee woman survived the stresses of poverty, racism and his mental and physical ill health is both moving and illuminating.

Click here for tickets to the launch of Black German on 2nd May 2017.


For more information on Black German please visit our website
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