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Allison Blakely

(USA)

NO GREENER PASTURES AND
NO HIDIN PLACE: THE RECEPTIONS
OF BLACKS IN EUROPE IN THE MIDDLE AND AT THE END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

 

People of black African descent have long viewed Europe with fascination, as a continent of opportunity. You know, of course, that I am an American. I am also certain that many of you know that there is a tradition of black American thinking about Europe in the twentieth century, which has viewed European countries as a place of refuge from the kind of racism which was traditional in the United States. Examples are especially abundant from nineteenth and twentieth-century American history. The former slave Frederick Douglass was only one of several promoting the cause of black liberation who found refuge and financial contributions on European tours. The New York born Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge was only one of many artists who gained acceptance and international acclaim in Europe after being thwarted in their careers at home by racism. W.E.B. Du Bois, who would become one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century, received vital inspiration from his two years of graduate studies in Germany in the 1890s. In the early to mid-twentieth century France would become especially well known as a haven for black American musicians and writers escaping racism: Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright and James Baldwin are just the best known. Richard Wright once wrote of his time in France that, there is more freedom in one square block of Paris than in all of the United States. Such romantic hopes often ended in disillusionment; but this shows how desperate black Americans have been to find some place on earth where they can live like full human beings. Meanwhile, regarding Eastern Europe, the poet Langston Hughes reported that on his visit to Russia in 1932, some of the others in his party of black Americans knelt to kiss the ground upon arrival, so thankful to be in a land which so loudly promised equality. In a similar vein, the great singer and actor Paul Robeson, whose triumphant European tours conjured up memories of Aldridges a century earlier, proclaimed of the Soviet Union that it was only there that he felt like a whole person. Does all of this mean that in fact Europe has been a paradise for blacks?

Black Americans have had similarly high expectations about the Netherlands, owing to its established reputation as a land of great toleration going back as far as the Jewish refugees from religious persecution in medieval Spain and the French Protestants and the American Pilgrim Fathers in the seventeenth century. Black artists and other visitors in the twentieth century brought back to the United States reports of pleasant experiences that reinforced this positive image. When I was preparing for my first extended stay in the Netherlands for research in the early 1970s, I met another black American who had just returned from a year in the Netherlands. When I asked him how he had found it, he smiled and answered that he now no longer wished to go to heaven when he died; he wanted only to return to Leiden! I might add that my own first impressions from short visits at the beginning of the 1970s were also idyllic.

It was only after 1975 that I began to notice a distinct change. I attribute that change to two developments. The first is the sudden influx of a large, black Surinamer population; and the other was my beginning to speak Dutch. I became mistaken for a Surinamer, and now found myself at times experiencing racist behavior which reminded me very much of that I had found at home for much of my life. At home, for example, as late as 1966 I was refused service in a cafe in the state of Georgia because I was black, even when wearing the uniform of a United States Army officer; and I was refused housing in the state of Maryland in the same year. Our racism has become more temperate in the United States by now in the 1990s; we hope that toleration of lynching and legalized racial segregation are things of the past. However, there are still subtle reminders of that past. I still find that I can nearly always expect that the seat next to me on the bus or train will be the last to be occupied by a white person; and shop keepers still often become tense and very watchful when I walk into their shops. And it was these latter types of behavior that I was saddened to discover emerging in the Netherlands as well.

 

We have a popular saying in American English which I think captures this dilemma very well (perhaps someone here can tell me of an equivalent Russian proverb) The saying states that the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. My being forced to admit that I was also encountering racism in the Netherlands led me to finally understand the full meaning of the view of an earlier black American journalist, Roi Ottley, who after spending time in Europe in the late 1940s had already published a related book entitled No Green Pastures. It may be instructive for us to revisit this issue now a half century later and on the eve of a new millennium. Some of Ottleys observations may provide us a means of gauging how far we have come in dealing with these issues over the past fifty years. Let me quote for you a few excerpts from Ottleys book. He wrote:

To be sure, tolerance of different races and colors in Europe is not a myth. But the Continent (and England) is no racial Utopia indeed, the case for liberalism abroad has been greatly romanticized. The fact is, beyond earshot, Negro Americans are labeled with such terms as exotic, musical, backward and oppressed and even described as a brutish people. But the chief reason why most Negro Americans escape the more nauseating aspects of Europes racial prejudice rests squarely upon the fact that they enjoy a unique status while abroad. They are glamorous novelties. Moreover, they are infinitesimal in number and therefore never in competition with white men socially or economically. Above all, Negro tourists (and transient soldiers, singers, dancers, musicians and boxers who often are lionized) are dollar-carrying Americans who benefit by the tradition that the customer is always right.

[Ottley continues]The story is quite a different one for the Continents home-grown Negroes, who are born, reared, and must make their living in Europe. For white men abroad react to the same racial illusions that feed the vanity of white men in the U.[nited] S.[tates]. The bulk hold tenaciously to a belief in the superiority of the white race and inferiority of the Negro race though manifestations of this belief rarely are crude, blustering or heavy-handed. But they do indulge themselves in blanket racial stereotypes no less degrading to the Negro in Europe than racial segregation is to the Negro in parts of America. For instance, with the exception of an ebony lite, Negroes are described as primitive and savage and held ill-equipped mentally to do white mens work.....[on the other hand] Negro Americans never upset the social, economic or religious equilibrium. For as Christians and Americans they are products of Western civilization and, as such, different from Europeans only in the color of their skins. And because they are essentially a racially mixed people of brown complexions mostly, Europeans are not inclined to place them in the same racial group as black Africans.....[in Europe] the races do not live on different sides of the railroad tracks essentially, differences are based on caste, not color exclusively, as in America. The racial equation is one of top hats over tom-toms. But any Negro by solid achievement, family or wealth may belong to the upper classes and enjoy their privileges. Crown princes of African tribes and nations are given lavish respect. But this implied racial liberalism is wholly false, for the white man in Europe cannot survive the final and acid test of racial equality, which of course consists of marriage between the races.1

I am struck by how relevant some of Ottleys analysis fifty years ago still seems for our situation today. However, it is interesting to note that on the issue of intermarriage, on which he placed so much importance, there seems to in fact be much greater acceptance today, both in Europe and America. Can we view this as a sign of great progress, as Ottley implied it would be; and as the eventual solution to our dilemma? It seems to me still too early to answer that question. On the other hand, I do believe that in the central thesis of Ottleys book there lies at least one important lesson that is still valuable for us today. I think he was correct in concluding that for a black man there is perhaps no place of complete refuge from racism. There are ultimately no greener pastures for any of us, of any color, when it comes to the sickness called racism. It is in that recognition that I formulated the second part of my paper title, which may not have obvious meaning for many, that is, the phrase No Hidden Place. This phrase comes from a Negro Christian spiritual song that expresses the need for each of us to live up to our moral responsibilities; if not, we risk the wrath of God, fate, or whatever higher power we acknowledge. We should in fact remove all the imaginary fences that separate us and join together in fighting this common threat to civilization. And we each might as well stand and fight where we are rather than hoping for paradise elsewhere.

 

It seems to me that in relative terms, some European countries probably really still do have fewer problems with their African communities than the United States; but it is alarming that in some parts of Europe the situation appears to be worsening. In preparing for this occasion, I looked at a recent book by Ted Robert Gurr, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, entitled Minorities At Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts. In his survey of 233 ethnic and religious minorities (and also subordinate majorities) around the world, he cites the Netherlands and Sweden in particular, as democracies where non-European immigrants have been incorporated into society with little overt conflict. For the Netherlands he attributes this success to its tradition of power sharing in its earlier vezuiling arrangement in politics and culture.2 I realize that this relative degree of success may be little comfort to those who feel the problems are much greater than Professor Gurr realizes.

In my view we must seek the reasons for the discouraging resurgence of racism over the past half century in a combination of historical development during that period. Although most of all of the European empires would end in the twentieth century, they left a permanent mark on the makeup of their respective European societies, as representatives of the various peoples remained in Europe. Again using the Netherlands as an example, since it has been less studied than the larger ones, this shift of population that had begun on a modest scale in the late nineteenth century had produced a population of several thousand new arrivals by the mid-twentieth century. The most dramatic increase of a black population there from the former colonies came after 1970, with more than 225,000 emigrants from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles moving to the Netherlands. The new level of frequent contacts in a new setting this brought has had a profound mutual impact on perceptions and relations between blacks and whites in Dutch society. Now there was even greater pressure on the Dutch to think of blacks as equals. Yet, with the heavy migration of the 1970s racial discrimination became pronounced and persistent within the Netherlands, as the declining economy, rising unemployment and increased strain on limited space and resources fostered in the minorities a growing demand for employment, education, health, welfare, and social services; and in the majority increasing prejudice and discrimination.

Most aspects of this pattern of developments have had their diverse counterparts in England, France and Germany as well, with different timing and details, and on a much larger scale in England and France. In the case of England, one motivation in allowing greater migration from the colonies was in support of the economic growth in the post-World War II recovery. A major reason that such a practice did not result in a much larger black population in France, Germany, and the Netherlands is that all these countries chose to satisfy much of their need for cheap labor through bringing in so-called guest workers from Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and Morocco. Germany had fewer colonies, but gained thousands of new black population in the twentieth century from offspring resulting from the thousands of black troops stationed in Germany during both postwar occupations and a smaller number through immigration of Africans. After the Second World War the black soldiers occupying were primarily black Americans.

In none of the European countries has the emergence of a black community occurred comparable to any place in the Americas. However, there are some outlines of a comparable culture and similar interaction with the European. For example the Brixton section of London is viewed by some as similar to urban American ghettos. Paris has no black ghetto, but has some of the best jazz clubs in the world and at least one excellent soul food cafe. And racial tension and related incidents between blacks and Europeans occur sporadically throughout Europe in form and language all too familiar to black Americans. These often arise from conflicts concerning employment, housing, education, and sexual relations. As a result black consciousness movements have now arisen in several European countries beginning in the 1980s. Some of the European countries officially acknowledge the problems. Germany has been the most resistant in this regard, preferring to deny that there is a German black population and refusing to admit that there is a racial issue.3 Even in those European countries where the black population is significant in size, there are few signs of its representation in high level economic or political roles. Although about half of Britains sizeable black population was born there, it was the late 1980s before the first black Member of Parliament was elected. France too has had black parliament members, but from former colonial areas still part of France instead of from France proper.

The one striking example of a European society that cannot be described under the general European pattern in the twentieth century is Soviet Russia, due to its uniquely isolated nature. One older historical reason is that Russia had no vast overseas empires and was not involved in the African slave trade. Nevertheless, as has been noted, in the Soviet era blacks from Africa and the Americas were conspicuously present from the beginning and had a special significance owing to the emphasis Soviet Marxist ideology placed on oppressed peoples and developing nations. As a result blacks in Russia have had a significance far disproportionate to their small numbers. In the 1920s several American blacks and Africans were among foreigners invited to attend special schools established to train Communist Party leaders for various parts of the world. Blacks who went to the Soviet Union for specifically ideological reasons were only a small segment. Most went simply out of curiosity or to seek a better life, as, especially in the late 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union played the role of a kind of Mecca of human rights for some and an escape from the Great Depression for others. From the late 1920s and 1930s through the late 1940s the Soviet government attracted thousands of Americans in general with technical skills to Russia. The Soviet government also paid special tribute to American blacks during this period through special awards such as the selection of the novelist Arna Bontemps for the Pushkin Prize in 1926. One observer writing on the subject of blacks in Russia in 1932 estimated that several hundred had visited Russia since the Revolution.4 They came primarily from the United States and the West Indies. Few of these remained permanently. Those who did stay often married Russians and raised families.5

Of the hundreds of American blacks who visited Russia, only several dozen actually settled. Some left in disillusionment with Soviet life, others simply out of homesickness, or because material conditions had improved in the United States. After World War II blacks continued to enjoy prominence there for ideological reasons. A mountain was named after Paul Robeson.6 The Soviet regime gave the Civil Rights movement in the United States and liberation struggles in Black Africa attention far disproportionate to actual contacts between Russians and blacks because of the value of these causes in the Communist efforts at world leadership. In keeping with the commitment to aid developing nations, the Soviet Union hosted thousands of Africans students in Soviet higher educational institutions beginning in the late 1950s. Some of these students enrolled in programs requiring as long as six years to complete. Some intermarriage with Russians also resulted from this. The result has been a small but constant black population, noticeable at least in large cities, up to the present. A native Afro-Soviet journalist in 1992 estimated that there are hundreds of mulattoes in Moscow, and smaller numbers elsewhere who consider themselves Russian blacks.7 Despite of the fact that law and official ideology prohibited this, some isolated cases of racial tension appeared in the international news media in the 1960s. In the new Russian society too, that is after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there have been recent indications of a rise in nationalist and racist sentiment similar to that in Germany, France, and England. It is, indeed, ironic that the concept of progress so popular in Western Civilization, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution has seemed to reinforce rather than dispel racial bias.

 

1 Ottley, Roi, No Green Pastures (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1951)

2 Gurr, Ted Robert, Minorities At Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts (Washington, D.C.:United States Institute of Peace, 1993), pp. 147, 310-11.

3 Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz and Dagmar Schultz, Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992).

4 Dillingsworth Dilling, What Are the Soviets, Abbot's Monthly, June 1932, pp. 6-7, 48.

5 Vivid accounts of the experiences of these blacks immigrants can be found in autobiographies, such as that of Langston Hughes, who went in 1932 with a party of twenty young men and women invited by Comintern to participate in an anti-racism propaganda film project. Even fuller treatments of blacks life in the USSR have been left by Homer Smith, Black Man in Red Russia (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1954); and by Robert Robinson, Black on Red: My 44 Years in the Soviet Union (Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1988).

6 A helpful guide to Robeson's ties with the Soviet Union is Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Alfred A. Knopt, 1988).

7 Slava Tynes, Negry v Rossii, Nezavisimaiia Gazeta, 31 January 1992.

 

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blakely, Allison. Blacks in the Dutch World: the Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

. Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987.

Debrunner, Hans Werner. Presence and Prestige: Africans in Europe. A history of Africans in Europe before 1918. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 1979.

Saunders, A.C. De. A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal 1441-1555. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Pike, Ruth. Aristocrats and Traders: Sevillian Society in the Sixteenth Century. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Lockhart, James. The Men of Cajamarca: A Social and Biographical Study of the First Conquerors of Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972.

Walvin, James, Editor. Black and White: The Blacks and English Society 1555-1945. London: Alan Lane the Penguin Press, 1973.

Shyllon, Folarin, O. Black Slaves in Britain. London: Institute for Race Relations and Oxford University Press,1974.

Hall, Kim F.. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lorimer, Douglas. Colour, Class and the Victorians. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1978.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Phillips, Caryl. The European Tribe. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1987.

Gerzina, Gretchen. Black London: Life Before Emancipation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Cohen, William. The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to blacks 1530-1880. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

McCloy, Shelby. The Blacks in France. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961.

Stovall, Tyler. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Devisse, Jean. The Image of the Black in Western Art, II, From the Early Christian Era to the Age of Discovery, 1, From the Demonic threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Devisse, Jean and Mollat, Michel. The Image of the Black in Western Art, II, From the Early Christian Era to the Age of Discovery, 2, Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World (Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Honour, Hugh. The Image of the Black in Western Art, IV, From the American Revolution to World War I, 1, Slaves and Liberators. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Honour, Hugh. The Image of the Black in Western Art, IV, From the American Revolution to World War I, 2. Black Models and White Myths. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

 

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