NO GREENER PASTURES AND
‘NO HID’IN 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 Aldridge’s 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
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 Ottley’s 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 Ottley’s 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 Europe’s 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 Continent’s
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 élite, Negroes
are described as “primitive” and “savage” and held ill-equipped mentally to do
white men’s 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 Ottley’s 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 Ottley’s 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
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 Britain’s 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 1920’s 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
1920’s and 1930’s, 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 1920’s and
1930’s through the late 1940’s 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 Scribner’s 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.
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
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.
* * *
Äîêëàä À. Áëåéêëè ïîñâÿùåí òîìó, êàê
àôðèêàíöû âîñïðèíèìàëè Åâðîïó â ñåðåäèíå è â
êîíöå XX â. Îñíîâíàÿ èäåÿ äîêëàä÷èêà çàêëþ÷àåòñÿ â
òîì, ÷òî íàäåæäû àôðèêàíöåâ íà òî, ÷òî â Åâðîïå èì
áóäåò æèòüñÿ ëåã÷å, ÷åì äîìà, íå ñáûëèñü.
Îãëàâëåíèå Ñëåäóþùàÿ ñòàòüÿ