A March 2023 German television magazine episode of Monitor begins with a mobile phone image of a now dead refugee, waving to his family before he arrives in Germany, but he never arrives. The television magazine moderator goes on to note that it is not because the situation has become better in the Mediterranean that the news reports about migrant mass death at sea have ceased. In fact, he continues, the situation is worse. The politics of criminalizing rescue means that more and more people are dying. Even those who arrive in Europe find themselves experiencing survival as uncertain.
Within this context, Blackness emerges as a potential paradigm to contest noncitizenship and anti-citizenship. In Berlin’s Youth Theater Bureau (now Theater X), Turkish, Arab, and African youth who sometimes have German passports, but who often also came as migrants who had to cross many borders, re-enacted, learned, and invented scenes from the transnational Black Power movement while also standing, at one point, with bowed head and clenched fists next to Angela Davis. Blackness, here, is not a stable term (as Theater X’s Ahmed Shah put it at at an event launching Blackness as a Universal Claim), but one that establishes a basis from which to argue for a different kind of possibility of being in the world. In thinking from the positions of Blackness, universality, and citizenship’s failure, it seems important to note that Poles and Eastern Europeans were once on the spectrum toward Blackness in Europe. Jewish Europeans and women’s sexuality, according to Sander Gilman’s reading of Freud, have been marked in this way as well.
In a related arena, working to understand Black articulations and Black politics via the perspectives of two Black activist cousins in Berlin, Detroit-based filmmaker and activist Fatou-Seydi Sarr produced AfriCompleXCities (see figure 1). The film ultimately brings Detroit-inflected queries to Berlin via the Filming Future Cities series I have directed since 2014 in collaboration with filmmakers Ayla Gottschlich, Silvana Santamaria, Hagen Decker, and Theater X (with Ahmed Shah, Keryeschi Lorenso, Blaise Baneh, and John Haile among many others).
In Detroit, Sarr’s activism takes place around the questions of global Blackness, in the sense that it includes contemporary African immigrants who, in many ways, are coming into what for them might be a novel form of Blackness, often without the support of state resources and sometimes without the English language as a means to negotiate or navigate their new everyday lives.
It is significant that they are coming into a Black city, as Sarr often points out. This allows for a different kind of entrance compared to other American contexts, and definitely in comparison to Berlin. There is a different kind of safety in Detroit as opposed to other places, even for those without secure residency statuses. The warmth afforded Black people creates a different condition of possibility.
This background seems significant when one thinks about Sarr’s growing up in France and in Senegal, but also when one considers why she cuts right to the point about Afro-futures (what one might also call Black futures) in her interview with two Black women in Germany.
In the film, Sarr’s sister composed the music, which puts the viewer in what sounds like an African milieu, but we eventually find out that we are in Berlin, and that one needs to think these contexts together. This seems to be a part of the point of the film. To what extent can one bring these contexts to Berlin? How have they already materialized there?
After the musical introduction the film begins with the cousin on the right: “So we’re [the] first born generation.”
Fatou-Seydi Sarr: “German, right?”
Cousin on the right: “Yes.”
F-SS: “Therefore, what prompted you to be engaged?”
As the film develops, one has the sense that engagement refers to a kind of activism based on Blackness. Engagement is not coming from the outside, like a humanitarian or university program meant to connect with a community. It is coming from within. It is necessitated by personal motivation, by a need, perhaps an existential will, to renegotiate the situation.
The cousin on the left’s answer to why they are engaged: “Everyday life.”
Cousin on the right: “It wasn’t a choice. It just happened.”
The cousin on the left disagrees: “But do you think it really [just] happened?”
Cousin on the right: “It happened.”
Cousin on the left: “You have to make a choice, I believe.”
At stake, here, is this happening as a mode of necessity. If the engagement, i.e., the ultimate politics, doesn’t happen, will noncitizens/anti-citizens continue to be able to sustain their everyday lives or even to arrive?
Cousin on the right: “There was a time where I started to realize more things, and seeing… mmm…. Discrimination became more visible to me at some point…. I was living in an illusion, trying not to see discrimination. And trying to not be, trying not to be discriminated [against], when I was growing up.”
The cousin’s face seems so young that it appears to the viewer that she still must be growing up or that she has been forced to grow up in order to face this challenge. There is little time or space for innocence, it seems, in Black skin.
“Because I didn’t want to be the one.”
The cousin on the left jumps in: “Who’s complaining.”
Cousin on the right, “Yeah, who’s being discriminated against.”
The cousin on the right continues: “I didn’t want to be the one. I was too ashamed.”
Why should she be ashamed of her own experience of discrimination?
F-SS: “Ashamed!?” Sarr points out and questions emphatically.
Cousin on the left: “I was ashamed of discrimination.”
But for whom does she carry this shame? Why has this shame become her burden? Was it the discrimination that doubly marked her?
Is it that her existence is breaking the narratives of meritocracy/democracy/freedom? The discrimination centers her even if she should not be the focus, even if she is not the cause. It exposes her as “not one of us (citizens),” while refusing to listen to her speak.
Does discrimination fix Blackness?
In his work Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon uses the following words to describe the resultant fixing:
I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I am an object among other objects.
Locked in this suffocating reification, I appealed to the Other so that his liberating gaze, gliding over my body suddenly smoothed of rough edges, would give me back the lightness of being I thought I had lost, and taking me out of the world put me back in the world. But just as I get to the other slope I stumble, and the other fixes me with his gaze, his gestures and attitude, the same way you fix a preparation with a dye.
But how does one undo this fixing? It seems that undoing the fixing is necessary for a different kind of being.
For the Berlin Theater X, the group with which I had co-organized the film exchange (a theater where I had also found an orientation toward a Black insurrectionary practice), the rehearsal had become an arena of potential, of active unfixing. The rehearsal, as I argue in Blackness as a Universal Claim, not the staged performance, is “the revolution,” and thus the main point. The rehearsal could be key to practicing other conditions and possibilities of being so that one would not ultimately be embarrassed or fixed. For Black people, in particular, acting like everything is fine in the world can destroy the psyche. Because even if they want it to be, everything is not fine. Furthermore, the effort invested in this form of acting detracts from the effort toward liberation.
Centering a Black future as a universal claim
Cousin on the right: “So I was ashamed to admit that. I mean, I couldn’t even talk about it.” That is, the fact that she was (regularly) facing discrimination.
Cousin on the left: “I grew up in a White space. I was the only Black in school. So I didn’t want to be bothered with the racism. I just wanted to do my thing.”
FS-S: “What would be an Afro-future that Berlin have [has] to offer?”
From my vantage point, the question was already inflected with an attitude of Detroit, a Black city. The realization of the necessity for this Afro-future, or Black future as a necessity, was coming, at least in part, from Detroit.
Cousin on the left: “But Berlin is a very political city. Berlin is a very creative city. It’s a very open-minded city. It’s a city where a lot of people flock into to realize their dreams. Or their hope for finding people that are more like-minded than other places. So, of course, you meet great people here. And a lot of different people. So there’s a huge potential, I think, for a visionary African future in this city.”
F-SS: “Where do you see yourself in that future creative way or that thinking of spaces?”
Cousin on the left, smiling, eventually jumps in: “You want to be part of that process.”
The cousin on the right shakes her head, but the cousin on the left starts to look more serious.
Cousin on the left: “Hmm…. I’m sick of the past. I’m just…”
Cousin on the right: “For example, if you look at the generation of our parents, when they came to Germany. When you look at their struggle, and now you see a next generation, a next generation arriving in Germany. What I see is that they have to go through the same struggle, which is even worse right now. Okay, I wasn’t there before, but when I compare to the history told by other people who arrived here. Now it seems more harsh…. Before, when you got to Germany, in many cases, you could locate yourself close to your family, to family members already arriving in Germany, but now this is a random distribution of people arriving in Germany, so that’s a very hard start.”
At one point in German history, it was easier for African immigrants to choose where they would like to live in the country. But now asylum laws and policies place particular groups in particular parts of Germany. Those arriving under conditions of asylum cannot choose. Many are forced (through European law and policy) to stay in so-called border countries like Libya, Tunisia, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Many also die en route. The system is not designed to incorporate their desire about where they would like to live. And it is impossible for most African immigrants to gain asylum in the first place.
Cousin on the right continues: “I don’t want them to have the same struggle. I don’t want their kids to have the struggle we had. You know? Even though it was a different one, but still. So that’s why I think it’s important to look back, to show how you want to go forward.”
Then comes the question that really pushes everything. We see the everyday stakes.
F-SS: “Painful question. How comfortable are you in your skin? Or how comfortable have you become?”
The cousin on the right takes some time to digest the question. She looks up at the ceiling and then sighs. One detects what appears as pain in her eyes: “If there could be 100 percent, I would be now 80.” She looks directly at the interviewer. She shakes her head, still looking directly at the interviewer (Seydi Sarr). “Yeah,” then she shifts, “or 85,” as if to relieve the interviewers stress, the reciprocal pain. “I’d say 85.” She now starts to smile. For everyone, she has rhetorically avoided at least 5 percent of the darkness. She has returned, at least 5 percent of her has returned, to the acting role, that is, acting as if she is fine.
FSS [to the cousin on the left]: “You’re shaking your head. Why?”
Cousin on the left: “No, I’m just still on that question, ‘comfortable in your skin?’ What does that mean? Does it mean that you accept that you’re Black? Does it mean that you, I mean, you can’t change it. Or does it mean that you, every morning that you wake up, you celebrate your body, and you’re comfortable with yourself. Like, what’s…. What is it?”
[The film cuts to the next scene.]
Cousin on the left: “I’ve always felt that there’s a certain pride.” She sits up. “I feel like it’s a privilege. Like, it comes with a lot of baggage. I know that. But still, that’s my standpoint, and I celebrate that.”
The film cuts to the music and the credits roll. We see happy images of the cousins’ parents, and the cousins with their parents and at celebrations. The film refuses to end with tragedy. It offers Black celebration as an alternative. Part of the point seems to be that that celebration can also take place in Berlin as part of an everyday practice, one that is attendant to the present, but also future oriented. It does not, however, mean that the risk is gone. The infrastructure for persistent Black possibility is still not fully apparent. How, one might wonder, can that celebration get regularly enacted? How can it become everyday practice, one that even reaches beyond the European border?
Undoing the fixing
Enacting Black futures as ones linked to addressing the failures of citizenship or liberal democracies means rehearsing the everyday revolutionary possibility of a Black insurrectionary imagination embedded in the seemingly contradictory position of the noncitizen or anti-citizen.
I recall Seydi Sarr’s film here not to solve the problem but to re-focus attention on the stakes. The conditions for being, and for being Black in particular, require a revolutionary imagination.