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Rethinking Black German Studies

Approaches, Interventions and Histories


Edited By Tiffany N. Florvil and Vanessa D. Plumly

Black German Studies is an interdisciplinary field that has experienced significant growth over the past three decades, integrating subjects such as gender studies, diaspora studies, history, and media and performance studies. The field’s contextual roots as well as historical backdrop, nevertheless, span centuries. This volume assesses where the field is now by exploring the nuances of how the past – colonial, Weimar, National Socialist, post-1945, and post-Wende – informs the present and future of Black German Studies; how present generations of Black Germans look to those of the past for direction and empowerment; how discourses shift due to the diversification of power structures and the questioning of identity-based categories; and how Black Germans affirm their agency and cultural identity through cultural productions that engender both counter-discourses and counter-narratives.

Examining Black German Studies as a critical, hermeneutic field of inquiry, the contributions are organized around three thematically conceptualized sections: German and Austrian literature and history; pedagogy and theory; and art and performance. Presenting critical works in the fields of performance studies, communication and rhetoric, and musicology, the volume complicates traditional historical narratives, interrogates interdisciplinary methods, and introduces theoretical approaches that help to advance the field.

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6 ‘Africa in European Evening Attire’: Defining African American Spirituals and Western Art Music in Central Europe, 1870s–1930s (Kira Thurman)


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6 ‘Africa in European Evening Attire’: Defining African American Spirituals and Western Art Music in Central Europe, 1870s–1930s


This chapter examines how white Germans and Austrians defined the relationship between art music and Black musicianship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It argues that listeners came to believe that African American spirituals – more than any other form of ‘Black music’ or ‘Negro music’ – were capable of entering the realm of high art music. Audiences worked out fluid, contradictory and fragile constructs of Blackness and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as they struggled to locate spirituals within the world of ‘Black music’. What if, Germans wondered, African American spirituals were proof that Blacks were capable of civilization? What if these spirituals belonged in the opera house more than in an ethnological exhibit? Debates about African American spirituals and ‘Negro music’ in cities such as Berlin and Vienna illustrate how Austro-German musical culture accepted or denied Black people’s ability to create high art.

What shocked famous Viennese vocal pedagogue Dr. Theodore Lierhammer was not that the African American spirituals that his pupil tenor Roland Hayes performed for him in 1923 were beautiful. It was that they sounded like Western art music. ‘I vividly remember his astonishment on hearing me sing some Aframerican [sic] folk songs’, Hayes recalled, ‘an astonishment caused by the spiritual affinity of my songs with the spirit and style of the great...

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