As a child in Toronto, Karina Griffith didn’t know why her father would “christen” each room of a new house the family moved in with drops of alcohol until she saw a documentary last year by Afro-German director Mo Assumang.
“I found out it was to honour your ancestors!” exclaimed Griffith to me in Berlin, where she also now lives.
“And it makes me think of where I came from because before Guyana, my grandfather’s father [on my mother’s side] was born in Barbados, and before that, who knows?”
Griffith is the curator of a massive, three-month festival in the heart of Berlin called Republik Repair; it’s supported by a local theatre, Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, whose mandate is post-migration and queer themes, focused mostly on the Black experience. It runs from Sept. 23 to Dec. 13th.
Griffith is uninterested in a DNA test that would tell her what parts of Africa her ancestors are from.
“I want the whole story. What would reparations mean to me? I want to know what my great-great-great-great grandmother loved to eat, what she smelled like, what things she enjoyed,” said Griffith.
“As James Baldwin said, ‘I’m from a bill of sale.’”
Republik Repair uses film, music, theatre, panel discussions and storytelling to address the 10-point Plan for Reparatory Justice released by the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) in 2014. The plan demanded compensation from colonial powers (the Netherlands, Great Britain and France) for colonial crimes and the enslavement of black people. CARICOM — a political and economic bloc of 20 countries from the Caribbean area — has since expanded its demands to Spain and Portugal.
The 10 points include:
- Full formal apology;
- Indigenous people’s development;
- Cultural institutions;
- Public health crisis;
- Illiteracy eradication;
- African knowledge program;
- Psychological rehabilitation;
- Technology transfer; and
- Debt cancellation.
“I was amazed and proud when it came out because the Caribbean is used as a supplier of raw materials, and here they were delivering the raw materials for repair,” noted Griffith, who is currently a PhD candidate in Black German Cinema with the University of Toronto. She has split her time between Berlin and Toronto for 12 years.
“I thought: these 10 points can be a framework to express the needs of black people everywhere, anyone who identifies and has been marked by the construction of race.”
First genocide of the 20th century
While Germany has not been included in CARICOM’s demands, Griffith thinks it’s only a matter of time.
“In 1904, Germany committed the first genocide of the 20th century in what is now Namibia,” she said.
“They shot unarmed people. They chased them into the desert to die of starvation. Some were able to survive and retell this story.”
German colonial forces managed to wipe out more than 80 per cent of the Nama and Herero people between 1904 and 1908. A class action lawsuit has been brought against the German government for reparations.
On Oct. 2, the anniversary marking the massacre of 65,000 tribes people, Republik Repair held a discussion with representatives of genocide foundations and of the Nama and Herero people.
“Because of the meticulousness of the German military, [the representatives] have the actual decree [extermination order],” said Griffith. “General Lothar von Trotta was designing an industrial genocide including concentration camps.”
Last year, the government of Angela Merkel used the word “genocide” for the first time to describe the atrocity and promised an apology before the September federal elections. That has still not happened. Germany did not show up for the lawsuit hearing in New York on Oct. 10, another hearing is slated for January 2018.
Meanwhile, Germany grapples both with its colonial past and its surging far-right present.
“Thirteen per cent voted for the AfD [a German extremist party against migration] in the recent elections with ads that showed a white, pregnant woman and the slogan: We Make Our Germans Ourselves!” said Griffith.
“They can’t even understand that blacks have been here for hundreds of years.”
Similarities in Canada
There is much to tackle here: the erasure of Black history in Germany, the lack of comprehension regarding who is German and the institutionalization of racism.
“Canada and Germany are very similar in this respect,” points out Griffith. “A lot of people don’t understand there is a Black experience in Canada and that there have been slaves. Canada has had excellent PR because of the Underground Railroad and people like to think of blacks in Canada as immigrants. They've been in Canada for more than 200 years!”
One of the panels Griffith has organized involves Latisha Reddick from Nova Scotia. Reddick, a Métis of mixed-Guyanese and Nova Scotian Mi’kmaw/Black ancestry, facilitates Sisters of the Soil in Canada, which gathers young Indigenous women together with women of colour through cross-cultural solidarity work. The panel, Resistance to Erasure, takes place Nov. 10.
“It’s resisting the history that is told — that erases our experiences,” said Griffith. “Archiving as activism. This is also important for repair.”
I ask Griffith if this festival, in its entirety, could be done in Canada — especially Toronto, with its large population of people of Caribbean background.
“I don’t see that happening,” she said.
“It’s interesting that I can hold this event in Germany, but I don’t see how it could happen, in this way, in Canada because of that horrible backlash last year I saw against Black Lives Matter and the Pride Parade.”
When Toronto’s BLM staged a sit-in at the Pride Parade in 2016 to protest the presence of police in the parade, it brought on a vicious, racist backlash.
“I was so disappointed in my city. The incident exposed a very ugly side of Toronto,” said Griffith.
“Problems like carding exists in Canada, there is institutionally sanctioned racial profiling, and we’re not allowed to talk about it. But here in Germany, because of its past, there’s an understanding that you have a right to speak and to be heard.”
Griffith says Canadians generally don’t want to dwell on past injustices: “I hear them say things like ‘Get over it, it’s the past’ and ‘the situation is pretty good here compared to the States.’ We are always comparing ourselves to the U.S. and not addressing what’s happening in Canada.”
What excites Griffith about Ballhaus Naunynstrasse and the state-funded support it gets for events like the festival is that “Blackness is afforded complexity and to be complex is a privilege rarely afforded black people.”
Ballhaus Naunynstrasse’s Republik Repair Program
Photo: Nikolaus Unger
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