This article explores the structural dependence of humanities disciplines on a Eurocentric model of knowledge production that inevitably marginalizes racialized communities, scholars of color, and their intellectual productions. Using the increasing attacks on the interdisciplines in the United States as its starting point, the article shows that a defense of the humanities as “above politics” contributes to this delegitimization of marginalized knowledge. Turning to the European context, it suggests that a decolonizing of academe must include a reckoning with the Continent’s colonial past (and present), including the role of the Left, and involve a radically different approach to disciplinarity. Finally, the article offers the recent intersectional Black European studies initiative as an example of such a radically different model of academic knowledge production.
When national histories are conceived as self-contained, or when the separate aspects of history are treated in disciplinary isolation, counterevidence is pushed to the margins as irrelevant. The greater the specialization of knowledge, the more advanced the level of research, the longer and more venerable the scholarly tradition, the easier it is to ignore discordant facts. It should be noted that specialization and isolation are also a danger for those new disciplines such as African American studies, or new fields such as diaspora studies, that were established precisely to remedy the situation. Disciplinary boundaries allow counterevidence to belong to someone else’s story. After all, a scholar cannot be an expert in everything. Reasonable enough. But such arguments are a way of avoiding the awkward truth that if certain constellations of facts are able to enter scholarly consciousness deeply enough, they threaten not only the venerable narratives, but also the entrenched academic disciplines that (re)produce them.—Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti”
There are, I think, specific ways that Black scholars of slavery get wedged in the partial truths of the archives while trying to make sense of their silences, absences, and modes of dis/appearance. The methods most readily available to us sometimes, oftentimes, force us into positions that run counter to what we know. . . . In other words, for Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are “drafted into the service of a larger destructive force” (Saunders 2008a, 67), thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise. Despite knowing otherwise, we are often disciplined into thinking through and along lines that reinscribe our own annihilation, reinforcing and reproducing what Sylvia Wynter (1994, 70) has called our “narratively condemned status.” We must become undisciplined. The work we do requires new modes and methods of research and teaching.—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake
In this short piece, framed by Susan Buck-Morss’s critique of disciplinary isolationism and Christina Sharpe’s call for Black scholars to become undisciplined, rather than explicitly addressing the future of interdisciplinary German studies, I will approach the issue sideways, by highlighting the formation of an undisciplined, interdisciplinary, intersectional academic project that illustrates the generative potential of Buck-Morss’s and Sharpe’s interventions.1 The Berlin- and Yale-based Intersectional Black European Studies (InBEST) collective aims to establish the first Black studies program in continental Europe, supported by a multiyear grant from the Berlin city government and based on decades of scholars, artists, and activists collaboratively reading, thinking, and imagining otherwise. This “otherwise” has also been an elsewhere, beyond national and language borders and academic institutions. In part this is due to the nature of the African diaspora, which transcends national contexts and is connected by shared histories and positionalities, and it is also due to the suppression of minoritized knowledge in these national contexts. By that I mean that the knowledge that European communities of color produce is ignored by mainstream society (until it is appropriated—as, for example, in the current debate on German colonialism, which largely erases the work of Black activists). And I mean that the vast amount of scholarship produced by racialized academics in the United States, the Caribbean, and elsewhere is often completely ignored in Europe, even in fields nominally devoted to the study of racism.2 Therefore, before I describe the project and its transnational and intersectional framing in detail, I will briefly sketch the context in which Black Europe remained “someone else’s story” within US humanities disciplines and interdisciplines as well as the European academy.
In the United States and beyond, the call to decolonize the university, to undiscipline it, has become increasingly urgent. This is driven by the realization that existing disciplinary structures offer insufficient tools for understanding the interconnected systems of power and meaning making within which we move. More than that, the structures play a key role in producing and reproducing these systems, thus hindering change by actively suppressing alternative forms of knowledge, pushing them outside the bounds of any given discipline. And while the sciences and social sciences are certainly not exempt from this criticism, it hits the humanities in a particularly vulnerable moment. Steadily sinking enrollment numbers and a neoliberal transformation of campuses that frames them as “money losers,” as opposed to the “moneymaking” STEM fields, have put the humanities in a state of perpetual crisis, seemingly constantly called to justify their existence and occasionally declared to be already dead.3 A common strategy of defense employed by traditional disciplines such as history, English, or philosophy, rather than taking seriously the call to address their compliance in systems of oppression, is to distance themselves from the “newer and lesser humanities,” interdisciplines such as ethnic, Black, and feminist studies and their supposedly insufficient distance from politics, social movements, and other threats to the ivory tower.4
Meanwhile, increasingly aggressive Republican Party attacks on the interdisciplines should have made clear that this humanist stance is far from neutral and in fact further undermines the position of the humanities. From California’s Prop 209 in 1996, ending affirmative action in the state, to Arizona’s 2008 SB 1108, aimed at outlawing “Raza studies” at Tucson’s high schools, to Florida’s 2021 Stop WOKE Act and the ongoing attacks on critical race theory, the incessant talk of the irrelevance of the humanities is belied by the political Right’s escalating attacks on fields that effectively challenge dominant narratives (and do so successfully, at my current institution, for example, where the undergraduate major in ethnicity, race, and migration is rapidly growing rather than shrinking). It would be shortsighted to assume that these attacks merely reflect conservative disdain for identity politics and universities as liberal bastions of genderqueer snowflakes. As a Yale history major, Ron DeSantis well understands the power of the humanities, the importance of narratives of the past in controlling the present, in foreclosing future possibilities by erasing subaltern histories—after all, that is exactly what the Western master narrative is about: the power to subsume everyone and everything under one all-encompassing, Eurocentric narrative.
The political attacks on the interdisciplines are in line with the disciplinary silencing practiced on university campuses, and the humanities will remain on the wrong side until they stop treating this as someone else’s story. In a system that is fundamentally built on the dichotomy of norm and inferior aberration, neutrality equals compliance. In emphasizing the value of a universally applicable humanist education, of reflecting on society with the proper intellectual distance, this strategy amounts to a doubling down on disciplinary gatekeeping and the illusionary belief in scholarly neutrality. As a result, “counterevidence is pushed to the margins as irrelevant,” as the opening epigraphs by Buck-Morss and Sharpe attest. What this counterevidence frequently reveals is the humanities’ key role in creating a grand narrative that is deeply and irreparably racist, as Buck-Morss, Sylvia Wynter, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and others have shown, using the Haitian Revolution as a striking illustration of Europe’s betrayal of the commitment to universal values as soon as they were put to the test. The Haitian Declaration of Independence placed Black, formerly enslaved people ahead of white Europeans on the scale of progress as measured by Eurocentric standards and should be referenced every time the French Revolution is mentioned; instead it remains absent from most accounts of the Age of Revolution.
While the interdisciplines challenge these strategies of silencing, their existence also allows the disciplines to remain silent. The “lesser,” “political” interdisciplines function as the repository for the contradictions produced by dominant narratives, for the awkward truths the traditional disciplines remain unwilling to face. This role in turn reliably prevents them from becoming “proper” disciplines, free of these internal contradictions and in line with a larger master narrative of Western civilization. Their placement as an aberration from the academic norm permits those fields deemed proper to ignore the insights and methods of the newer interdisciplines beyond a limited engagement that does not generate meaningful transformations. US-based European studies, German, French, Italian, Russian, even Spanish, might see themselves as removed from the US education culture wars and from the subjects of the interdisciplines, especially as they pertain to race and racism. They might also, rightfully, point to their greater openness to addressing the latter when compared to their sister disciplines in Europe itself. But this has not led to a fundamental questioning of national and disciplinary borders or of these disciplines’ contribution to the harmful process that Sharpe describes in the introduction to In the Wake, quoted in one of my opening epigraphs. To produce legible work as a Black scholar in these disciplines often still means to move within a logic that is fundamentally built on anti-Blackness.
The student movements of the 1960s forced the creation of the new “interdisciplines” as a challenge to this logic. In 1968 striking students of color at San Francisco State College demanded a “Third World curriculum,” and this resulted in the nation’s first ethnic studies program. A year later, at the University of California, San Diego, the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition declared that the university “must radically depart from the usual role as the ideological backbone of the social system, and must instead subject every part of the system to ruthless criticism.”5 The students wanted revolution; what an increasingly savvy neoliberal university system offered instead was reform. As Gary Y. Okihiro, Roderick A. Ferguson, and others have shown, the institutionalization of the new interdisciplines resulted in a disciplining that undermined much of their transformative potential, precisely by making them (more) legible within existing structures.6 This created new boundaries. “Third World studies” became US-centered ethnic studies. Race, gender, and sexuality were separated and assigned to Black, feminist, and queer studies respectively, while campuses remained hostile to marginalized communities, especially those whose positionalities crossed interdisciplinary boundaries.7 Nonetheless, if the way out of this model, and out of the humanities crisis, is charted anywhere in the academy, it is in the interdisciplines and a return to, rather than a move away from, this model’s core, that is,
[the] mixed and nontraditional methods that tackle a single issue from multiple vantage points, refusing adherence to the traditional methods of any particular bounded academic discipline as a deliberate political act of rejecting the limits of disciplinary knowledge production. The methods of the interdisciplines, e.g. Black studies, feminist studies, refuse the guise of neutrality characteristic of other academic disciplines, instead consciously seeking out how power relations along axes including but not limited to race, gender, class, and sexuality, inflect phenomena and affect their academic description or study.8
It should be obvious that the humanities do not exist outside power relations, and to push back against the dangerous attacks on scholarship that acknowledges this, it is necessary to return to the intersectional perspective of those students who saw themselves as part of a global liberation movement that challenged the very foundations of European dominance and the ascending US empire. This connected them to student protesters in Europe, while their activism was also grounded in a radical Black tradition that always needed to operate outside and against dominant narratives. But while US students of color were inspired by European thinkers (a leading figure among student protesters at UC San Diego was Angela Davis, who had come to work with Herbert Marcuse, who in turn ardently supported the protests), white European students failed to apply the lessons offered by Black thinkers within Europe’s borders. There is not much thought devoted to this failure. When it is noted at all, it is normalized through the assumption that there was no need, that structural racism had no impact on the Continent itself, no matter how much it might affect the rest of the world. In reality, this separation was less clear than the narrative suggests. Students from the global South continued their anti-colonial and anti-imperialist activism at their host institutions, radicalizing European students.9 The trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 had intensified demands to address the implication of “ordinary Germans” in the Nazi regime and of collaboration in the occupied European nations, a discourse to which Aimé Césaire had provided answers a decade earlier. The Algerian war also took place in the metropole—the 1961 Paris massacre was an act of organized state violence that was hardly less lethal than the brutal crackdown on Black protesters in the US South that Europeans could nightly follow on their TV screens—but there was no televising of the October 1961 murders or the countless atrocities committed by European troops in the colonies.
It is a stark illustration of the destructive force of disciplinarity that neither European media nor scholars have explored this history of failure with any urgency, that they have in fact worked hard to erase its traces. As Michael Rothberg convincingly shows in Multidirectional Memory, it is not that there were no attempts to connect the incredible amount of racist violence Europe unleashed within and beyond its borders in the twentieth century and to place it in a longer continental history, yet these attempts were systematically marginalized. I have written elsewhere extensively on this process of racial amnesia.10 Here I want to briefly highlight the impact of the continental Left’s refusal to consider race a fundamental analytic category, viewing it instead as a particularistic distraction from the universally relevant category of class. The continued perception of the white man as the paradigmatic representative of the “authentic” working class on which Marxist analysis is properly focused lets racialized communities and women appear as additions that can but do not have to be considered, especially not in the European context. This does not reflect the realities of a globalized economy in which women of color perform most of the precarious labor and are disproportionately affected by escalating crises, be it COVID-19, climate change, or war. White men never represented the majority of the European working class—at least if we use an intersectional lens and define this class as all whose labor was exploited to the exclusive benefit of the European economy. Then, well into the twentieth century, colonized people of color made up most of Europe’s working population. Workers in the colonies did not labor for their own benefit or for that of a native class of capitalists but for Europe (“Algeria is France”). That this is completely ignored when class in Europe is discussed is just one of the problems that arise from the externalization of knowledge about the (after)effects of colonialism in Europe itself. If one speaks with empathy of the marginalization of the white male worker, as a significant part of the European Left does in response to the rise of white supremacist movements and politicians in Europe and the United States, one also needs to mention that the white working class always profited from the exploitation of the non-white labor force. That European workers gained more rights than anywhere else is not another sign of European progress or the efficiency of European unions; rather, it reflects the fact that European nations, after all concessions on the Continent, still had access to a rightless, exploited colonial workforce. (In the early twentieth century, when German workers fought for the eight-hour day, workers in colonial Togo were subjected to physical violence, including mutilation.) If European labor gains had been extended to the colonies, our world would look drastically different.
This connection should be central to any analyses of class and race in Europe, but instead Marxist scholars often engage in what Gurminder K. Bhambra calls “methodological whiteness,” one example being the hesitant academic exploration of the long-term impacts of colonialism on Europe that builds on an academic tradition that has nothing useful to contribute, while ignoring the key works that have been accessible for decades.11 There is no more thorough Marxist deconstruction of colonialism’s devastating impact on Europe, intellectually, politically, and culturally, than Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, published in 1950—in French no less, belying the claim that race is an American obsession that cannot be applied to the European context.12 Neither a class analysis that considers racism a peripheral contradiction nor an analysis of racism that considers it a primarily cultural phenomenon that only marginally affects Europe is sufficient for understanding why racialized Europeans are disproportionately affected by unemployment, precarity, criminalization, and premature death. And I am not only talking about Black men murdered by a police force trained to see them not as humans but as predators or about accepting the avoidable death of thousands of refugees each year at Europe’s borders, refugees of color whose lives Europeans have been trained to see as less valuable than their own. I am also talking about the cumulative effect of structural racism on the physical and mental health of racialized populations. Let us not forget that the stakes are not the same for all. Racism is a matter of the unequal distribution of life and death. Let us also not forget that academe, in Germany and the rest of Europe, was—and is—not only a site not welcoming to circulating theorizations of race and racism, especially when those theorizations came from non-white scholars. It is also a site that was—and is—actively hostile to recognizing the value of these theorizations, not to mention acknowledging their relevance for the European context.
If an understanding of the workings of racism is necessary for the very survival of those targeted by this racism, and if this knowledge is actively excluded from institutions of knowledge production such as schools and universities, then the result will be the exclusion of racialized people from these institutions, since their presence brings into the open an exclusiveness that can be denied if we are all the same or at least imagined to be the same, that is, if the norm everyone is measured against remains white, male, and middle class.13 Difference is either vilified or denied. The result is the externalization of the colonial past and racialized populations, the absence of Black studies, and the near complete lack of interaction between Holocaust studies and Anglophone critical race studies. The German academic landscape I entered as a student in the late 1980s was very much shaped by these gaps, reflected in the fact that my PhD on German colonialism and its impact on the nation’s identity was supervised by a specialist in US history, since the historians of Germany considered the topic irrelevant to their field, a disciplinary silencing that I encountered constantly. I enjoy working at a US university, but that is not why I am here. The reason is that I absolutely could not have done the work I am doing had I stayed in Europe. (My dissertation adviser told me that if I wanted a job at a German university, I needed to work on something other than race. And of course he was absolutely right.) I often meet amazing young students and scholars of color in Germany (or France or Denmark or the Netherlands or Spain . . .) doing exciting work on racism and racialized communities in Europe, and it is absolutely heartbreaking and infuriating to hear them describe a hostility toward their work and often toward their very being that does not seem to have lessened over the last thirty years.
Despite a series of studies showing persistent continent-wide racism (see, for example, the annual reports of the European Network against Racism) and a beginning public reckoning with the colonial legacy, there still is no systematic interrogation of the historical and current impact of racial thinking on European identities and no systematic interrogation of the centuries-long presence of racialized Europeans. Meanwhile, a fast-growing population of color and the recent rise in extreme right-wing and white supremacist movements and parties make this interrogation even more urgent. For this to happen, however, structural support and institutional anchoring are indispensable—as is the inclusion of the expertise of racialized communities, who remain severely underrepresented in institutions of power, including universities. This leads me, finally, to the InBEST project, which builds on decades-long activism and research from within the Black community and draws on a broad interdisciplinary and transnational network. This informal circulation of knowledge and practices has long been a key survival strategy of the African diaspora. For me and many others like me, participating in this exchange was literally lifesaving. To have a language, to have concepts to validate one’s own experience in an environment in which one’s very existence is denied is not merely an academic issue.
Institutionally, InBEST is a collaboration between the Black queer-feminist collective known by its German acronym ADEFRA; the RAA Berlin (Regional Centre for Education, Integration and Democracy), which is a nongovernmental organization focused on educational justice; the Center for Intersectional Gender Studies at Berlin’s Technical University (TU); and the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. On a deeper level, InBEST is the result of three decades of Black queer-feminist activism’s acknowledging that radical resistance to structures of oppression and exclusion often comes from those whose stories remain marginal in all (inter)disciplines, understanding queer as a materialist term of intersectional analysis, and referencing processes of constructing normative and nonnormative behaviors and populations. As Grace Hong and Ferguson remind us in their introduction to Strange Affinities, “The mobilization of difference by women of color feminism and queer of color critique [is] intended not to erase the differentials of power, value, and social death within and among groups, as in a multiculturalist model, but to highlight such differentials and to attempt to do the vexed work of forging a coalitional politics through these differences.”14 The first iteration of what eventually became InBEST was the Black European Studies Project (BEST), which Peggy Piesche, Sara Lennox, and I initiated in 2003 and which was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation from 2004 to 2007. A first attempt at bundling existing scholarship and connecting Europe-based scholars of the African diaspora, that project ultimately faded due to insufficient financial support. InBEST is supported by a multiyear grant from the Senate of Berlin, which has committed to investing in reducing anti-Black racism in line with the goals of the International Decade for People of African Descent declared by the United Nations: “recognition, justice and development.” The projected outcomes of the InBEST collaboration rest on four pillars: a book series published by Transcript in both English and German (the first volume, focusing on alternative archives of Black Germany, will appear in 2024); a study of institutional bias based on a survey of Black students; the implementation of a Black European studies curriculum; and a digital archive of Black knowledge. The scope of the project is both interdisciplinary and intersectional, in acknowledgment that, if it is to benefit marginalized communities, to cite Sharpe again: “the work we do requires new modes and methods of research and teaching.”15
The TU Berlin/Yale University collaboration will allow for sustained exchange between scholars and students based in Europe and the United States, working collaboratively to create a transnational Black studies curriculum. An important first step will be the creation of a Black studies module and a tenured position in Black studies at the TU Berlin, with similar initiatives at other institutions to follow, both in Europe and elsewhere. A decentering of Black studies that acknowledges their fundamentally transnational and interdisciplinary formation through tangible measures rather than lip service is long overdue. This includes a rethinking of the marginal role that Africa still occupies within US Black studies. Black Europe, with its close historical and present connections to Africa, can offer important insights here. The first step in this direction was made in October 2022 with InBEST’s inaugural conference in Berlin, which among other things resulted in the creation of four transnational, interdisciplinary working groups. By the time this essay appears, an international InBEST symposium at Yale will already have taken place in October 2023.
The Yale-based digital project on (un)archiving Black knowledge will be collaboratively created by students in New Haven and Berlin. Black European history reaches back centuries, but the archival collection and representation of this history itself often reflects historical violence. Nonetheless, there are countless sources of Black life to be found across the Continent, including official archives such as Berlin’s controversial Humboldt Forum, housing an enormous collection of “non-European” art that often was acquired through colonial theft, and community, labor, or migration archives. Here practices of indexing often pose problems in finding traces of Black lives. Part of the pedagogical mission of the new project is to sensitize students to these politics of archiving and to equip them with practical strategies for approaching archives. Finally, there are community spaces, such as Berlin’s Each One Teach One, that are explicitly devoted to Black histories. These spaces are often volunteer driven and lack sufficient resources; the digital archive project will support them with know-how and through digitization of materials. A significant amount of material, however, remains in private collections in individual homes. These materials are especially precarious, since their owners do not have the means or expertise to preserve them properly and are often forced to discard irreplaceable materials. One urgent goal of InBEST is to start digitizing these materials before they are lost forever. Student participants will create manuals and curricular tools to be disseminated through various networks. This will allow students and community activists in locations across Europe to begin their own digitizing projects (for which often nothing more than a smartphone is required). The digital archive will serve as an online repository for these materials while they remain in their original locations—part of the mission of the project is to raise awareness of the existence and importance of these documents and to support attempts at storing them locally in adequate spaces. The digital archive will also serve as a map of Black Europe, contextualizing materials in their location, supplementing them with interviews, oral histories and other materials, and listing existing archives and digital maps, thus facilitating collaborations among local, regional, or national actors. It will also serve as a meta map, providing links to existing digital maps such as those at Black Central Europe and the Digital Atlas of Postcolonial Europe.16
It is my hope that InBEST will be part of a larger, interconnected movement toward recovering undisciplined forms of knowledge production, appropriately disrespectful of the hierarchies and separations that will not generate a better future, or any future at all, and in which interdisciplinary German studies might find a home as well.
I am grateful to the editors of New German Critique for giving me the opportunity to share my undisciplined thoughts and in particular to Leslie A. Adelson, without whose endless patience and generosity this piece would not have been finished. Many thanks to my InBEST collaborators Maisha Auma, Denise Bergold-Caldwell, Katja Kinder, and Peggy Piesche.
No one can call themselves an expert on German literature without having read Goethe, but there are far too many white German “experts” on racism who have never heard of Cedric Robinson, C. L. R. James, or Sylvia Wynter, and this is a structural problem, rooted in the very system in which these experts produce.
The controversy around Florida’s advanced-placement course in African American history, in particular the College Board’s compliance in February 2023 with Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s claim that the inclusion of queer studies and intersectionality in the course was improper, drastically shows that the interdisciplines are not immune to contributing to their own destruction. See Hartocollis and Fawcett, “College Board Strips Down Its A.P. Curriculum for African American Studies.”
Bhambra, “Brexit, Trump, and ‘Methodological Whiteness.’”
See the intense backlash across Europe against gender studies, which in contrast to ethnic studies eventually did enter Europe’s universities (after all, it is hard to deny that there are women in Europe). See, e.g., Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Tuzcu, and Winkel, “Feminisms in Times of Anti-genderism, Racism, and Austerity.”
Hong and Ferguson, introduction, 9.