Humboldt Berlin Fellowship: an update from Duane Jethro
January and February, the coldest months of the year, thankfully went by quickly. I was kept busy with an intensive German language course at the Goethe Institute in Mitte. Day after day I learned the intricacies of the German language with people from all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America. It was a fun if somewhat frustrating experience being back in the classroom, taking instructions, and doing homework! I can just about get by in broken German now. The most fascinating part of being linguistically integrated, as it were, was to see, as a participant, how the Goethe Institute profiles Germany as worldly.
The induction into the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation community has been surreal. It’s difficult to describe without falling into promotional clichés. The foundation maintains a network of scholars and scientists from all parts of the world and supports scholars to live and conduct research in Germany. Emphasis is placed on research excellence and we’re invited to participate in and add to the German scholarly enterprise. Through events hosted by the foundation, we are encouraged to connect and build professional links that will help support us for the duration of our careers. It is a posh, polished platform for development, a genuine privilege.
Since March, I have occupied office space at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Heritage and Museums (CARMaH). Sharing with two other colleagues, the new space has a less communal working vibe than the John Berndt Thought Space. Our offices are on Mohrenstrasse, (yes, that is Moor street in English) opposite the Department of Justice and around the corner from Museum Island in downtown Mitte. For people interested in heritage, the Centre could not be better located.
I have great colleagues: Carmees, as we call ourselves, are doing research on the ways in which alterity is being reflexively engaged in Berlin’s art spaces, the changing representations of Islam in museums, and the memory of Germany’s colonial links and legacies. It really is a great place to be working on heritage related questions. My post-doctoral project will look at South African links to post-unification heritage projects in Berlin. I am interested in how these commemorative forms engage questions of diversity and change.
South African-German connections made through APC have made settling in easier. For example, I participate in Prof. Katharina Schramm’s colloquium at the FU, where we discuss proposals, projects and mind-bending Actor Network theory. There is a constant exchange with other fellows and affiliates about meeting and connecting, whether in Berlin or elsewhere.
Since settling in Berlin, I have been struck by the strong interest in blackness, black histories and the post-colonial. Black Germans and people from the black diasporas are staking out spaces and places for interpreting, asserting and claiming blackness in a majority white society that has different frames of reference for notions of race and power to, say, South Africa. They’re reclaiming street and place names, and arguing for reparations for colonial occupation and the repatriation of objects and remains stored in Germany’s many museums.
In other platforms, listening to young black folk recite poetry, quote Fanon or discuss instances of everyday racism, has been as moving as it is familiar, and yet also different. Of course, in all this, I have been forced to rethink my own blackness and contemplate what that may mean. So far, then, I came to Germany to understand the past and interpret differences, but in doing so, surprisingly, have rediscovered my own.