Like every other castle and other royal landmarks I have visited in Europe, Sanssouci bears a very European theme. The architectural style and the imagery portrayed usually refers to a local event or famous person. At this exit of Sanssouci however, there was something different. The four busts of African captured my attention and my curiosity about them only increased from then on.
I asked myself questions like ”were these real people?” “who were they?”, “Why are their busts here?”, “were they always here or are these retrofitted to reflect a more diverse society?” There was only one place to turn, my old friend Google. My search for answers led me to unexpected places. The journey was marked by a debate about political correctness, historical accuracy, and the context within which these sculptures came to be positioned where I saw them.
We always make a silent nod at each other and smile. It is our way of saying ‘I see you my brother.’
According to historians, these busts likely originated in Italy and became part of Brandenburg’s collection since the end of the 17th century. An inventory found in historical records from the late 18th century describes the four pieces of art as the ‘Bust of a Moor.’ The historical origins of these busts are the main bone of contention, specifically the use of the word ‘Mohr’ which is the German word for Moor. I came across the word while still in primary school and it usually made reference to an outsider of some sorts in pre-industrial age Europe. At that time, I didn’t give much thought to it, maybe because I wasn’t an outsider in Europe. In old German language, this term was used to refer to people of African origin in a rather unflattering way, more on this shortly.
Back in 2014, a debate raged through the local parliament in the state of Brandenburg when one of the local politicians proposed a change to the name of these statues from the current ‘Mohrenrondell’ to something more politically correct. Directly translated, this term could be loosely translated to a ‘rotary of the blacks.’ 300 years ago in Prussia, this was very much acceptable. Present-day Germany is, for the most part, a very different place. Thanks in no small part to Hitler, the holocaust, and the deaths of over six million Jews. Part of the denazification processes involved sensitizing the citizens about the dangers of singling out the ‘other.’ The term Mohr is believed to have originated in the medieval period and it was used to refer to the darker skinned outsiders who the locals interacted with, such as those from Mauritania.
The offensiveness of the word ‘Mohr’ does not just come from its racial connotations. It is the manner in which European society treated those who this term was assigned to between the 19th and early 20th century. Eugenics was for a time treated as cutting-age science. This ‘science’ was based on a hierarchy that had the whites at its apex and Mohrs very close to the apes. This was ‘evidenced’ by dissections carried out on deceased slaves and other bodies brought back from the colonies. Places such as Namibia witnessed genocide against the natives whose lives clearly didn’t matter. Some of these ‘mohrs’ ended up being placed on display as part of living exhibitions. This post is however not about historical evils, it is about black skinned statues I came across in Potsdam.
German society takes political correctness very seriously today. This is especially witnessed in the way ethnic groups are labeled. The recommended name for dark-skinned people such as myself is ‘person with darker skin’ or as they say in German, stark pigmentiert. The denazification process mainly entailed carving out the dangers of racism into the social conscience of post-WW2 Germans. Globalization and multiculturalism have naturally meant that there are more Africans in German society. Political correctness ideals have also continued to evolve throughout this period. Decades back, chocolates bearing racist names had to be renamed. These include the Negarkuss, Mohrenkopf and the Sarotti Moor whose names were changed to more politically correct names. Sarotti, who used a Moor as the company mascot changed the color of the logo to something closer to beige in an effort to stave off accusations of being racist. These changes did not, however, come easy, there was a lot of debate with many valid and invalid points being raised on both sides.
A similar debate arose in Potsdam when Andreas Menzel, a city councilor demanded that the name be changed from Mohrenrondell to something more sensitive. The premise of this demand was that the maintenance of that name discriminates against sections of German society. He further argued that giving a public place a name with heavy racist connotations is wrong and unfair to people of color whose ancestors were colonized, enslaved and killed based on the color of their skin. Some experts from the academic community supported him stating that such a title mocks the experiences of people of color. Others acknowledged the significance of the debate but refused to lend him support arguing that these statues are almost three centuries old and there is a need for historical accuracy. Others who were for the maintenance of these names alluded to the maintenance of the word ‘Moor’ in the Shakespearean play ‘Othello the Moor of Venice’ and the Hein’s poem ‘Mohrenkoenig (Moor King).’ An online poll conducted by a local newspaper went in favor of retaining the name ‘Mohrenrondell.’
The first time I saw these statues was a genuinely exciting moment for me. After seeing what seemed to be hundreds of caucasian statues, these ones looked like me. They had the facial features of a typical African. The dark skin, the flatter nose, larger lips, and of course the coarse hair. Of course, they were inanimate objects, but that didn’t stop me from getting the feeling of comradery I feel when I make eye contact with another African in the sea of white faces on German streets. We always make a silent nod at each other and smile. It is our way of saying ‘I see you my brother.’ It reminds me that I come from a place where I am not the ‘other.’
The connection I felt to these statues was however strained when I got enlightened about the philosophical context of these statues. They were not placed there to celebrate or honor Africans. The Prussian King, Kaiser Friedrich instructed that they are placed here as part of a timeline. A timeline illustrating the progress of human civilizations, except that the African statues were meant to demonstrate humanity’s ability to regress back to a primal state rather than progress forward.
At the start of this civilization timeline is an obelisk, just outside the park’s entrance stands an Obelisk with fake hieroglyphs to signify the ancient Egyptian civilization. Three centuries ago, it was widely accepted that the Egyptians who built the pyramids were the world’s oldest civilization. Slightly further into the park, on both sides of the entrance stand two pillars reminiscent of the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations. Atop these pillars are the busts of Roman emperors. Further into the park stands the rotary with the four African statues positioned such that they appear to be looking up to the Roman busts. Further inward toward the 270-year-old building known as the New Palace, one finds more eurocentric statues all over the gardens.
Alfred Hagemann, an assistant researcher with the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens Berlin-Brandenburg was interviewed about the naming controversy and he provided insightful information about this Mohrenrondell. In addition to pointing out Kaiser Friedrich’s timeline, he also notes that the statues of the blacks were specifically placed in their current position to emphasize the fact that the progress of human societies is not linear but a series of steps forward and occasional steps backward. The popular European view at the time was that Africa is a continent stuck in backwardness and uncivilization. (centuries later this view persists). In the interview, Hagemann points out that Friedrich didn’t mean it as a racist statement but rather as an illustration of his philosophy about humanity’s fallibility and the room for improvement his subjects in Brandenburg had.
It could be argued that Kaiser Friedrich was just looking out for his people and wanting the best for them. That is all well and good, but… I have a black face just like those statues used to represent the fall of humanity into backwardness. Intentions of the Kaiser notwithstanding, their image signified a people trapped in backwardness and the complete absence of civilization. Some may argue that these are old ideas that don’t have influence today. I’d argue that the game is still the same despite a change in players. Most ‘newsworthy’ stories of Africa are sad news stories of famine, corruption, disease, political strife and conflict. Humanitarian organizations are not left behind; the image of an African child, preferably emaciated, is almost compulsory in their posters and films.
Such representations are meant to communicate and sensitize audiences on what’s happening on the other side of the globe. The tendency of those involved to adhere to patterns they found others following only makes things worse for the actual blacks. By and by, it becomes harder for audiences to separate Africans from these problems. As a result, there is a high likelihood of some people projecting this information on any African they come across, especially if said Africans are scarce and far between, as is the case in most German cities and towns. At times they do so with hostility, and other times it happens innocently and more out of ignorance.
The more innocent form is termed as implicit bias, whereby people subconsciously associate members of specific groups with pre-existent stereotypes. Some schools of though argue that implicit bias is universal to humanity and nobody can truly claim to be neutral when interacting with the other. I am certainly succeptible to such unintentional biases and have very likely judged/misjudged others due to pre-existing notions I had in my mind. Perhaps Implicit bias made me care about these statues more than the rest, who knows? Since my dark skin will forever be a part of me, I maintain an unpleasant awareness that strangers are constantly projecting their biases to me. It does suck, but it is what it is.
People think racist opinions are always expressed with malice by unsavory people carrying pitch-forks or tiki-torches. That type of racist opinion is the most obvious and attracts the most attention. From my experience, however, racist views can also be expressed by well-meaning people. I find these to be worse since their brand of racism is hidden and harder to call out. On many occasions, I have found myself on the unpleasant end of such expressions, and when I did, it was much more offensive to me than a random stranger on the street directing racial epithets in my direction. This is not to lessen the significance harmful nature of such slurs.
Placing the focus on political correctness as a means of promoting tolerance is a good start, but making it the focus of inclusiveness efforts is wrong. On one hand, it paves the way for a lot of awkward reactions between the dominant group and the ‘other.’ I have been party to several awkward interactions while someone is trying to figure out what to call me, or how to describe me. It’s strange when someone is cycling through a series of descriptions while looking for the appropriate word to describe me. At first, they cringe as they wait to see if they are using the right term. This display of sensitivity then makes me cringe, as I feel like I am putting the person in a difficult position, making them walk through a lexical minefield. Rather than making me feel accepted, the interaction becomes rigid rather than fluid.
Another problem with political correctness is its tendency to weaponize words. Discouraging insensitive language is one thing, but emphasizing the restriction of select words at times elevates the status of the word in the eyes of a would-be bigot. The N-word is a good example of this. Many a racist see it as another tool of their arsenal. Its forbidden nature makes it all the more powerful in their eyes, making it even more offensive for those on the receiving end.
Now back to where I started, the Mohrenrondell. This old word ‘Mohr’ exists in obscurity, far from the conscience of local social justice warriors and right-wing extremists alike. Renaming the Mohrenrondell to a more sensitive title will in my view do more harm than good. It may be celebrated as a demonstration of progressiveness albeit at the cost of its historical context and significance. The current label these statues have helps to maintain their significance. Black people like me in Germany get to know that some of my ancestors also walked these streets centuries before me. Giving it a racially sensitive name in my view is tantamount to revising history and robbing the past of important events, good or bad. A more sensitive name would shift the focus from Kaiser Friedrich’s view of the world to a monument celebrating inclusiveness.
Rather than doing something as drastic as renaming the statues, better contextualization could be done to explain the origin of the statues. Keyword being explain, not justify the use of the word Mohr. Or they could just do nothing, as information boards in tourist attraction can occasionally be unsightly or obstructive, reducing the aesthetic value, and making for horrible photographs.