BOOK REVIEW: White Rebels in Black by Priscilla Layne / Reviewed by Dinah Lensing-Sharp | TRANSIT

White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture

by Priscilla Layne
TRANSIT vol. 12, no. 1

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Layne, Priscilla. White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2018. 272 pages.

What’s so rebellious about black culture? Over the course of the 20 th century, numerous
works of German literature, film, art, and music have engaged with or borrowed aspects
of African-American culture. Whether these kinds of engagement constitute a kind of
admiration—the imitation-as-flattery claim—or form part of the long legacy of European
colonialism, remains a matter of some debate in German Studies. Priscilla Layne notes in
the introduction to White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular
Culture that her book “intervenes in the largely positive discussion of the white German
valorization of black popular culture” to argue that this trend represents “a selfish attempt
to resolve postwar guilt over the Holocaust” (2). By covering six decades from the
immediate postwar era through the early 21 st century, Layne is able to investigate
changing German attitudes toward black culture via works of literature, film, music, and
autobiography. The first three chapters address white German aesthetic interpretations
and political orientations toward African Americans or Africans in Germany, whereas the
final two chapters turn to the aesthetic production and personal narratives of a several
black German artists in consideration of a fuller perspective on the cultural exchange
across lines of racial identification in Germany.

Layne’s book attempts to parse the distinction between appreciation and cultural
appropriation, taking works in which white German men identify themselves as “rebels,”
as outsiders to mainstream German culture—and dominant conceptions of white German
masculinity—through an affiliation or even outright identification with Africans, African
Americans, or Afro-Germans. In these works, black culture is positioned as inherently
“rebellious” and understood as always already counter-cultural in Germany despite the
presence of black people in Germany since at least the 19 th century, when the German
Empire controlled large swaths of territory in then-German East Africa, West Africa, and
Southwest Africa. At the same time, the reception of African-American culture in
Germany—beginning, appropriately enough, with the introduction of jazz in the 1920s
through 50s—has shifted significantly from the Weimar period, through National
Socialism, and into the postwar era. Music connects many of Layne’s chapters to her
central questions—particularly in the first three chapters, she observes encounters
between white Germans and new musical forms brought to Germany by African-
American performers during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The perception of these genres of
music as “foreign” and “other” consolidated the widespread German impression that
blackness as inherently separate from—and incommensurate with—German national
identity. It is this false binary that White Rebels in Black primarily seeks to refute.
Some of the book’s strongest moments come from its engagement with other
scholars’ work on the social and historical conditions of blackness in German culture.
Layne summarizes and deploys such research effectively, providing enough information
to contextualize her own analyses without lapsing into a list or a retread of previous
scholarship in her field. Though Layne mentions Eric Lott’s book Love & Theft:
Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford University Press, 2013)
in only a handful of instances, her study seems to fall in line with similar critiques that
Lott levels at the United States’ history of white appropriations of black culture,
specifically in the history of blackface minstrelsy. Layne argues that “white Germans’
engagement with black masculinity during the postwar period … forms a kind of
dialectic,” though in her reasoning, “black masculinity is perceived as both safe and
threatening” (Layne 18), whereas Lott remarks upon the “dialectical flickering of racial
insult and racial envy, moments of domination and moments of liberation … gesturing
toward a specific kind of political or sexual danger” (Lott 18). Layne also cites Lott’s
claims about the anxiety produced by encounters between black men and white women
because of concerns about miscegenation, focusing for this reason primarily on
interactions which facilitate some form of cultural exchange exclusively between white
German men and black men. Thus, Layne’s study is even more specially concentrated on
how the enforcement of hegemonic forms of masculinity constrains the self-expression of
white German men to the extent that some choose to identify cross-racially with the
ostensible “outsider” status of African Americans or black Germans, the expression of
which only creates a greater sense of alienation for black Germans and “limits the
possibilities of black subjectivity” (Layne 4). One of the more significant additions White
Rebels in Black seeks to make to Black German Studies is the nuance of black diasporic
perspectives—Layne devotes chapters 4 and 5 to analyzing a variety of works by black
Germans, including a novel, a musical, poetry, and four autobiographies.
Layne’s introduction gives a convincing account of the marginalization and
dismissal for which she hopes her book will be a corrective—she notes in more than one
instance the surprised and even derisive reactions of some colleagues in German Studies
to her critique of the protagonist Oskar’s appropriation of black culture in The Tin Drum.
It is all the more surprising, then, that her critical apparatus seems to consist primarily of
historical scholarship; while this offers a rich archive for contextualizing the cultural
production which is her main object of study, an explicit theoretical approach remains
difficult to discern. Layne justifies her broader methodology in the introduction in this
way: “A postcolonial theoretical line of thinking suggests we take a look at texts with
peripheral black characters or peripheral black tropes to question why they are there and
what they say about the white protagonist. It is important to ask what knowledge about
blackness is being conveyed in each case” (6).  Indeed, the work of numerous
postcolonial thinkers would advocate an investigation of texts produced by a culture
formed by its relationship to its present and former colonies—to understand more about
the colonized through a critique of the colonizer’s gaze. A useful framework might
include the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and the field of Subaltern Studies
contains excellent and useful language to frame Layne’s project as well. White Rebels in
Black draws on writing in critical race theory and philosophy, as with Layne’s use of
James O. Young’s definition of cultural appropriation. She is certainly contributing to
Black German Studies (as well as making evident the urgent need for German Studies to
consider the significance of blackness in canonical literary texts), but it seems a shame
that the book does not fully clarify the terms of its analysis with regard to any specific
theoretical discourse. It is difficult to properly estimate the significance of Layne’s book
without a clear sense of who her critical interlocutors might be, outside of German

Crucially, however, Layne proposes that we understand white German
conceptions of blackness as rebellious as closely linked with the fraught process of
Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or the project of coming to terms with the country’s fascist
history and the legacy of the Holocaust. Layne’s project seems especially timely in light
of recent historical scholarship such as The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten
Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism by David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen
(Faber & Faber, 2011), which argues that concentration camps under German colonial
administration in Africa and the 1904 genocide of Herero and Nama peoples served as a
model for the atrocities committed by the Nazis a few decades later. Layne’s white
German “rebels” express their anxiety about the legacy of German fascism and the
necessity of confronting their country’s past by identifying with black culture as “an act
of empathy or solidarity with the Other” (2) which, as she argues, only further entrenches
anti-black racism in Germany and erases both the presence and importance of black
Germans to German culture.

Layne concludes White Rebels in Black on an ambivalent note, stating more than
once that she is the “first scholar” (189) to formulate a critique of the appropriation of
black culture in The Tin Drum. She has certainly identified a new and important
dimension to a novel central to the postwar German literary canon, and more classic texts
ought to be subjected to the same scrutiny when it comes to their treatment of race.
However, her defensiveness about the significance of this critique detracts from an
otherwise compelling final few pages, in which she calls for a renewed understanding of
German identity as intimately shaped by its relationship to the African diaspora. Here, it
seems, lies the great potential of Layne’s critique—in its clear, unapologetic insistence
that “blackness has long been a part of German history, rather than outside of it” (197).
Black Germans’ creativity has shaped art, music, and literature in Germany for decades,
and White Rebels in Black continues the important work of excavating Germany’s
complicated relationship with racism and blackness.

– Dinah Lensing-Sharp, UC Berkeley


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