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The Future of the Distant Past: On Teaching the Pre-modern History of Africans in Europe


In this article, the author argues that the field of German Studies is poised to contribute to both Black Studies and Critical Race Studies through teaching the history of the African diaspora in Europe in the pre-modern era. One promising future direction German Studies might pursue thus leads to an examination of the distant past. Such a shift in focus would also profit Black Studies by extending the time frame of the African diasporic narrative backward into a past that preceded both the breach of the Middle Passage and the dawn of scientific racism. In this time preceding European overseas colonization, phenotypical differences between groups and individuals were observed, but racism as we know it today did not exist. Teaching this material thus offers students a useful alternative model of difference. A contextualization of the Roman Empire within the history of the great Mediterranean empires shows that most of these spanned the African-European continental divide, and that the trajectory of military incursions, enslavement, travel, wealth, and power moved in both directions, from north to south and from south to north. An examination of medieval texts, including Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal and the statue of the African St. Maurice in the Magdeburg cathedral, shows that blackness signified difference as distance on the horizontal plane of the world map, not as a chromatic marker of location on a vertical scale of hierarchy and power. If “overcoming racism” today is going to mean more than just adjusting existing stereotypes, then the pre-modern past may offer us a useful model.

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