"Maybe I'll live to see the end of racism"

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Published by: Now.de

Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana is the first Afro-German in the EU Parliament. A conversation about her way into politics and "Black Lives Matter".

Interview by Nadja Schlüter

dr pierrette herzberger fofana cover

Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana was born in Mali and grew up in Senegal. She has been living in Germany since the seventies Photo: Dr. Herzberger-Fofana

List position 21 was not the most promising, but then the Greens won 20.5 percent in the 2019 European elections - and Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana became the first Afro-German to enter the European Parliament. The 71-year-old was born in Mali, grew up in Senegal, studied in Paris and Trier, earned her doctorate in Erlangen and was a city councillor in Erlangen from 2005 to 2019. There she was particularly active in the fields of anti-racism and women's rights. In 2009 she was awarded the Helene Weber Prize for her outstanding commitment as a local politician by the then Federal Minister for Family Affairs Ursula von der Leyen.

Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana is currently at home in Germany. During one of her last stays in Brussels, an incident with the Belgian police occurred, which she also reported on in a short speech in the European Parliament: She claimed to have observed nine officers harassing two black men. She said she took a photo, four of the police officers then took her purse, pressed it against the wall and searched it, and that she did not believe her to be an MEP. Herzberger-Fofana filed charges and was in turn charged by the police with "libel". As the case is currently under investigation, she is not allowed to talk about it. In return, we have spoken to her about other aspects of her eventful life.

now: You were the first woman from Senegal to study in Germany, the first Afro-German in a German city council, now you are the first Afro-German in the European Parliament How does it feel to be the first so often? 

Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana: I prefer to say: "I belong to the first." I'm not imagining it either. I always wished there had been more like me. Because that wasn't the case, I had to overcome some obstacles.

Can you give an example?

I couldn't look up to anyone and ask, "How do you do that?" That's how I learned to take my fate into my own hands and I've always been my own role model. In 1980 I was a lecturer at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and took over a French course. At that time it was still unusual for a black woman to teach. The students must have thought with my first and double name that a white French woman married to a black man was coming. When I finally came into the lecture hall, there was a huge laughter. People were surprised that a little black woman was their lecturer for French.

How did you react?

I just started speaking French. They were all flabbergasted. After the lesson one student came to me and apologized for laughing - unfortunately I never saw her again after that. This is just an anecdote, but anybody can tell such a story. You learn with time to deal with it, to master your life.

"The lack of diversity in the EU institutions is shameful"

Why did you decide to go to Germany back then? 

I wanted to be a German teacher. I liked the German literature, I found it all a bit exotic, especially always these walks in the woods! that was something we didn't know, in the savannah in Senegal nobody goes hiking! (laughs) I wanted to get to know the culture and tell my pupils* and students* in Senegal about it later. 

Did you go hiking then too?

Yes, even in the mountains! And I also looked at Neuschwanstein Castle. I had to make my own pictures, which I could bring to the students. One could not simply google this at that time.

But then you didn't go back, you stayed.

Yeah, because I got married in 1973. 

How did you get into politics?

I was committed to women's rights and took part in the 1995 Beijing Women's Summit. When I subsequently reported about it in a local newspaper, the Greens asked me if I would like to run for mayor in Erlangen. It was clear that I would not win, but that was not my concern either: at that time racism was very strong in Germany and my candidacy was primarily intended to set an example. That's how it started - and today I am in the European Parliament. 

How many Black Members of Parliament are there in the European Parliament?

There were seven of us, but Magid Magid, the only man, is no longer with us because of the brexite. Now we are six black women from France, Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany - out of a total of 705 Members. The lack of diversity in the EU institutions is shameful and is due to institutional racism and discrimination. The EU Parliament has therefore, for example, campaigned to the Commission for more black people to be employed in the institutions. The competences are there! When the women's quota was introduced and we suddenly needed women for management posts, we finally found them.

"My three children have names of freedom fighters"

That means: You are in favour of a BIPoC quota, analogous to the women's quota?

I don't think it works any other way. If there is a quota, it will encourage some to apply at all. 

And how do you win more blacks and PoC for politics?

You have to ask people! Especially women, they usually don't dare.

Just like you were asked.

One should address people in concrete terms and explain to them what opportunities there are for working in politics. The parties could plan to recruit certain people or put them in the good places on their lists. In the Greens, we do the same thing with the sexes: the odd positions are always occupied by women. It is a question of creating space and then being able to offer it. 

After the violent death of George Floyd in the USA, "Black Lives Matter" has also grown up in Europe, with young people in particular getting involved. How have anti-racist movements influenced you as a young woman? 

My childhood and youth were marked by decolonization and the liberation struggles in Africa and by the civil rights movement in the USA in the sixties. In Africa, a particularly large number of women fought against the colonial masters, and there were famous women's marches in Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal. Aoua Kéita from Mali was one of the first in this fight, and later she was a Member of Parliament. Because this time has left its mark on me, my three children bear names of freedom fighters. 

"Many young people forget that there was something before them"

What are their names?

Eldridge Cleaver (activist of the Black Panther Party, editor's note). Amílcar after Amílcar Cabral, the great freedom fighter from the Cape Verde Islands, from which my mother also comes. And my youngest son is Patrice Kwame, after Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah (first Prime Minister of the independent Congo and first President of the independent Ghana, editor's note).

How was it in Germany? Did the African and American movements have an impact there too?

The Afro-Germans were very strongly influenced by the US civil rights movement, partly because many Afro-Germans had Afro-American fathers, GIs, who were stationed in Germany. Especially the Afro-American activist and author Audre Lorde played a major role for black women in Germany. Her work was the impetus for the book "Farbe bekennen: Afro-German women on the traces of their history" by speech therapist, poet and posthumously appointed professor May Ayim and by Katharina Oguntoye was published in 1986. Today they are icons of the Afro-German movement. 

How do you think these earlier movements influence today's activists?

This is not meant to be a criticism, but perhaps a piece of advice: I think many young people forget that there was something before them, and perhaps they sometimes have the impression that they have to reinvent everything. It would be good if they would ask older people from the black community what activism looked like in the past. 

"Sometimes it's hard to even find the older generation of Afro-Germans"

There is not enough exchange between the generations?

He's not as strong as he should be. I think that working for young activists is very exhausting and it would be easier if they would ask. Of course it is sometimes difficult to find the older generation of Afro-Germans at all: Many have withdrawn. In the eighties and nineties, for example, many Afro-German women were active in Munich - and I don't know where they are today. That is sad, because they could certainly share many experiences. But it must also be said that organisations like ISD (Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland, editor's note) or ADEFRA (Verein für Schwarze Frauen und Women of Color, editor's note) have existed for more than 30 years. And the organization "Each One Teach One" has built up a library on African and Afro-German history in Berlin and is now conducting the first survey of blacks in Germany, the Afrocensus. The NIFA (Nuremberg Initiative for Africa, editor's note) has also opened a library with mainly African authors* in 2013 and organizes numerous events, since 2015 also with my own event series "Black History Weeks" in Erlangen, which honors the contribution of Africans* and blacks from the diaspora. 

How do you feel about "Black Lives Matter"?

The movement has taken on a dimension that is gratifying. It shows how Europe has changed. Especially because the demonstrations were not only black people. At the protest in Nuremberg I spoke in front of 5000 people and in Erlangen in front of more than 500 people - and there were a lot of young white people there. I would not have expected that and it touched me very much. They finally understood that this is a struggle that concerns us all. I hope that this was not just a flash in the pan, but will continue. 

Many whites have asked themselves in recent weeks how they can be good allies for blacks. What answer would you give them?

In order to be a good ally, I need to know who I am allying myself with - and in order to do this, I must learn to listen first. There are white people who say "We're your allies and we're gonna get this organized". They have good ideas, they are committed, they show good will, but sometimes they make mistakes out of their socialization. White people first have to move step by step from an unconscious state into a state critical of racism. They have to realize that the anti-racist struggle is the struggle of a minority, which white people accompany - but that it is also a struggle of liberation for themselves. We are now on the way to conducting a fruitful dialogue, and that makes me very happy. Perhaps I will see the end of racism - or at least the end of the terrible confrontation and violence. That would be a dream. 

"When we speak of #Metoo, we should remember that this movement was started by a black woman"

But you recently told the world: racism is coming back.

On the one hand we are making progress, on the other hand we hear slogans today in the Bundestag or in the European Parliament which we would not have thought possible some time ago. The shift to the right is noticeable. Recently there have been many derailments by people in positions of power. There are politicians, for example, who use the N-word. Fifteen years ago, people would have been even more inhibited.

"Derailment" sounds like it was accidental. Often it's just deliberate provocation, right?

Yeah, and then you apologize. But then it was already said.

They also stand up for feminism and women's rights. Black women and Women of Color often criticize that feminism is too white. 

It is a fact that the life realities of migrant women, black women, but also, for example, of queer people are often not very visible in feminism

How could this be changed?

By recognizing the work of these women! For example, when we speak of intersectionality or #Metoo, we should remember that these movements were initiated by black women. #Metoo was started by Tarana Burke, but only gained attention when white actresses started to adopt it. Black women are pushed aside and not appreciated. This is a big problem, because they always have to find the recognition within themselves, to recognize and accept the value of their work by themselves. But something is changing right now: at many feminist demonstrations in Germany and also at "Black Lives Matter" you could see posters saying "No feminism without anti-racism" or "Only intersectional feminism is real feminism". We need to understand how the mutually reinforcing systems of heteronormativity, racism and sexism work, and deconstruct them. So that we can then build the society we want. 

© Süddeutsche Zeitung GmbH, Munich. Courtesy of Süddeutsche Zeitung Content (www.sz-content.de).

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