By Rory Hanna, University of Sheffield
2021 saw the release of an English translation of Ijoma Mangold’s 2017 autobiography, Das deutsche Krokodil. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s rendering introduces to new audiences one of the most well-known mixed-race intellectuals in the German literary sphere. Mangold is a cultural correspondent for the newspaper Die Zeit and features on the book review TV show, Lesenswert Quartett. How could his memoir be used in the German Studies classroom, and how does it relate to other works of Black German life-writing? Das deutsche Krokodil, as well as chronicling a changing German society from the 1970s to the 21st century, is Mangold’s account of how he has viewed his own identity and how he has been seen by others. The book offers different perspectives to those told by several other Black German writers, but may also complement their stories.
The memoir’s beginning deals with belonging, difference, and family rupture. Born in 1971, Mangold had no contact with his father—who had met his mother while studying medicine in Germany before returning to Nigeria—before adulthood. His father, however, had left Mangold with visible signs of African heritage: in his skin colour, first name and frizzy hair. In 1970s Heidelberg, the only children whom Mangold saw with similar features were on charity appeal posters, and the shame with which he regarded his connection to Africa was symbolised by his feelings towards the eponymous crocodile sculpture in his mother’s living room. He imagined it as an unwanted ambassador for Africa, who revealed to all visitors to the home the Mangold family’s link with the continent.
In Mangold’s early adulthood, transcultural encounters brought new perspectives. During a gap year in the USA, he observed stark racial disparities and spoke to other Black people about race for the first time. Then, while at university, he received a letter from his father inviting him to meet his relatives in Nigeria. During his visit, Mangold was touched by the warmth and affection which he encountered, but did not wish to depart from his life in Germany. This proved a challenge, with his newfound family members hinting at an arranged marriage. Mangold’s father eventually asked him to take over the hospital which he had established: Mangold refused, and it was not until after his father’s death in 2011 that his relationship with Nigeria became more relaxed.
Mangold’s memoir features important parallels with life-writing by other Black Germans who have explored, for example, the way in which their self-perceptions have been influenced by a parent’s absence or by travel abroad. A major difference between Mangold and several other German authors of colour, however, lies in their assessment of the level of racism in German society. Gisela Fremgen’s …Und wenn du dazu noch schwarz bist (1984), the compilation Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (1986) and the 2019 essay collection Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum have emphasised the pervasiveness of everyday racism, drawing upon opinion polling, children’s nursery rhymes and personal experiences. Mangold, in contrast, writes that he has only occasionally been confronted with racism. Although he felt different from other schoolchildren, his fears of being stigmatised slowly subsided, and he concludes that he has ‘never experienced Germany as a racist country’.
This assessment will not be shared by all readers, and there is a danger that using Das deutsche Krokodil as an example of Black German writing may convey the impression that anti-Black racism is merely a marginal problem in German society. Here a passage about Mangold’s adolescent years comes to mind. He describes travelling on the train with five elderly women who, amused at his presence, asked where he was from. When Mangold replied that his mother was from Silesia (Schlesien), the women’s eagerness to be confirmed in their own assumptions led to them mishearing his response, as they shouted ‘Aus Tunesien – das sieht man doch gleich!’
The question ‘Where are you really from?’ has been highlighted as a common racist micro-aggression. In this context, Mangold’s summary of the rest of the journey seems surprisingly rosy, as he writes that he happily talked to the women about various topics without his ethnicity being brought up again. This reaction may not be what all readers had expected. The anecdote, however, is also significant because Mangold’s white schoolmates continually asked him to repeat it. ‘Alle wollten sie immer wieder hören, sie konnten gar nicht davon genug kriegen’, he recalls. Why was this the case? Did his friends appreciate the funny side of the women confusing Silesia with Tunisia? Or had a curiosity about Mangold’s experiences of racism become something more superficial or nosy?
Mangold’s observations give the reader pause for thought. He remarks that, while Germans like ‘hearing such stories’, they do not seem to believe him when he says that his encounters with racism have been rare. Some acquaintances, Mangold suspects, assume that he must have repressed negative memories due to a desire to belong. The perception that he had ‘overassimilated’ (Mangold’s term) has manifested itself in other ways. When he experimented with growing dreadlocks in recent years, acquaintances’ congratulatory comments such as ‘Du hast dich schon auch verwandelt, nicht wahr?’ suggested, rather patronisingly, that he was finally embracing a previously suppressed Black identity.
Mangold himself questions whether his identification with Germany, manifested for example in his elegant High German register, has partly arisen from a fear of being othered. He also acknowledges that, with time, he has become more interested in Black and African culture and more aware of how people may have treated him differently because of racist attitudes. The meaning of Germanness to Mangold and how it has interacted with his feelings about race is at the heart of key questions in the book, and my sense is that Mangold, by leaving such questions mainly unanswered, is inviting the reader to engage with them.
However, his reflections suggest that experiences of racism and responses to those experiences look different for different people, and his comments about how white people have spoken to him about race also have implications for the reader. Is there a tendency, when analysing works by Black authors, to look for accounts of discrimination, and to be sceptical when these are not as vivid or extensive as some may expect them to be? The mixed-race German author Jackie Thomae recently said that she was tired of ‘voyeuristic’ questions about her encounters with everyday racism. Yet other Black authors have foregrounded the impact of racism on their lives very deliberately, and any classroom discussion on Black experiences in Germany must self-evidently consider how anti-Black racism has manifested itself in past and present.
Thinking about these issues does not yield easy answers. However, it seems to me that Das deutsche Krokodil has a valuable place among Black German life-writing, and merits being read alongside other works. Common themes and shared moments can be identified, even when each writer’s experiences have led them to different conclusions. Take Mangold’s recollection of when Kofi, a fellow mixed-race teenager in late 1980s Heidelberg, invited him to join a local Afro-German club:
Das hatte ich noch nie gehört. Afrodeutscher? Was sollte das sein? Kofi war, wie gesagt, ein feiner, keineswegs distanzloser Mensch, aber dass er da plötzlich einen solchen Begriff aus dem Hut zauberte, der auch noch etwas mit mir und meinem Leben zu tun haben sollte, das empfand ich nicht nur als Übergriff, sondern fast als Bedrohung. […] Wenn man erst einmal begänne, mich als Afrodeutschen zu sehen, wäre ich ja eines, für das ich mich bisher gehalten hatte, ganz sicher nicht mehr, nämlich Deutscher. Was sollte dadurch gewonnen sein? Von Kofis freundlichem Angebot, kam mir vor, ging eine Gefahr für mich aus.
Mangold’s perturbed reaction to the prospect of joining other Afro-Germans, and defining himself as such, seems very different from that of the women activists who came together to write Farbe bekennen a few years earlier. Yet Laura Baum, Katharina Oguntoye and May Ayim had also acknowledged feelings of uncertainty when they met each other and other Black German women, with all three aware of the potential for their own self-understanding to be unsettled. Kofi’s offer to Mangold also reveals something else about Afro-German activism: that it was growing and had spread across Germany. His acquaintance Kofi Yakpo had by then become a member of the Heidelberg hip-hop group Advanced Chemistry, whose socially conscious rap achieved national popularity in the early 1990s. This passage of the memoir sheds light on wider changes in Black German self-identification and activism in the years around reunification, as well as demonstrating that not all Black Germans welcomed such developments.
Reviewers have described Das Deutsche Krokodil as a ‘portrait of a society and an era’, a touching account of a mother-son relationship, and a bildungsroman with essayistic excursions. It is also a Black German author’s reflection on how (self-)perceptions of race and identity have accompanied his life. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s excellent rendering into English means that Das deutsche Krokodil can be integrated into various modules within undergraduate or master’s programmes, whether in the original or in translation. Teachers may wish to focus on a particular theme, or to use the whole book as an insight into life-writing. Passages could also be used for translation, as an introduction to thinking about the complexities of race in modern Germany.
 Ijoma Mangold, Das deutsche Krokodil. Meine Geschichte (Rowohlt: Stuttgart, 2017); Ijoma Mangold, The German Crocodile: A Literary Memoir, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (DAS Editions: Sutton, 2021).
 For further examples of Black German (and Austrian) life-writing, along with select secondary literature, see Tiffany N. Florvil’s bibliography for H-Black-Europe, 27 July 2016 <https://networks.h-net.org/node/113394/discussions/135761/ann-black-germany-and-austria-bibliography> [accessed 6 December 2021].
 One catalyst for a critical examination of the question came in 2019, when Dieter Bohlen, a judge on a German talent show, repeatedly asked a five-year-old participant about her family’s origins. Ferda Ataman, ‘”Wo kommst du her?”
Der ethnische Ordnungsfimmel‘, Der Spiegel, 23 Feb 2019, <https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/herkunft-und-die-frage-wo-kommst-du-her-ethnischer-ordnungsfimmel-a-1254602.html>; Peter Hille, ‘Woher kommst Du? #vonhier’, Deutsche Welle, 21 March 2019, <https://www.dw.com/de/woher-kommst-du-vonhier/a-47988141> [both articles accessed 7 December 2021].
 Jackie Thomae and Ijoma Mangold, ‘”Uns schaut man nicht mehr hinterher”’, Die Zeit, 17 June 2020, <https://www.zeit.de/2020/26/rassismus-deutschland-debatte-jackie-thomae-iljoma-mangold’> [accessed 7 December 2021].
 Laura Baum, Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz (Dagmar Schultz), ‘Drei afro-deutsche Frauen im Gespräch – Der erste Austausch für dieses Buch‘, in Katharine Oguntoye, May Opitz, and Dagmar Schultz (eds), Farbe bekennen – Afro-deutsche Frauen au den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Orlanda Frauenverlag: Berlin, 1986), pp. 161-163.