Book tip for the weekend: Who is afraid of the black man?

Marvin Oppong, black, German, journalist, had to play “Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann” in the primary school. In his new book “Ewig anders” he writes about his memories of it and how he thinks about it today. MiGAZIN exclusively publishes an excerpt from the book.

FROM Editing CO-Author END –> FROM

FROM Marvin Oppong

DATE June 21, 2019


As a child I was at a Catholic primary school, she was the next primary school to our house. Today it is called “Städt. katholische Bekenntnis-Grundschule”. While playing sports in the school’s own gymnasium we played the game “Who was afraid of the black man? I always had the feeling that “black man” meant the general type of a dark-skinned person, who was also me. I was the only black child in the class who felt massively addressed and excluded by the words of this game. Although I was always good in sports and I can run fast – I’m even Westphalian Champion in athletics with a relay – I was always eliminated very fast in the game. I always had the impression that this was the case, because some of my classmates from the oncoming children rather caught me, because I was also the black man, from whom you didn’t have to flee, whom you could put a spoke in the wheel and whom you could banish to the end.

Today I still hear the sentence of the game in my ears, connected with a feeling of deep humiliation, because I was always convinced that one should not be afraid of me. I never wanted to play the game, but as a six-year-old you don’t dare to rebel against your teacher and you’re not able to verbalize what bothers you about the game. If I had said something, I would have been forced to play in this strict Catholic primary school anyway.

I remember finding the first part, “Who’s afraid of the black man?” less bad than the second. The answer to the question could also be: “Nobody! We are not racists, are we? I found the second part much worse. With the “And when he comes, then we run” I somehow always felt repelled by the rest of the class and alone inside.

I wouldn’t even blame my very young classmates at the time if one of them thought in childlike spontaneity that you could attack “the black man” in the game if you didn’t run away from him.

Apropos missing classification: In the Wikipedia entry “Child fright figure” it is explained that this is a “fictitious figure with which children are scared”. Under the category “Warning of strangers” the “black man” is also mentioned under “known child fright figures”. Afterwards the “black man” is called also “bad man” and “is known as a child fright figure in the whole German-speaking area. Depending on the region and time it was understood to be different beings: a dark shadowy figure, a man with black clothes and a black face (chimney sweep) or a dark-skinned man.

The author of the book “Alte Kinderspiele”, the Austrian historian Inge Friedl, told me that, as far as she had been able to research it, “the ‘black man’ was not racist at first”. Her book says: “The black man was for a long time a well-known child fright figure in German-speaking countries and part of black pedagogy. The children were threatened: ‘If you are not good, the Black Man will come and get you’. They imagined him as a dark, shadowy figure or simply as a man with dark clothes.” Although everyone knows the game, there is hardly any literature on it. Friedl recommended that I contact the Swiss university lecturer Ulrich Schädler. He wrote me: “The game has NOTHING to do with racism. The black man represents death. In Fischart (Geschichtsklitterung, i.e. German version of Rabelais Gargantua with the famous game list in chapter 22, 16th century) the game is called ‘Der schwarze Knab’. It is apparently a remnant of the plague and death dances”. In Northern Germany the game was called “Der wilde Mann”.

But it is precisely the fact that it is not clear what is meant and that false associations can be awakened that is the problem. Since in most cases children play the game without any critical classification, racist fantasies are open and there is always the possibility that a dark-skinned person is meant to frighten you. The “black man” is also associated with the emotion of fear in a completely sweeping way. Fear is a German thing anyway; ‘German fear’ is already a winged word. According to the logic of the game, it doesn’t matter why people run away. No matter whether the black man is dangerous or has done something – he is generally avoided. The second part of the game, “And when he comes, then we run”, continues the suspicious attitude towards every male black person. Moreover, through the “we” it creates a demarcation of all white participants in the game from the black man, who is in the minority.

With the approval of the teacher, racism was promoted here, inevitably, because one had to play along, since this was part of what was called teaching. The perfide: I was forced to participate in my own racist dismantling because I had to play along. The game was played by generations of pupils in Germany. In this way, racism is kept alive in a playful way over generations. I find that uncanny.

Who judges how bad the game is for black children and what can be said about racism? A white man who was never himself affected?

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