Sara Lennox

Director of the Social Thought and Political Economy Program and professor of German Studies at the University of Massachusetts, AmherstSara Lennox poster

Reading Transnationally: The German Democratic Republic and Black Writers

Thursday, October 25, 2007
7:00 p.m. – Stern Center, Great Room

Keynote speaker for the conference of the same name. Many of the African-American authors GDR publishers prmoted after the war were deeply influenced by Soviet models of proletarian internationalism, national self-determination, and masculine subjecthood. GDR scholars could thus appropriate such Black writers texts to provide confirmation of official GDR notions about race-blind class solidarity, general-neutral revolutionary subjectivity, the GDR’s positioning of itself on the right side of history, and the role that particular kinds of literary production could play in moving history forward. Only a reading attentive to transnational influences acting upon the GDR and Black writers in their Cold War contexts can fully account for why and how East Germans were encouraged to read African-American literature. Co-sponsored by Music and German Departments.

Issue in Context
Beginning in the 1920’s, a number of African-American artists and intellectuals openly expressed their adherence to socialism as a way to gain rights for Black people under the political unity of American working classes. Particularly during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union from the post-1945 period onward, at the beginning of the 1950s, African American authors spokespeople such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson were discriminated against for their political views during the anticommunist movements in the U.S. that followed the Soviet expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. African American writers criticized the “dual color line” defined by Langston Hughes as the socio-political prejudice against both Blacks and Reds (the communists) that was forcefully pursued in the early stages of the Cold War through the House Un-American Activities Committee. Politically, African American authors served as advocates for international socialism through their works, while they elevated the international scale of the American struggle to abolish racial oppression.
The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a communist state in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. The GDR was declared a sovereign state but Soviet troops remained, based on the Potsdam agreement. Since NATO troops were stationed in West Berlin and West Germany, the GDR and Berlin became the focal points of Cold War tensions. Many of the African American authors published in the GDR had been influenced by Soviet models of proletariat movements, working class self-determination, the eradication of differences of status, and equal political rights for all citizens. GDR scholars appropriated the writings of Black authors to provide validation for the GDR socialist doctrine of race-blind solidarity. The GDR also perceived the important role that writers played in shifting the national popular culture by producing literary forms accessible to the masses. As African American author Amiri Baraka said “You don’t make things popular just because you want them simple, but because you want people to understand them. But when people understand them, then they demand more.” However, as GDR scholars called for more African American authors, the occurrence of Black literature in the Western Soviet sphere was stimulated for political and propagandistic reasons. While prominent minority socialist writers would point to racial inequalities in the West, the GDR government often ignored instances of injustice and racism within their own country.

About the Speaker

Sara Lennox is the director of the Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC) Program and professor of German Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in German from DePauw University and her master’s from the University of Wisconsin, Sara Lennox attended the University of Frankfurt on a Fulbright fellowship, then received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Wisconsin. The Social Thought and Political Economy Program selected Lennox to promote innovative interdisciplinary education for undergraduates on the basis of her enthusiasm for the Frankfurt school of thought and its powerful analyses of the changes in Western capitalist societies that have occurred since Marx wrote his now classical theory of the working capitalism. As director of the STPEC since 1981, Lennox has also tried to bring interdisciplinary approaches into the field of German Studies, especially through scholarship presented at the conferences of the interdisciplinary German Studies Association, of which she is now president. German women’s writing has been a long-term focus of her work, and her book Cemetery of the Murdered Daughters: Feminism, History and Ingeborg Bachmann, was published in 2006 by the University of Massachusetts Press. In other recent scholarship she has explored German Studies has focused on German colonialism, race in Germany, and globalization and transnationalism. Lennox has been awarded two major grants, one on black Germans, funded by the Humboldt Foundation, and another on black Europeans, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.

Related Links
Popular Fronts: Negro Story Magazine and the African American Literary Response to World War II
The Intellectual Luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance
A Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to His Daughter, Yolande, Dated “Moscow, December 10, 1958”
Rock’n’Roll, Female Sexuality, and the Cold War Battle over German Identities