I used to believe that to be an African American woman interested in German history was unusual. But my graduate studies in international history have taught me that I belong to a long line of African American intellectuals who have engaged German culture and language. For many prominent African Americans, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Germany served a dual purpose: a personal refuge from America’s racially tense environment and an important site for transnational cooperation with German activists. As I investigated this tradition more carefully for my master’s thesis, I discovered the German language diaries (1888-1890) of Mary Church Terrell, an African American feminist prominent on the international stage. The realization that my personal and academic experiences in Germany were part of a larger historical intercultural exchange spurred my PhD project that traces Terrell’s life and activism in Germany during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
My dedication to the study of German language and culture began in high school. Frau Alasti decorated her classroom walls with German newspapers, brought classic German Prinzenrolle cookies, and required that only German be spoken in class. I was hooked. Equipped with two years of language instruction and keen curiosity, at the age of sixteen I flew on a plane for the first time, to Siegen, Germany for a year-long academic exchange through the American Field Service (AFS). By the end of the first week I was registered at a German Gymnasium and answering questions about the U.S. and my personal background in front of my eleventh-grade class. Such exchanges led me to reflect on what it meant to negotiate dual identities as an “Ami” (American) and minority in a foreign country. I had never been at the center of attention due to my nationality or race. Growing up in metropolitan Long Beach, California, my classmates came from Cambodia, Samoa, and Latin America. Multiculturalism had been my daily reality. Living with a host family, socializing with my German classmates, and playing on a local youth basketball team reshaped my perception of the world.
My year abroad led me to declare a double major in German Studies and Sociology at Long Beach State. Returning to Germany during my junior year to study at Universität München exposed me to the small enclaves of minority communities in Germany. During this time, I reunited with my favorite classmate from my AFS year, Krystal, a Ghanaian born and raised in Germany. Although she and I were from different worlds, we shared an experience that would remind us how we were connected. While boarding a train in Köln, a man of African descent pointed to our “Deutschland” sweatshirts and motioned that we should take them off, conveying that our celebrating a German soccer victory was inappropriate. The incident left me perplexed. Krystal used the unexpected moment to share with me her experience growing up in Germany as a child of immigrant parents. She described the daily shifting between two worlds: Ghanaian traditions at home and German language at school. Krystal’s story resonated with my experiences in Siegen and Köln as an African American whose understanding of self was reshaped by the German language, culture, and people I engaged.
As an African American woman, I’ve come to realize that my exposure to international study, exploration, and intercultural exchange is rare. Most students accessing such coveted opportunities remain homogeneous: white, middle-class, and male. Now, I’m on a mission to change this imbalance; I want to ensure that future study abroad applicant pools and cohorts of prestigious programs are representative of the diversity that is the United States. My discovery of Mary Church Terrell’s international story not only provided me with the historical context to reexamine my early experiences in Germany, but inspired me to think of the ways I could bring her ideals of transnational interracial cooperation to bear on our own world. In 2014, I began laying the foundation for my social good company, the Colored Bird Institute, to establish a formal avenue through which I would serve as a conduit for other students of color to take the journey of study abroad. Mentoring students through an application process and sharing how I’ve leveraged my study abroad experiences to create academic and professional opportunities have been the cornerstones of the Colored Bird Institute.
Being a global citizen in today’s interconnected world means that I do not have to wait until I return to the states to make an impact on my community as a U.S. Fulbright cultural ambassador. In January 2017, while on my Fulbright grant, I launched the Diversity International Scholarship Academy – a peer mentorship program that helps minority students underrepresented in U.S. Department of State-sponsored exchange programs earn fellowships. I led workshops and met with students one-on-one via Skype to answer pressing questions about the Fulbright application process, life abroad as an African American woman, and dissertation productivity as an international student. Students wanted to know if the fellowship was worth their time and investment. Drawing on my study abroad and grant writing experience, I helped them map out strategies for getting the most out of an invaluable opportunity such as the Fulbright program. Though the pilot program has ended, the Academy was so successful that it has become an institutional effort at my home university. My program can also serve as a useful model for German educators interested in learning how to support German students with migrant backgrounds. In March 2017, I was invited by the U.S. Embassy Berlin to share my study abroad story and pilot program with German high school teachers in Rostock, Germany as part of the Teach About the USA program.
My time in Germany has come full circle. As a volunteer with the U.S. Embassy Berlin’s Meet U.S. program, I travelled to Frankfurt (Oder) to meet with German high school students interested in learning about American culture beyond the headlines.
For 90-minutes the students posed thought-provoking questions on topics such as the 2016 election, current White House administration, gun laws, future German-American relations, and study abroad (in the U.S.). Thanks to the Fulbright Program, I had the opportunity to return to the site my journey began sixteen years ago: in front of a German classroom engaged in the work of a U.S. cultural ambassador – increasing mutual understanding through dialogue and intercultural exchange.
Similar to African American intellectuals in Germany decades ago, it never entered my mind that I’d be blazing a path for those coming behind me. My hope is for the next generation of students who look like me to know that their desire to be global citizens is not unusual, but a journey they were destined to take.
Noaquia Callahan is a 2016-17 Fulbright Germanistic Society of America Fellow at the Free University Berlin’s John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies writing her dissertation on African American feminist transnational activism, 1880s – 1920s. Noaquia holds a dual Bachelor’s degree in German and Sociology from California State University Long Beach, and a master’s degree in History from the University of Iowa. She will complete her PhD in History in 2018 and continue building her social enterprise, the Colored Bird Institute. To learn more about Noaquia’s Fulbright year, visit her website: noaquiacallahan.com.