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Damn, she can understand me!

Florence Brokowski-Shekete was arguably the first Black German school district director. In her autobiographical work, Mist, die versteht mich ja! Aus dem Leben einer Schwarzen Deutschen (“Damn, she can understand me! From the Life of a Black German”), which hasn’t been translated yet, she recounts how she came to hold this position. With this book, Brokowski-Shekete enriches the canon of Black German autobiographies, which includes, for instance, Schwarz und Deutsch dazu by Theodor Wonja Michael and Daheim unterwegs: Ein deutsches Leben by Ika Hügel-Marshall. Autobiographical writing has long contributed to collective identity formation. At the same time, these various works, which sometimes share similarities in terms of experiences of racism in Germany, offer concrete insights into individual, multi-faceted lived experience.

Brokowski-Shekete’s parents came to Germany from Nigeria to study. One year after their arrival, Florence was born. Because her parents wanted to concentrate on their studies, they gave their child to a foster mother in Buxtehude. Brokowski-Shekete calls this white woman, who previously lived on her own, Mama from the start. Their life together is calm, well-structured and strongly influenced by the Christian community. Brokowski-Shekete sees her parents only once in a while on weekends, which she repeatedly describes as an unpredictable inconvenience. Then her parents suddenly tear her completely out of her Buxtehude life: they go back to Nigeria and 9-year-old Florence has to go with them. 

Brokowski-Shekete identifies as German and describes how uncomfortable she feels in Nigeria with the foreign language, foreign manners, and foreign family members. She misses her mom. With the support of a teacher at the German school in Lagos, she is able to return to Buxtehude permanently. She finishes school and later studies in Heidelberg, which paves the way for her to work as a diversity coach, a primary school teacher and a school district director.

Brokowski-Shekete pepper her stories about her own life with anecdotes about the simultaneity of her being German and being ‘different’. She loves Rotkohl (red cabbage) and Butterkuchen (butter cake), enjoys an internship at Hamburg airport and nice cafés in Heidelberg. She notices the way others look at her and wears her mom’s self-sewn skirts until she is 18, so that strangers can more immediately recognise the young Florence as a girl. Brokowski-Shekete always had very short hair in her childhood and youth: neither her Mama nor anyone else in Buxtehude knew how to style Black hair. The bulk of the book is Brokowski-Shekete’s childhood, and I would have liked to see more elaboration, especially in her accounts of her adult life and work. Brokowski-Shekete’s story is shaped by her own resilience, which is a big part of how she understands herself as a Black German and as an adult, she finds the terminology to address that. Her life story, which is well worth reading, Brokowski-Shekete shows that despite all adversity, she never loses her sense of humour.

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