Reflections of the Other: Being Black In Germany by Ethel Morgan Smith
“There we sat from different worlds, but we were sharing a similar pain, the pain of history.”
In Reflections, English professor Ethel Morgan Smith recounts her academic adventures in late twentieth-century Germany, a country characterized by a sometimes paradoxical openness to all topics of discussion and an unerring commitment to history and cultural heritage. A native of Georgia, Smith was teaching at West Virginia University in Morgantown when she decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship in Germany. The experience allowed her the opportunity of exploring her national and cultural identities outside of the American environment while generating discussions with her Germany students on a variety of topics, including race, feminism, politics, religion, and sexuality. With exacting detail, Smith describes both positive and negative encounters she had with the people of Germany, the most alarming of which involve a horde of neo-Nazis who chased her in a train station and an aggressively disrespectful student from one of her classes. Smith’s short time in Europe led to the creation of lifelong friendships, academic partnerships, and romantic entanglements alike, which, combined, make for a remarkably tender-hearted tale.
Reflections shows, through Smith’s numerous anecdotes, that the student-teacher relationship is vitally important for making societal progress. Though Germans don’t shy away from public debate as Americans do, the scenes here illustrate how some beliefs become so oft-repeated that they replace the truth, no matter how wild they may seem. For example, some of the Germans Smith spoke with refused to acknowledge that racism existed in their country while the unfortunate fact is, of course, that racism exists in one form or another in virtually every human settlement on the planet. While it can be occasionally stark, Reflections is ultimately an optimistic treatise on the power of education, tolerance, and the need to build a better world through intelligent discourse.
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