Celebrating African Americans in France and Germany

Although Europeans suffer just as much, if not more, from racism as Americans, accomplished African Americans have traditionally received more respect on the old continent than in their home country.

This 1988 video of France Gall‘s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald is one example of that dynamic. By 1988, of course, Fitzgerald was universally admired. Still the choice of images, which depict many more African American performers, is instructive.

These days, European racism tends to target immigrants. Although some of those feelings might be extended to African Americans that appears to be exception even among xenophobes.

Since the early 20th century, many Europeans would consider African American performers and to some degree even American soldiers and travelers, not only as exotic but also as American. As such, they are considered to be representatives of progress, liberty, and innovation.

At the same time, European elites tend to excuse African Americans from anti-American stereotypes (ignorance, naivety, unprofessionalism, poor manners etc) because if one strives to live an enlightened life, a requirement for middle class Europeans, then one has to take the exigencies of a suppressed people into account.

However clumsy such considerations may be, ultimately, they mean that many Europeans perceived African Americans as super Americans. Even today, you might encounter a German teenager in outfits that studiously imitate African American except that the basketball uniform is perfectly pressed.

Now that African Americans exercise power at the top levels of the United States government, these dynamics are bound to change. Perhaps Barack Obama benefits from the good will that European elites are extending to American artists, especially when they are African American performers.

But however magnificent as a performer Barack Obama may be, first of all, he wields power. Although, I cannot say how, that is bound to transform the perceptions of Americans in Europe and around the world.

May be, watching a little music video from 1988 can provide us with a little bit of perspective to appreciate that change better.

If you live in Europe or have served a mission there, I would love to learn how you experienced anti-American stereotypes. I have the impression that middle and upper class Latin Americans might hold similar attitudes about gringos as their European counterparts.

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