Black Athletes Against Empire:

The Art of African Agency against German Imperial Agendas, 1900 BCE-2018 CE


This brief presentation is dedicated to the lives of the too-often overlooked victims of Germany’s Scramble for African land— the Herero, Namaqua and KhoiSan— and Afro-German people in their quest for freedom, justice and the fullest expression of their human potential.


When Archie Williams, Louise Stokes and the other 320 members of the American Olympic team stepped onto the docks at Hamburg Germany late in the month of July 1936, they were entering a nation with a complex racial history. In 1729, a Hausa boy, Mmadi Make was kidnapped from his Kanuri community and enslaved in Sicily and then Vienna, Austria. Remarkably, under the slave name, Angelo

Mmadi Make, (Angelo Soliman, 1721-1796)

Soliman, he would rise through the ranks of Austrian society to become a friend of Emperor and Grand Master of the True Concord Masonic lodge in Vienna. He reached the height of Viennese society, yet upon his death, he was stuffed and mounted in a museum exhibit like a taxidermist would any wild animal or pet.[1] There were, to say the least, competing German racial sensibilities. The American Olympians-Black, White, Native American and Jewish-were feted by an extremely warm welcome accented with delicious port wine and the adulation of thousands of spectators in a nation governed by the National Socialist Party and its doctrine of Aryan White supremacy. Both nations—the USA and Germany received their White Supremacist social doctrines from an Anglo-Germanic intellectual culture represented and advanced by their greatest universities: Harvard University (founded 1636) in Cambridge and a century later, the University of Göttingen (founded 1734) in Berlin. As Draper and Thrasher clarify in Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, German people could be very welcoming, yet still complicit in co-signing Nazi ideologies. What the 1936 Black Olympians may not have known was that Nazi hatred of the Jews was conditioned by 18th and 19thcentury philosophical movements and Germany’s first genocidal acts against the Herero and Namaqua people a generation earlier.

(Re)Defining the African Athlete                                              Sociologist, Harry Edwards (San Jose State University) defines the Black athlete as vanguard members of the Black community who are willing to use their privilege as college students and within various fields of sport to advance the struggle for

The Champion, the King, Lebron James GQ Magazine,

liberation. We frame our understanding of the Black athlete relative to sociologist Orlando Patterson’s (Harvard University) model of racial thinking, especially about Black men, focusing on two related dialectics: celebration vs. marginalization and deification vs. dehumanization. From the ancient to the modern, the history of Black athletes traces an increasingly racialized arc. Drawing a contrast between the reverence for Michael Jordan and the destruction of African american lynching victim, James Byrd’s body, Patterson associates this dialectic as a continuation of practices of spectacle executions and human sacrifice evident in earlier European societies. But, how must African Diasporic people navigate the legacy of the past. Does the rhetoric of descending from ancient Black Olympians, Kings and Queens or Gods and Earths empower everyday Black people?

The Aryan Model of History: German Conquest of the Past  

The Nazi doctrine of Aryan racial supremacy was rooted in an intellectual movement that was over two centuries old.  Berlin’s University of Göttingen (founded in 1734) played a prominent role in creating Germany’s Neo-Hellenic cultural movement.  Appropriating ancient Greek civilization as the pattern for Germany, scholars at Göttingen claimed that Hellenic art and philosophy were superior, more evolved compared to other ancient non-European civilizations like Egypt and Phoenicia.  Likewise, Anglo-Germans saw themselves as superior to other races according to pseudo-scientific hierarchies like that of Göttingen anthropologist, Johann Blumenbach.  Central to Blumenbach’s evolutionary hierarchy was the Bildunstrieb concept-an organism’s ‘will-to-power’—a notion translated into the philosophical works of Nietzsche and then translated again into the Nazi’s Aryan doctrine of racial will-to-power. This racial will-to-power called for a political order that would dominate all inferior peoples including Africans and Jews. 

Aryan vs. Ancient Views of the Black Athlete

Before we look at the role of Germany’s colonization of Africa in preparing the way for the Jewish Holocaust, it is helpful to examine the persistence of Aryanism in modern Western thought as revealed in its arts and aesthetics.  Harvard University’s curated art collection, The Image of the Black in Western Art, records the evolution of what historian, Martin Bernal in his Black Athena trilogy calls the Aryan model of Greek historical origins. Aryan model scholars argue the absurd[2]—that despite mounds of multidisciplinary evidence, Africans and Semites had nothing to do with influencing Greek culture, language or politics. To understand this distorted model of history, we performed a content analysis of social roles portrayed in Volume I of the massive IBWA collection revealing valuable insights about the way that Africans, including athletes were portrayed.           

Our analysis reveals a mix of depictions of Africans in the art of Egypt, Greece, Carthage and Rome. While Africans depicted themselves in a range of social roles, Europeans depicted Blacks as servants (25%), prisoners (16%), athletes (14%), soldiers (14%) and entertainers (9%). The IBWA project overwhelmingly depicts Africans in a subservient position (50% of the time) as Servants, prisoners, or entertainers. It is also helpful to remember that in Rome, most athletes were captives of some sort, forced to compete for the public, who consumed their contests even to the death. True to Orlando Patterson’s deification vs. dehumanization dynamic, 10% of Greco-Roman depictions were of Black Gods. Overall, the African subservient trend may speak more so to the curatorial worldview of Harvard’s Classics faculty than an ancient Greek perspective. To be clear, Harvard and the IBWA staff affirm, even if critically, what historian Martin Bernal in his Black Athena series calls the Aryan model of Greek history and historical origins.  The Aryan model argues that Africans and Semites had nothing to do with influencing the founding of Greek states, culture, or language. If they were depicted by the Greeks, then it was a matter of them recording the barbarians as a form of artistic anthropology. 

The Ancient Model of History                                                  

But another, anti-racist view of history exists if we draw upon the insurgent African-centered scholarship of William Leo Hansberry and George G. M. James and Martin Bernal’s Ancient Afro-Asiatic

model, in which Greek historians, scholars and artists celebrated the connections between Ethiopian, Egyptian, Phoenician and Hellenic civilizations.  The Ancients saw association with these much older cultures as a legitimizing force.[3] Literary examples fro

m Aeschylus, Homer, Hesiod, Plato and Aristotle all speak to the African and Asiatic connection. For example, Bernal quotes Aeschylus, in the Suppliants describing the Egyptians coming to the Greek isles: “I can see the crew with their black limbs and white tunics” as they sailed to the Peloponnesian coast. However, the first Greek historian, Herodotus is most controversial as he points to the political dynamic that Aryanist scholars wished to

Senwosret (Sesostris) II, Dynasty  XII

avoid—the possibility that Africans once dominated Europeans and may have founded Greek civilization. Herodotus states:   

There are in Ionia two figures of this man [Sesostris, king of Egypt] carved in rock… the figure is over twenty feet high, with a spear in his right hand and a bow in his left, and the rest of his equipment proportional; for it is both Egyptian and Ethiopian; [4] and right across the breast from one shoulder to the other a text is cut in the Egyptian sacred characters, saying: “I myself won this land with the strength of my shoulders.    (Herodotus, The Histories, Book II, ch. 106.)                                                                

More fascinated than racist, the Ancients, mythologized and viewed the world and the body through an African aesthetic lens. Early examples of Greek art like the Minoan Prince of the Lilies and Koouroi statuary bears an indelible aesthetic stamp from African sources. The example below evidences this influence of the older African molds and the more recent Greek forms.

In mythology, Greek heroes often struggle with figures strongly associated with Africa—the Minotaur, Busiris, or Memnon—as part of their rise to power.  For example, Heracles overthrew the Egyptian priest, Busiris, established the first Olympic games, and became an archetype for other Greek athletic heroes to come.                   

Krater vase of Heracles and unknown figure,
possibly Busiris.

Taken together, the Ancient Greeks and the Aryans demonstrate what Orlando Patterson describes as the simultaneous adulation and hatred of African men.  Both perspectives inform the European worldview evident in the IBWA collection.  For the Germans, Greece became a font of tropes useful in forging an Aryan historical consciousness even if the Greeks themselves did not subscribe to their racist views.                                                

The Aryan model alongside German Romanticism fueled the growth of German nationalism offering a national logic of why Germany should impose its particular model of civilization on the world even if Africans had no interest in their ideas of statecraft. We turn next to Germany’s role in African colonization and the vigorous response of the colonized.

African Resistance to German Imperialism                                  

During the European Scramble for Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to gather riches by colonizing large tracts of land in Africa just as his Great grandmother, Queen Victoria had done for England.  During the Congo Free State Crisis in which

Wilhelm carves up the African cake
(Cartoon from Punch

Belgium’s King Leopold II brutalized Africans in the Congo Basin, slaughtering and starving millions, Wilhelm called the Berlin Conferences (1884 and 1885) to quell the belligerent Scramble. This period (1884-1914), a prelude to WWI, saw Germany exercising a new militant foreign policy as they participated in Leopold’s slaughter of the

Herero refugees after Battle of Waterboro.

Congolese[4] and brutally administered colonial holdings in Burundi, Rwanda ,Tanganyika, Namibia, Cameroon, Guinea and Togo.                                                                                                              

In a remarkable period of anti-colonial resistance from the Ashanti to Ethiopia to the Zulu Wars, a pair of leaders in SW Africa stood up to the Germans. The primary leader was Samuel Maherero, the dashing, tall paramount chief of the Herero people demanded an end to German debasement of his people.  The Herero were nomadic pastoralists and did not submit to German rule, their claimed racial

Samuel Maherero, Paramount Chief
of the Herero people. (c.1907).

superiority, nor their land ownership policies. They organized a staunch, but futile resistance. From 1904 -1908, Germany brutalized Southwest Africa, violently quashing rebellions by the Herero and Namaqua with the zeal of genocidaires. In January of 1904, Maherero, appealed to the Nama leader, Henrik Witbooi for a unified front of their two ethnic groups:

All our obedience and patience with the Germans is of little avail for each day they shoot someone dead for no reason at all. Hence I appeal to you, my Brother, not to hold aloof from the uprising, but to make your voice heard so that all Africa may take up arms against the Germans. Let us die fighting rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment or some other calamity. Tell all the [chiefs] down there to rise and do battle! (Pakenham 1991: 608).                                                         

Henrok Wibooi, leader of the Namaqua with two
of his daughters.

In the first skirmish, they devastated the lightly armed German militia, but eventually the seasoned General Lothar von Trotha was sent to the area with heavy weaponry.  The slaughter in the form of village raids on the Herero, Nama and KhoiSan continued into 1905 until a decisive defeat came at the Battle of Omaheke/

Waterboro (1907) as a part of von Trotha’s vernichtungsbefehl extermination order.            

A skull of a Herero or Namaqua person made into
a eugenics/physiognomy specimen. (BBC 1998)

                                                  Historian Pakenham estimates that this genocidal campaign resulted in the deaths of more than half of the Nama (20,000+ fatalities) and three-quarters of the Herero (80,000+). Some of their bodies were taken after African prisoners were forced to strip the flesh from their fallen kinsmen’s skeletons. Specimens were made, which became

a part of the German pseudo-science of Aryan eugenics. Kaiser Wilhelm II awarded von Trotha the Order of Merit. (Pakenham 1991: 614-15). The Germans were practiced in genocide well before the Jewish Holocaust.

Conclusion: The Ethical Legacy of the Herero and Afro-Germans

The U.S. media covered the Herero “war” with articles from January 1904 to 1907, but few African Americans were able to mount an effective opposition to German atrocities. Most likely, this was because they faced smaller pogroms of their own during the Nadir period. For example, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to the Germans in 1907 requesting a homeland for African American middle class homesteaders as Gen. Trotha was completing the vernichstungbefehl. Interestingly, research suggests that he did not issue a major critique of the German Herero atrocity until over a decade later. Four decades later in 1947, Du Bois was sought out by Frederick Mahereru, son of Samuel Maherero and Paramount Chief of the Herero, and a surviving descendant of the German attacks.[1]  Mahereru requested Du Bois’ assistance in appealing for the return of the hereditary lands of the Herero people “living in the Bechuanaland Protectorate” and their “return to South West Africa. Unfortunately, the deaths of nearly 100,000 herdsmen likely paled in comparison to Leopold’s killing of millions in the Congo. 

These histories of violence interconnect forming a blood-stained tapestry against which we must view the story of the African athlete. I grew up admiring both Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, whom I saw as not just athletes, but soldiers in a war against hatred.  Those two men were my father, Rev. Ernest Livingston’s heroes and their example showed me the deep significance and social power held by Black athletes.  My father’s stories of his Cold War-era service in Germany and American popular culture lit my anti-Nazi imagination. In part, because we were Gullah sons and daughters who viewed them as kindred with the Ku Klux Klan, whom we all knew wanted us as slaves or dead. Against these forces of hate, Black athletes reminded us of the need to train the body, elevate mind and hold onto the conviction that the fight for justice had to be sustained across generations.

Review Questions 

  1. How did Germans with imperial aspirations colonize African territory and our understanding of the past?
  2. How do the racialized stories of African heroes from Memnon to Lebron James inform our understanding of the past and present-day Black life-chances?
  3. How should African resistance to German imperialism play a role in understanding our global ethical obligations within Martin Luther King, Jr.’s imagined World House?


[1] See, “Angelo Soliman,”

[2] See Johann J. Winckelmann and Karl O. Müller’s works for examples of intellectual Aryanism at Göttingen.

[3] For example, Aeschylus, in the Suppliants described the Egyptians coming to the Greek isles: “I can see the crew with their black limbs and white tunics.”  

[4] According to historian, Birthe Kundrus, German generals advised Leopold on how to violently put down Congolese rebellions over a decade earlier.

[1] W. E. B. Du Bois, “Pan-Africa,” Column Draft mailed to People’s Voice. February 21, 1948, 3 pages.

Works Cited

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