Rudi Richardson knew something about what it meant to be a black man in the United States. But after being deported to Germany, the country where he was born, shortly before his 47th birthday, he had to start figuring out what it meant to be black and German -- in a land he barely remembered and whose language he didn't speak.
He started life as Udo Ackermann, born in a Bavarian women's prison in 1955. His mother, a Jewish woman named Liesolette, was serving a prison term for prostitution. His father, whom he never met, was an African-American serviceman named George. Rudi was given up for adoption.
Born in an era when Germany was still grappling with its responsibility for the Holocaust and when the US Army had a policy of not acknowledging paternity claims brought against its soldiers stationed abroad, some of these children were put up for adoption in the United States. At the time, Germany judged itself incapable of absorbing these "brown babies" -- as they have come to call themselves. In the late 1940s and 1950s, efforts were made to match them with African-American military families, many of whom were stationed around Germany at the time.
Forbidden to Speak German
The adoptees grew up in the United States, many with no idea they were adopted or that they were half-German (for information on the difficulties encountered by black GIs wanting to stay with their German girlfriends, read the sidebar on the left). Scattered across the country, many of the children were forbidden to speak German in their new homes. At the time, it was believed that continuing to speak German would damage their ability to learn fluent English.
After a stay in a German children's home where he says he suffered sexual and physical abuse, Richardson was adopted by a military couple as a toddler. After a few years living on base in Germany, the family returned to the US. It was about that time, Richardson recalls, that his adoptive mother began a downward spiral of alcohol addiction and mental illness.
Richardson was 17 when his parents finally told him he was adopted. He was sitting across from a probation officer following an arrest for joyriding -- and he was given a choice: face the charges in court, or join the Army. Eager to be away from an increasingly unhappy home, Richardson chose the latter.
That's when he discovered his adoptive parents had never had him naturalized as a US citizen. He says he was told he'd get citizenship automatically after being honorably discharged from the Army, but it never happened. This caused problems for him three decades later, when he was deported to Germany in 2003 after spending time in prison for drug possession and petty theft.
His arrival in Germany was a "horrible experience," Richardson said. "There were three policemen waiting for me, and they escorted me out of the plane to the police station in Frankfurt. They interrogated me for two hours.... The police said that I had to tell them every crime I had committed in the United States. They told me they could convict me under German law.... I was spooked, so I told them everything."
He counts the next 18 months in his "native land" as among the worst in his life. He was often homeless, suicidal and had resumed abusing drugs, including cocaine. One of the few positive experiences he remembers was meeting other black Germans through the Initiative Schwarze Menschen Deutschland (Initiative for Black People in Germany, in German only). The group was founded in the mid-1980s as a forum for people of African descent in Germany and a way to fight racism.
Not all of the children fathered by black GIs were adopted by American families. Although a 1968 study estimated that up to 7,000 black German children were adopted by Americans, many others remained in Germany with biological relatives or as wards of the state. Some of them, like writer Helga Emde and artist Ika Hugel-Marshall, went on to found the Afro-Deutsch movement in the 1980s, raising their voices in literature and the media after years of being statistically invisible and yet uncomfortably conspicious.
But for many black Germans raised in the US, it was the rise of the Internet that sparked their awakening. It connected them to information about their parents and helped them find a common identity. Web sites became a supranational meeting point, a place where black Germans could meet others who share similar experiences.