Hans J. Massaquoi's Destined to Witness as an Autobiographical Act of Identity Formation

Hans J. Massaquoi's Destined to Witness as an Autobiographical Act of Identity Formation

Alexandra E. Lindhout

Massaquoi's project of writing down his life story was a long-term process with a lengthy interruption. The time span during which Massaquoi was reviving his memories of the past and putting them on paper for his first autobiography comprised the 1980s and 90s. It is not surprising that Massaquoi, prompted by his friend and Roots author Alex Haley, started to record his past in the year 1980 (cf. Massaquoi, Hänschen klein 126ff). The 1980s and 90s under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush were characterized by radical political changes which led to a "Verschlechterung der &oouml;konomischen und politischen Situation der Minoritäten" and to a "Debatte um race, class, und gender" (Hornung, "Postmoderne" 361).

"[An] autobiography is the product of a specific culture" (Eakin, Touching the World 72) and the American culture of the 1980s and 90s became more and more preoccupied with questions of a postmodern, multicultural society. Accordingly, the literary scene of the 1980s perceived a flood of autobiographies (cf. Hornung, "Autobiography" 221), especially a "florescence of ethnic autobiography" (Fischer 194). Especially during the 1980s and 90s, ethnic minorities tried to gain literary acceptance within the dominant white literary culture of America. African Americans in particular wanted to free themselves from their "Objektrolle" through literary emancipation (Georgi-Findlay, Diedrich, and Bus 433). Massaquoi, who had become an American citizen and felt like an African American, was part of the black minority in America and even had a very special ethnic background. Moreover, as a professional journalist, "hatte auch [er] ab und zu mit dem Gedanken gespielt, eines Tages ein Buch zu schreiben" (Massaquoi, Hänschen klein 128). The 1980s and the African American community provided him with the adequate circumstances and discourses to begin with his life-writing. His first autobiography should prove to become the site of Massaquoi's reassurance of his black identity formation, namely the acceptance of his African German heritage.

The first words of a book that one usually reads are those of the title. Massaquoi's first autobiography is entitled Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany. What does this title convey? First of all, many autobiographers incorporate their names in the title. Massaquoi left his name out as he was left out and not considered a German and as the history of black Germans had long been neglected in historiography. He becomes the example of the "stor[ies] of individuals [i.e. black Germans] that is frequently left out of numerous stories, histories and historiographies" (Campt, Other Germans 1). Leaving the subject out of the subtitle also suggests that the book is exemplary, an all-inclusive discourse for all black people who grew up in Nazi Germany. Although Blacks had faced different fates during the Third Reich, they were all connected by their skin color which entailed discrimination and suffering. Thus, those who survived share much in common in the growing up black in Nazi Germany.

Massaquoi's autobiographical authority is discernible in and established through the words destined to witness. He was there, in Germany during the Third Reich, and he saw it, the cruelties and atrocities of the Nazis, with his own eyes. Moreover he experienced it, the racism and the war himself, which gives him the right to write about it. He was a witness and he could not help it; it was his fate to be born in Hamburg in 1926 as the son of a German mother and a Liberian father. However, the word witness evokes a confessional twist when considering the Third Reich. For many people, to have been a witness of the Nazis' regime implies being guilty as well. Although Massaquoi admits to have been an admirer of Hitler during his first years of school, he himself became a victim, and not just a witness, of the Nazis (Destined to Witness 41f, 91f). This binary opposition of having been a witness, a follower (e.g. when he also ostracized Jews; Destined to Witness 53f), and at the same time a victim, had been a great strain for the formation of his identity.1

The reasons for his identity crisis lay for the most part in his seemingly contradictory identity of being an Afro-German. On the one hand, he was the African Other; on the other hand, he was part of the racist society. The "bizarre twist to the problem of identity" is the "degree [to which] the African German participates in history and culture as a German, [...] [and to which] he or she bears the weight of the Nazi era" (Asante 9). Massaquoi's honesty when describing his admiration for Hitler is a confession, which "grants the autobiographer a kind of authority derived from the confessor's proximity to 'truth'" (Gilmore, "Policing Truth" 56). Therefore, the title is an immediate indicator of Massaquoi's authority to tell his story (through confession) but also of his marginalization as growing up black during the Nazi era.

Truth, doubt, and authority are interrelated topics when it comes to autobiographies as well as to identities. "Autobiographers themselves constitute a principal source of doubt about the validity of the art they practice" (Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography 276). Massaquoi begins his prologue by quoting Frederick Douglass, who was one of the most important black autobiographers in the nineteenth century: "To write of one's self, in such a manner as not to incur the imputation of weakness, vanity, and egotism, is a work within the ability of but a few; and I have little reason to believe that I belong to that fortunate few" (Destined to Witness xi). Massaquoi's usage of this quotation implies that he himself doubted or still doubts his ability of writing about his own life and the validity thereof. However, many friends had urged him to do so and he had followed their advice (cf. Massaquoi, Destined to Witness xif). Through his friends Massaquoi seems to hope to gain some degree of validity and thereby authority.

The problem of truth-telling is often a problem of memory. When it comes to autobiographies it is frequently claimed that "authorship of autobiography is tacitly plural" (Adams 12). Massaquoi, right in the beginning, states that he "relied heavily on [his] own memory and personal records andin case of events that preceded [his] birth or ability to rememberon the memories of [his] mother and other family members" (Massaquoi, Destined to Witness xvi). Apart from that which the memories of an autobiographer and his supporters have preserved, the stories an autobiographer actually shares with his readers are always a selection of what he remembers. Moreover, "once [those stories are] turned into language and written down, become [] personal truth without much consideration for [their] literal accuracy" because truth is always subjective (Adams 171).

In autobiographical texts there exists a close relation between the self and its style. Gilmore argues that autobiography is "a site of identity production" (4). Furthermore, Leibowitz claims that "[t]he self reveals itself through style" (4) and that "style is the skin of identity into which all writers are laced" (10). One element of style is form. The formal structure of Destined to Witness, like most autobiographies, also follows a chronological and topical order. The three major chronotopes in Destined to Witness are:

  1. Massaquoi in Germany from 1926 until 1948;
  2. Massaquoi in Liberia from 1948 until 1950;
  3. Massaquoi in the United States of America from 1950 until today.

Massaquoi follows the chronological and topological order as described above, however, he breaks the larger chronotopes up into many small episodes. There is no table of contents in Destined to Witness to give an overview over the numerous chapters. The lack of a table of contents is similar to the author's path of life since he never had any guidance and never knew what the next day would bring and, accordingly, only thought from one situation to the next. The reader is thus put into a similar position as the author was in and has to find his or her way through the book. There are one hundred and five chapters in Destined to Witness, which underscores the countless disruptures and reorientations in Massaquoi's life. Hence, the reader has to take one step at a time to follow the author on his difficult and dangerous path. Massaquoi emphasizes his time in Germany (as already suggested in the title) for he dedicates eighty-three chapters to it. The preoccupation with his time in Germany under Hitler can be seen as an "autobiographical act [which is] [...] a re-enactment [...] of earlier phases of identity formation" (Eakin Fictions in Autobiography 226). Going through the early stages of the development of his identity helped Massaquoi to reappraise his arduous past with 20/20 vision and with a stable identity.

The relatively short chapters with an average length of three pages and their headings without numbers stem from Massaquoi's professional background as a journalist and support the notion of his established personality as an African American journalist. The brief chapters with their headings such as "The New Kid on the Block" (17), "Hitler Strikes Home" (54), "Quest for Converts" (97), "The War Comes to Hamburg" (140) resemble newspaper or magazine articles.2 Massaquoi used a journalistic style in his writings. This style helped him to cope with the mass of material he had in his mind by writing down one episode of his life at a time. Alex Haley had advised him to start writing as if he were to write an article for Ebony, and Massaquoi successfully acted on Haley's advice (cf. Massaquoi, Hänschen klein 127).

Emerson, in his essay< "The Poet", declares that "[t]he man is only half himself, the other half is his expression" (1178). Massaquoi expresses himself in English. Destined to Witness is the original English version since English is "the language in which [he] [is] most fluent" (Massaquoi, Hans J. Letter to the author 1. 12 February 2005). Writing in English is also a clear statement as to where he belongs, namely to the English-speaking United States of America. "A languageinstitution of institutionsis what determines an individual as belonging to this culture" (Balibar 184). Massaquoi has made English his new mother tongue since he claims that he now speaks it better than German (cf. Massaquoi, Hans J. Letter to the author 1. 12 February 2005).

Apart from his mastery in writing in English, what is striking about Massaquoi's diction, i.e. language and choice of words, is that he makes use of numerous German expressions throughout Destined to Witness. For instance, heincorporates many trivial German terms such as "Krankenhaus" (11), "Konditorei" and "Gem&uuuml;tlichkeit" (14) but also words like "Arbeitsdienst" and "Deutsche Heer" (91) which stem from Nazi vocabulary. He lets his readers profit from his bilingual background by translating the German terms into English. Destined to Witness is larded with German words. Their usage awards him with authority to write about his life but also allows him to reconnect with his original mother tongue - German - and his past.

Massaquoi uses the same technique when he describes his time in Liberia. Although the official language in Liberia is English, many regional languages exist there. Massaquoi is not capable of speaking his father's tribe's language (which is the language of the Vai nation) but he tries to build and hold up his biological link to Liberia by employing some of their terms he had learned as well. Some of them are "lapas" (346), "chop" (346), and "fufu" (347), which he also explains in English. It is not surprising that Massaquoi uses much fewer African words than German ones. Massaquoi grew up and lived for twenty-two years in Germany, whereas he only spent two years in Liberia. By this technique of employing terms from Germany and Liberia, Massaquoi's "search for coherence is grounded in a connection to the past" (Fischer 196). All in all, Massaquoi proves his eloquence and mastery in English by writing his autobiography in English and thereby stresses his acquired national American and ethnic African American identity. Nevertheless, by the use of German words and regional Liberian terms he has found "a voice [and] style that does not violate [his] several components of identity" (Fischer 196), namely his African American and his formerly suppressed Afro-German identity. Sollors (qtd. in Boelhower 131) describes this phenomenon as characteristic of ethnic autobiographies which constitutes the moving back and forth between the author's descent (in Massaquoi's case his Afro-German) and his consent culture (which is Massaquoi's American, or more precisely African American culture). Adams believes that "autobiography is the story of an attempt to reconcile one's life with one's self" (xi). Thus, Massaquoi carefully reconciles himself with his transatlantic encounters but moreover also with his transatlantic audience. In the same manner as he tries to balance his identities when incorporating German and regional native Liberian terms in his English writing, he also tries to balance the relation to his audiences by "appealing to a double [or rather multicultural and transatlantic] audience" (Boelhower 136).

Yet what was Massaquoi's intention in writing Destined to Witness? The author states his intention regarding his autobiography at the end of Destined to Witness:

I hope that my story will convey the inescapable lesson I have drawn from the slice of history to witness from uncomfortably close range: if it happened once, it could happen again; and if it could happen in Germanya country raised on the wisdom of intellectual giants like Goethe and Schiller and enriched by the timeless contributions of musical geniuses like Beethoven, Bach, and Brahmsit could happen anywhere. [...] That sad chapter in history suggests that it is never too soon to confront bigotry and racism whenever, wherever, and in whatever form it raises its ugly head. It is incumbent upon all people to confront even the slightest hint of racist thought or action with zero tolerance. (436f)

Massaquoi's clear aim is to fight any kind of racism for he had to struggle against many forms of racism on different continents. With his life story he wants to set an example and illustrate that it can happen anywhere and at any time.

In addition to the author's proclaimed intention, there is an unconscious and more personal psychological purpose which Destined to Witness serves. The life-writing of Massaquoi is an existential part of his transatlantic identity formation. "An autobiography, after all, is but an extended reply to one of the simplest and profoundest of questions: who are you and how did you come to be that way?" (Stone 115). Massaquoi, by the time he wrote his first autobiography, was an American citizen and had resumed his contacts to Europe and Africa. By writing his autobiography he showed the reader how he came to be what he is. However, writing an autobiography is not only an explanation but a process of reconciliation and identity formation as well. Massaquoi had not quite reconciled all of his identities. After his departure from Europe and Africa, he had sought and found a stable national and ethnic identity in America and had abandoned his horrible memories of the past. The act of exploring his memory of his past and of writing it down serve "as a form of psychotherapy or as an instrument in the process of self-discovery" (Hornung, "Autobiography" 222). As Eakin points out:

the act of composition may be conceived as a mediating term in the autobiographical enterprise, reaching back into the past not merely to recapture but to repeat the psychological rhythms of identity formation, and reaching forward into the future to fix the structure of this identity in a permanent self-made existence as literary text. This is to understand the writing of autobiography [. . .] as an integral and often decisive phase of the drama of self-definition. (Fictions in Autobiography 226)

Massaquoi, by writing down his life story, repeated the phases of his identity formation as an Afro-German and relived the rejection of his Afro-German identity by Germans and Liberians. However, by writing it down and reliving it, he (re)established his Afro-German identity.

Through the writing and the success of his autobiography, Massaquoi defined himself as an Afro-German. After its publication, Destined to Witness could be found "auf der Bestsellerliste verschiedener Magazine, so vor allem auf der des Spiegel" (Massaquoi, Hänschen klein 257). Massaquoi undertook a promotion tour throughout Germany and gave many interviews. Moreover, a documentary film about him and his friend Ralph Giordano was produced (cf. Massaquoi, Hänschen klein 257) and the German television station ZDF will show the film version of Destined to Witness in the fall of 2006. Through his success, Massaquoi, as an Afro-German, finally entered into German history, German historiography, and into the German consciousness and memory. He filled in the hiatus between the history the Germans knew and the one he had experienced and which had been erased from historiography: the story of Afro-Germans under Hitler (cf. Campt, Other Germans 1). Finally, Massaquoi came into existence as an Afro-German and undid his symbolic "non-person status" which had been established by his former teacher Herr Schürmann (Massaquoi, Destined to Witness 102). He successfully reconciled himself with his biological roots and "persuade[d] the world to view [his] self through [his] own eyes" (Shapiro qtd. in Adams 11). The success of Destined to Witness proves Massaquoi's achievement of reclaiming his Afro-German identity and his acceptance among the German population.3 Massaquoi had written himself back into (German) history and thereby regained his Afro-German identity formerly denied to him. He reconciled his consent African American identity with his descent Afro-German identity. Today, he defines himself as "an African American with deep German ethnic roots" (Massaquoi, Hans J. Letter to the author 2. 27 June 2005).

1 One could say that Du Bois' double consciousness is rendered, in fact, a fourfold consciousness for Afro-Germans like Massaquoi. Massaquoi tried to reconcile not merely the seemingly contradictory aspects of being German and black. He, moreover, had to deal with being "part of NS society" and its wrongdoings, and at the same time being "the object of discrimination and marginalization" of the same society (Campt, Other Germans 160).

2 Massaquoi also included a number of photographs in his autobiography. The first section of photographs appears after approximately one third and the next one after two thirds of the book. Using photographs to illustrate what he writes about also reminds of a magazine or newspaper article which is supported by pictures.

3 Destined to Witness was published in Germany and in the United States of America but was and is widely read throughout Europe (for example Great Britain and Austria) as can be seen from the letters to Massaquoi in Hänschen klein (263-280).

Works Cited

1. Primary Sources

Massaquoi, Hans J. Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany. New York: Perennial, 2001.

. Hänschen klein, ging allein...Mein Weg in die Neue Welt. Trans. Ulrike Wasel and Klaus Timmermann. Frankfurt am Main: Scherz Verlag, 2004.

. Letter to the author 1. 12 February 2005.

. Letter to the author 2. 27 June 2005.

2. Secondary Sources

Adams, Timothy Dow. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990.

Asante, Molefi Kete. "African Germans and the Problems of Cultural Location." The African-German Experience: Critical Essays. Ed. Carol Blackshire-Belay.Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1996. 1-11.

Balibar, Etienne. "Culture and Identity (Working Notes)." Trans. J. Swenson. The Identity in Question. Ed. John Rajchman. New York: Routledge, 1995. 173-198.

Boelhower, William. "The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States." American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. John Paul Eakin Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 123-141.

Campt, Tina M. Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004.

Eakin, Paul John. Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet." The Norton Anthology of American Literature 1820-1865. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 6th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2003. 1177-1191.

Fischer, Michael M.J. "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory." Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 194-233.

Georgi-Findlay, Brigitte, Maria Diedrich, and Heiner Bus. "Multikulturalität." Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte. Ed. Hubert Zapf. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2004. 387-487.

Gilmore, Leigh. "Policing Truth: Confession, Gender, and Autobiographical Authority." Autobiography and Postmodernism. Ed. Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994. 54-78.

Hornung, Alfred. "Postmoderne bis zur Gegenwart." Amerikanische

Literaturgeschichte. Ed. Hubert Zapf. 2nd ed. Stuttgart and Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 2004. 306-386.

. "3.1.5. Autobiography." International Postmoderninsm: Theory and Literary Practice. Ed. Hans Bertens and Douwe Fokkema. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1997. Vol. 11 of A Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages. 221-233.

Leibowitz, Herbert. Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Stone, Albert E. "Modern American Autobiography: Texts and Transactions." American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. John Paul Eakin Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 95-122.


  • There are currently no refbacks.