by Ethel Morgan Smith
312 pages – CreateSpace, 2012
Reviewed by Sharon D. Johnson
Between Old and New: A Review of Reflections of the Other
In Reflections of the Other: Being Black in Germany, Ethel Morgan Smith shares the phenomenon of her experience as the Other, an African American woman living and teaching in Germany as a Fulbright scholar at Universität Tübingen during the 1997-1998 fellowship year. A journey that begins with Smith’s presumption that, in Germany, she can “experience (her)self without the limitations of race” is marked with signposts where “racism kept finding (her).” Her story is filled with the tensions and thrills of learning to deal with old issues in new ways, and new opportunities with age-old wisdom.
Professor Smith’s journey is a heroine’s journey, prompted by a stirring in the soul for new meaning, and new and different experiences that reveal that meaning. For Smith, that prompting comes after accepting an assistant professor position in the Department of English at West Virginia University in the early 1990s. Other women may wait, as Nikki Giovanni notes in her preface to the book, but Smith takes action, travelling out to meet the destiny she creates with each venture into new emotional and intellectual territory. Her time living in Atlanta, Georgia and Roanoke, Virginia had been filled with family, social, and community involvement, and the beauty and soul of place. When Smith moves to Morgantown, West Virginia to begin work at WVU, her son, Marcus, is already a young man away at college, and she feels imprisoned not only by the gray and rainy climate, but also by social alienation as she searches unsuccessfully for kindred women and African Americans with whom to build community. Despite finding comfort in her teaching routine, her music collection, and watching The Cosby Show, Smith also finds hostile neighbors, inconsistently mannered colleagues, and racist service people.
Smith’s arrival in Germany as a Fulbright scholar marks a welcome departure. There, she is immediately sought out for her company and her scholarship, receiving an overabundance of social and academic invitations from new friends and colleagues. Not even the daunting six-week language course taught entirely in German dampens the Eros that Tübingen’s beauty evokes in Smith. Her world is rounded out with a support system that includes Silvia, her German language coach; the “Greek flower ladies” in The Marketplace; her host professor, Bernd Engler; Tina Bach, an Afro-German who introduces Smith to Helen, a warm and vibrant African woman from Eritrea who masterfully braids Smith’s hair; numerous friends and colleagues from the United States whom Smith invites to the Universität as guest speakers; and Rosemarie Abendroth, with whom Smith has artistic and scholarly foci, and single parent experience in common, and whose Epilogue punctuates the book.
The students Smith encounters at the Universität are both invigorating and enervating for her. Their class participation—and lack thereof—prompts Smith to question most everything about the German belief system and her own. Her students’ unconsciousness about gender issues and racial biases meets Smith’s own heightened vigilance. Their firmly entrenched beliefs about these issues meet Smith’s unmooring alternative insights. The classroom discussions are always challenging, passionate, and usually unresolved. Equally challenging are Smith’s encounters with border patrol on her numerous travels outside Tübingen via train. “They were like the Klan hosing down citizens while their vicious German Shepherd dogs attacked in Montgomery and Birmingham,” Smith writes.
These are not the only wounds that haunt Smith in her memoir. As exhilarating as passages from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is Smith’s recounting her whirlwind romance with Michael Schand, a “tall and fine, smart and funny” German physicist and doctoral student at Universität Stuttgart who is ten years her junior. He ends their relationship abruptly after meeting and falling in love with someone else. Smith is devastated and once again confronted with more questions than answers about Michael, about love, and about herself. But this rejection is soon compensated by the acceptance of her manuscript for Whence Cometh My Help: The African American Community at Hollins College, by the University of Missouri Press. “I was thrilled,” Smith writes, continuing, “I had begun to think that I would never get the book published since it had been rejected so many times.” Her support system rises to the challenge, helping Smith work through her grief over her lost relationship, and her anxiety over preparing her manuscript for publication. “What a powerful moment of global grace,” she recalls.
Reflections of the Other is Smith’s I Wonder as I Wander, the second volume of Langston Hughes’s autobiography. Smith’s work vibrates with more rubedo, more life blood than Hughes’s however, in large part because of Smith’s consciousness. She is not afraid to ask questions that may be unanswerable. Smith is willing to stay in the womb and crucible of the unknown even while groping for answers to painful experiences. The tension of opposites—Black in Germany, Black in America—yield a certain transcendence that brings Smith’s writing to an ending that marks a new beginning.
In 2009, a little over a decade after Smith left Germany and returned home to the United States, her planned New York City reunion with Silvia and friends from Hamburg is marred by her experience of a racially motivated snub at the bed and breakfast at which they were to stay. The systematic racism she happily left behind for Germany in 1997 had not changed. Smith, however, had changed. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung has written that all journeys are actually inner journeys to the Self, the fully integrated soul in image of God within us. Smith’s journey away from her geographic home had led her to her true home. “I had to remind myself who I was by rediscovering that map to my soul,” Smith writes, concluding, “I knew the ancestors were cheering me on.”
Sharon D. Johnson, PhD, is a widely published journalist, screenwriter, and member of the Writers Guild of America, west, Inc. She has lectured nationally on film, television, and African American literature and culture through the lens of depth psychology, particularly Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. She has also appeared on numerous news and information programs on ABC, KCET, KCAL, and NPR, to name a few, discussing diversity issues. Dr. Johnson lives in Los Angeles, California.
Photo of Ms. Johnson by Vonda Roberts