In the early 1950s, Ika Hugel-Marshall lived in a small town in Bavaria with her mother, stepfather, and younger stepsister. Her family was white, and she assumed she was too, just as they all spoke German and lived in the same house. All the townspeople were white--the postman, the children she played with, the neighbors who invited her in for juice, the baker who sold her hot rolls--as was her beloved grandmother, her mother's mother, who lived nearby. Ika--Erika--didn't know that, as one of 92,000 "occupation babies" (children of locals and occupation forces), she'd been pronounced a national problem by the newsmagazine Das Parlament. Worse, she was of mixed race, and thus deemed "morally corrupt and of bad character."
In 1946 her mother had had an affair with Eddie Marshall, an African-American air force corporal who'd grown up in Louisiana and Mississippi. Hugel-Marshall doesn't know many details of their meeting, or how they spoke to one another. She does know that shortly after her mother told Marshall she was pregnant, he was hospitalized (for hives) and later discharged. He returned to Chicago and his wife, Corene, to whom he never mentioned that he might have a child growing up in another part of the world.
Hugel-Marshall often longed for her father. "Sometimes I thought I spotted him, but in fact I was only looking into the white faces of strangers, men who didn't even deign to look my way," she writes in her memoir, Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany, which was translated and published in the U.S. last year.
At age seven she was sent away to a children's home near Cologne at the behest of a local official. He told her mother that Ika would be better off away from the prejudice of small-town people. And besides, he said, this way there would be no chance of her "endangering the development" of her stepsister.
Hugel-Marshall says the nuns at the home often beat her. They subjected her to an exorcism because of her mother's sin. The other children shunned and taunted her. When she did well in her classes, the teachers either ignored her or accused her of cheating. She began to hate the color of her skin.
That feeling stayed with her for over 30 years. Then when she was 39, she attended one of Germany's first gatherings of Afro-Germans, and soon met American writer and activist Audre Lorde. By then she had earned a degree in social work, married and divorced a white man (keeping his last name, Hugel), joined the women's movement and marched for choice, cofounded a women's shelter in Frankfurt, and begun training in tae kwon do. She now lives in Berlin with her partner, a white German woman named Dagmar Schultz, with whom she also works at Orlanda Women's Press.
In 1992 she and Schultz lectured at Amherst College on the rise of race-related violence in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There she met Sara Lennox, a professor of German at the University of Massachusetts, who offered to help find her father. After locating a Chicago phone book, Lennox reached him in the yellow house on West 57th Street where his five other children had grown up. Corene remembers him returning to the bedroom smiling, she recalls. He told her he had a 46-year-old daughter in Berlin. But he didn't apologize for the affair. "That's what I wanted him to do," says Corene, who'd been married to Eddie for 53 years by then. "I didn't talk to him for three weeks."
Hugel-Marshall wrote to her father in careful English and sent photos. She made plans to visit Chicago, and she asked if she could bring a friend. "I didn't mind it," says Corene, "as long as she didn't bring her mother."
In August 1993 the women arrived. "I sit here in the lap of my black family, and am made to feel at home as I never have before," Hugel-Marshall writes. "Every one of my siblings notices some particular resemblance between my father and me."
"If we would imagine the reverse situation," says Schultz, "a black child coming from here to meet a white family in Germany, it would be hard to imagine them being that openhearted and generous."
Eddie Marshall died the next year, but Hugel-Marshall has stayed in touch with the family, and five years ago her half sister Deloris Marshall Mitchell visited her in Germany. Hugel-Marshall now has a U.S. passport and hopes to retire here. She says in Berlin she feels discrimination every day. The German census doesn't ask residents for their race, and Hugel-Marshall declines to estimate the number of Afro-Germans, but others have put the number at half a million.
On Saturday, March 2, Hugel-Marshall will read from Invisible Woman at 11 AM at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place (773-947-0600). It's free with museum admission: $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and students, $1 for children. She'll also give a free reading at 2 PM the same day at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State (312-747-4300).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.