Urban Up Close: My History Matters, Even in Copenhagen

In All, The Story by Teju Adisa-Farrar

It is exceptionally odd to be sitting in a conference in Copenhagen, a conference-mind you-that is completely unrelated to my Masters, and hear things that remind me why I am who I am. Last week, I attended the Denmark and African-American Culture Symposium at the University of Copenhagen. I study at the University of Copenhagen, though my department has nothing do with African-Americans, or American Studies at all for that matter. I found myself at this conference because two black women I met my first week in Copenhagen were participating as a panelist and a keynote speaker and told me I should come. Little did I know that I’d be confronted with histories so integral to who I am in a space that is technically very far from what I study.

There are two particular moments during this conference that struck me, although other parts of this conference made me reflect on parts of my identity,  such as the discussion of  the U.S. Virgin Islands and their colonial history and the current reality of being an American territory. I also met and spoke with Maxine Gordon, the widow of Dexter Gordon, who knows my god mother–a well known photographer who has taken many photos of black artists, musicians, and activists: Kathy Sloane. Still, the moments I will relay have to do with two people from my history who have passed and who only exist to me because of my mother and father. One of these people is Barbara Christian, and the other is Reed Peggram.

When Heidi Durrow, authoress of The Girl Who Fell from The Sky, was doing Q&A at the end of her opening keynote talk, a woman from the audience mentioned Barbara Christian as a black woman in America who has been integral in the literary world and instrumental in supporting black women writers. I was already surprised to hear Barbara Christian’s name over 4,000 miles from where I’d known her, but moreover, Durrow  responded that Barbara Christian was her mentor while at Stanford, and that she specially sought her out because of the nature of her writing. This book written by Heidi Durrow was a bestseller by the way.

12809549_10154631823819689_6495734400958913905_nBefore I was born, my mother and father–both at UC Berkeley during that time, were married in Barbara Christian’s backyard. My father finished his PhD in Anthropology the year before, and a couple years later in 1991 my mother would complete her PhD in Ethnic Studies and Creative Writing with three children as another defining feature of her legacy. Barbara Christian was the godmother of my older sister and I have only a few, yet fond memories of this slender bald woman always with a big smile and cigarette in her hand. Barbara died when I was a little girl and although I do not have many memories from the funeral, my father tells me I was walking around talking to everyone–clearly an indication of how at home I felt with the family and colleagues of such a great woman.

The next day I returned to the conference buzzing from the reach Barbara had and the invocation of her presence so far from “home” the day before. Ironically, my next moment of personal history came at the closing keynote given by Ethelene Whitmire who is a current Fulbright Scholar, a professor at the University of Copenhagen for the semester and is currently writing a book on African-Americans in Denmark in the 20th century. This talk was excellent, her methodology was diverse including using archival information, ethnographic observations, and literature. She was going through the chapters of her book in which she focuses on a few key African-Americans who were living or visiting in Denmark during the 20th century, which includes scholars like Booker T. Washington as well as Ben Webster who is one of many African-American musicians who lived in Copenhagen. She then turns to a slide with a photo of a man who looks so familiar to me I could cry. This man is Reed Edwin Peggram from Boston, Massachusetts.

Whitmire tells us Reed received a Masters from Harvard before going to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. She tells us he had been traveling with a Danish man who was suspected to be his lover. When World War II broke out they were caught and put in an internment camp for some time until they escaped. Although Reed did not want to go back to the United States or leave his suspected lover he was forced to. She does not have much information about Reed as the archival evidence was lacking. Reed was indeed gay and the Danish man was his lover. He was one of the first African-American men to receive a Masters from Harvard before going across the pond to the Sorbonne. His story is remarkable and what’s more, he is my great uncle. Reed Peggram was the half brother of my paternal grandfather and very very dear to my father and our entire family.

To be sitting in Copenhagen hearing the phenomenal unwritten story of my great uncle told by someone who does not know him or me is a feeling I have not found the words to describe. I’m still wondering how I even ended up in Copenhagen, so to see my family history continue to unfold in a place so far from any of my known ancestry is amazing. I am listening to this keynote, completely undone–and at the same time realizing how important Uncle Reed is to the history of Blacks abroad. I myself am black and abroad and some people believe that we become our ancestors. There’s much more that needs to be said about Uncle Reed, but I will leave it for another time.

Although Uncle Reed died long before I was born, he exists in stories from my father and grandfather. I never met him, but I’m reminded of his presence as my sister and I live out our lives and own paths in Europe. I have only a few photos in my mind of my time with Barbara Christian, but she was a dear family friend and a vital part of my extended family and community in the San Francisco Bay Area growing up. I consider both Uncle Reed and Barbara Christian my ancestors and I am overjoyed and overwhelmed to have them both invoked in Copenhagen, Denmark of all places. It is pure coincidence that I am studying, for a few months, in Copenhagen at the same time this conference about African-American Culture and Denmark took place featuring  these particular speakers and talks. Though, some people believe we are always in the right place at the right time, no matter how many landmasses and oceans we must cross. I choose to believe this as well,especially after this happening.

These moments remind me of why I am who I am. These moments make me acutely aware of how important the union of my parents was and how I am a product of so much history and deep community. These moments show me that I was correct in believing home is fluid and not fixed. These moments bring me closer to myself and the experience of blackness and resilience around the world. I study urbanism, and urbanists understand the city as being a site of layers of history: both hidden and visible. These histories are not only in the architecture, they are in the lives of the people who walked the streets before us and their stories that brought them to this place. If we are to understand multiculturalism and blackness in the urban, we must realize and acknowledge the histories of the ones who were here before us. Because they were here, we just may not know their stories. And even though Barbara Christian never lived in Copenhagen, her presence became apart of the contemporary social urban landscape as her legacy was brought into this conference at University of Copenhagen nearly two decades after her death. I must say that so far this urban encounter has been the most urban up close because I was presented with myself and realized even my history is important in Copenhagen.