We walked under the Olympic hoops as one big motley crowd. There was a girl dressed as a unicorn. A guy with an arm full of Disney tattoos. Africans, Americans, Eastern Europeans. Interracial couples, a girl in a wheelchair, a group of gay men sporting eyeliner more expertly applied than mine. Into a stadium redesigned for Hitler’s Olympic games. To watch the equivalent of black royalty (no offense, Meghan Markle) burn it to the ground.
I mean that figuratively, of course. The Olympiastadion, which survived the War and the subsequent Soviet takeover of the Nazi capital with barely more than scratches, isn’t going anywhere. It’s uses today include the host location of the Champions League final and Lollapalooza Berlin. But to fully appreciate what this building is, we have to look at its history.
When Berlin won the bid for the 1936 games, the Nazis saw it as the perfect propaganda opportunity. The Olympiastadion, as that year’s literal home of the Olympics, was meant to showcase the grandeur and ideals of the Third Reich and was featured heavily in Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film, Olympia.
Hitler saw the 1936 Games as a chance to promote his ideas of racial supremacy and antisemitism—even going so far as to try banning non-white, non-Christian athletes from participating. It was only when other countries threatened to boycott the Games that Hitler appeared to relent; note the keyword, “appeared”. German Jewish athletes weren’t allowed to participate, and many Jewish athletes from other countries were sidelined or encouraged against participating so as not to offend the host regime.
Enter Jesse Owens. Despite attempts from the NAACP, who urged him not to compete in an event hosted by a racist regime, Owens arrived in Berlin and, as history reminds us, owned the games. His performance, which earned four gold medals and made him the most decorated athlete of that year’s Olympiad, made a veritable fool of der Führer’s arguments about white superiority.
These were moments of black pride—and black power.
Knowing that history, it was almost impossible not to get chills when Jay-Z and Beyoncé strode on stage, swathed in sparkling gowns and suits and owning the stage as if they’d had it built themselves.
That Jay and Bey weren’t the first black artists to perform in the Olympiastadion didn’t really matter. Love them or hate them, there are few black celebrities with that much power in today’s world—and their presence in this particular dome, for me at least, carried weight. To watch Jay-Z rap, “I’m a field nigga with shined cutlery” while wearing a bulletproof vest onstage was to remember that, despite his wealth and stature and front row awards show attendance, he is a black man in a world that did (and still does) seek to shoot black men down at every opportunity. I’m a girl from Oakland, who grew up in a city of blackness—pride, power, violence, celebration, community. I’ve always felt a part of that community, even I don’t necessarily “belong” inside of it. I honestly don’t know how you could grow up in that city and not feel the struggle of the black community with a deep-seated compassion—a personal investment. So when I say that I cried at the Beyoncé show, it wasn’t the ecstatic tears of a fangirl gone wild. It was…I can’t quite describe it. A feeling of pride that somehow, we all, as a global society, had triumphed over the intentions of one particularly abominable regime. And some feeling of reassurance that if we did it once, we can do it again.
I’ve talked about the weight of history in Germany before, and no doubt I’ll do it again. It’s one of the few places in the world, I think, that wears that history so blatantly—which leads to moments of odd and powerful juxtaposition between the imagined world of a racist despot, and the ever-changing world of today. The International Women’s March ended at the Nazi bunker in Hamburg. Hitler’s bunker is now a Chinese food restaurant. And icons of blackness, feminism, and power are performing in the Nazi Olympic stadium. The times, they have a-changed, but there’s still a long way to go. And though I shudder a bit to look down at the box where Hitler once stood and saluted, I’m also glad it’s still here—to remind me of how far we’ve come.