Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years

By Cheanna Gavin

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
—Audre Lorde

Snapchat-1321204095298185718As our third full day in Berlin comes to an end, I can’t help but reflect not only on all of the amazing opportunities we have already experienced, but also all of the amazing people we have been able to meet. Today alone, we were able to meet four women who worked closely with Audre Lorde and see first-hand how she influenced them, as well as the influence they have had on their own communities. The day started off at the Joliba Intercultural Network, where we met with Katharina Oguntoye, the organization’s Founder and Director. I had a small background on the work Katharina had done in the ’80s from reading Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, which was co-edited by her, Dagmar Schultz and May (Opitz) Ayim. Today, I got to see the work she continues to do now, and the changes she has been a part of for the past 30 years. After an exciting morning with Oguntoye, we were able to meet with Ika Hügel-Marshall, Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück, and Dagmar Schultz at Each One Teach One (EOTO), which felt like the perfect place. EOTO was created for the Black community, and its name means each Black person should teach another Black person their history/culture in order to form connections and build community. As the only Black student on this trip, this was a very special space for me.

Earlier this week, we watched Schultz’s film Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, and got a glimpse into Lorde’s time in Berlin, as well as her relationships with Schultz, Marshall, Oguntoye, Ayim, and other important people in the Black Women’s movement. As we learned in the movie, Lorde began visiting Berlin in 1984 as a guest professor. Schultz met Lorde in 1980 at the UN’s World Conference on Women in Copenhagen. Around 1984, the women’ss movement was just beginning in Germany, and Schultz believed Lorde would be a driving force. While teaching, Lorde met the Black Germans that came to her classes and encouraged them to write. Eventually, this led to the publication of Showing Our Colors. At this time, the term “Afro-German” was created, which exemplifies the influence of Black women activists. Along these liness, in “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” Maisha Eggers writes,

The naming project set out to embrace and acknowledge the position of subjects of African ancestry/heritage and German linage/situatedness/identity. At the same time, it symbolized a conscious endeavor to discard derogatory (German) terms connoting Blackness. Political self-definition as Afro-Germans, later Black Germans, initiated a new sense of collective identity and self-appreciation (3).

Not all of the activists involved in this movement were Black-Germans, though. Schultz spoke about how she interpreted her role in the movement as a white German woman, which often is not discussed. Regarding their participation in a movement for Black German women, Schultz arguess that White German women must critically analyze their role and intentions. In order to check her privilege and remain critical, Schultz said she would ask herself, “What am I missing out on by not including women of color?” instead of only asking, “How can I help them?”

IMG_0231 (2)While living in the U.S. from 1963-1973, Schultz learned from the activists she worked with and adopted the strategy of not primarily basing her participation on whether or not she would lose her job, something she had been threatened with many times. While in the U.S., Schultz lost multiple jobs for this reason, including a publishing job from which she was let go for publishing something questionable about the church and refusing to allow her boss to review all of her work after that article was published. By taking this and similar approaches, white Germans may find a way to escape the immobilizing white guilt Lorde discusses in the foreword to Showing Our Colors (xiii) and actively dismantle racism, sexism, xenophobia, heterosexuality, antisemitism, and other forms of oppression. As Schultz has aged and become less active in particular ways, her strategies have changed. Now, she works on telling her story of Audre Lorde in Berlin and teaches German to refugees.

We also got to speak with author Ika Hügel-Marshall, who was also a major factor in the formation of the Black women’s movement in Germany. Marshall is the author of Invisible Woman: Growing up Black in Germany (1997), which is the first autobiography written by a Black woman in Germany. In “Troubling Categories, I can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” Ruth Linden argues that the histories we learn are a reflection of our own identities. In this case, Marshall is making history, and it is important this narrative is shared. Marshall spoke a lot about the tremendous impact of her relationship with Audre Lorde, so much that she was with Lorde the day she passed away, along with Schultz and Ayim. [Note: Early on, Marshall mentioned her English was not as good, so she didn’t speak as much. For that reason, we did not get to know her as well, but we were still learn a great deal about her life and her journey as a Black German woman.]

Last, we spoke with Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück, who is from an el barrio in New York City and has lived in Berlin for 30 years. It was important for her to provide us with a transnational and intergenerational perspective. She spoke about her early connections in Germany (through the work of Audre Lorde and ADEFFRA) with Ria Cheatom, Judy Gummich, and Jasmin Eding, and still considers them her sisters today. She was also mentored by Gloria Wekker through a women’s/gender studies summer school. Here, she was able to connect with Black German women and women from throughout the Black Diaspora here in Germany. I see this as a continuation of the successful work that the Black women’s movement started in connecting the Black community.

Snapchat-1083077621951262231Dück also spoke about mental health and self-care. I was really able to relate to what she was saying, because many students of color back at Colorado College have been working to create spaces for people of color and to stress the importance of self-care. Dück discussed the toll that activism takes on the minds, bodies, and spirits of women of color and how spaces for women of color are crucial in mitigating this damage. As Eggers points out, “With the emergence of Black women activists, first individually and then collectively, belonging became a particular interest that required addressing” (3). Self-care is particularly important for women of color because of the battle fatigue they are constantly experiencing due to racism, sexism, heterosexism, and various other forms of oppression. By creating and nurturing these spaces, we allow for self-care, more opportunities for “Each One, Teach One” to occur, and more connections to be made.

Being in a room with these women was really grounding for me. Seeing them in films, reading about them, and reading their work made me a bit star-struck. But as Schultz’s movie intended to “humanize” Lorde, this opportunity “humanized” each of them to me. As our session was coming to an end, we were all sitting and looking at pictures and watching videos of Marshall and Oguntoye with Lorde from the accompanying website for Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, laughing and eating strawberries. Never would I have imagined I would get this opportunity, and I am beyond grateful to have been able to meet such influential women. I look forward to all the other amazing opportunities to come while I am here with my fellow #FemGeniusesInBerlin.


GavinCheanna Gavin is a rising Junior at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies and potentially minoring in Human Biology and Kinesiology. She is on the Pre-Health track and planning to attend Physical Therapy School. Cheanna loves playing sports and is ecstatic to be a FemGenius in Berlin, as she can’t wait to explore and learn about different German cultures.

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