Writing Ourselves into the Discourse: The Legacies of Audre Lorde and May Ayim

L to R: Ria Cheatom, Judy Gummich, Jasmin Eding, and Marion Kraft [Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis]

By Nikki Mills

On a rainy Friday afternoon, three remarkable women sat quietly, listening to the rainfall on the roof of the FHXB Museum. While moms outside shielded children from the downpour and businessmen and women sprinted for the metro, we gathered, a class of nine, young and eager, into the museum’s auditory. Marion Kraft, Jasmin Eding, and Judy Gummich spent the next two and a half hours recounting their memories and their work, including stories about Audre Lorde and May Ayim, two remarkable people who led the way for Black women in Germany.

Marion began. She recalled the first time she met the legendary Audre Lorde. She was asked to interview her. “I was so nervous,” Marion told us. “Very shaky.” She went on to describe the tape recorder she brought along, not conveniently sized back in 1985, and her questionable ability to work the machine. Marion conducted the interview and after an hour Audre asked, “Are we done? That was beautiful! Can we listen to it now?” Marion clicked the play button and nothing played back. She hadn’t recorded any of it! Mortified, Marion apologized, to which Audre responded, “Oh well, let’s do it all over again!” And they did. Marion shared this anecdote with us to describe Audre’s honesty and genuine compassion for her work as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Marion continued, “I believe every word public or private came from her heart.” Her encounter with Audre Lorde was life-changing and the beginning of a personal friendship.

Photo Credit: Nikki Mills

Marion, Jasmin, and Judy have each had their own unique hand in shaping Black communities Germany. Marion, a scholar and philosopher, has spent decades trying to right the racist wrongs of society. For example, her recent book, Kinder der Befreiung: Transatlantische Erfahrungen und Perspektiven Schwarzer Deutscher der Nachkriegsgeneration, is a direct response to the lack of Black literature in Germany, because she, along with many other Black Germans of her generation, grew up in “total isolation.” Judy Gummich, diversity trainer and life-coach, recalled how before any organized Black German groups existed, it was sometimes hard to look at another Black person. She noted that it was like looking in to a mirror that reflected back the oppression and racism so prevalent in Germany. They didn’t even have a name for themselves. “Afro-German” and “Black German” wasn’t a common way for them to describe themselves until ADEFRA, a Black women’s organization claimed the name in 1986. Before then, being “Black” and “German” were not what we would call “compatible” identities. Along these lines, in “…And I Let Myself Go Wherever I Want To,” Jasmin, co-founder of ADEFRA writes, “We chose to define ourselves, name ourselves. We called ourselves Black Germans, Afro-German or Afropeans, Blacks in Europe (instead of Europeans) or simply Black. We felt it time to challenge German society that being German doesn’t always mean being white and that we also had a long Black history in Germany/Europe.” This statement lays the groundwork for the importance of the Black community to define itself rather than be defined by anyone else.

Before helping to found ADEFRA, Jasmin found influence in Audre Lorde’s work—more specifically, the back cover of one of her books. On the back was an advertisement for another book, Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), co-edited by May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz. It piqued the interest of a young Jasmin and soon enough she had the book in her hands. During our discussion, she said, “It was like looking into a mirror.” Everything she was reading in this book about the experiences of other Afro-German women paralleled her own. So, she wrote a letter to Katharina Oguntoye, and eventually heard back. The two women got together and started talking. Those conversations sparked the thought process behind ADEFRA. It was a “mission,” Jasmin explained. In the 1980s, with no Facebook or Whats App, these women had to resort to person-to-person interaction to build their collective community. Handing out fliers on the street and through word-of-mouth, ADEFRA grew bigger and bigger. Jasmin noted it was like a “Black coming out.” They were no longer in “total isolation,” as Marion had described earlier. It was no easy process but slowly a connection on a national level was built among Black German communities. These women, including Ria Cheatom—who made a surprise visit to our discussion, spent hours driving all around Germany, even venturing into former German Democratic Republic (GDR) to find the Black community in East Berlin.

L to R from Top: Nikki Mills, Dagmar Schultz, Ika Hügel-Marshall, Marion’s Partner Oury, Dana Asbury, and Nora Holmes [Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis]

They recalled their first office, a kitchen table, and laughed about the hours spent hand writing fliers because at that time print copies were expensive. A fascinating part of our conversation about ADEFRA’s beginnings were the challenges they faced venturing into East Berlin. There they found a common sentiment that there was “no racism,” an official position of the GDR. This inability to accept the racist discrimination made it incredibly difficult to have honest conversations about life for Black Germans. But as Marion recalled, after the fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent plummet of the GDR economy, many minorities were blamed. The classic story of using a minority group as a scapegoat for the ruin of the economy. The racial violence toward Black and refugee communities in the former GDR spoke to the necessity of groups like ADEFRA. Marion, Judy, and Jasmin all attested to the fact that there are still “no-go” areas for minority groups within Berlin. The voice ADEFRA and other Black German organizations, such as the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD), gives to Black German communities is essential in their fight for equity.

With the help of members of ADEFRA like Jasmin and many other voices within Black German communities, Marion created Kinder der Befreiung to “write [Black Germans] into the discourse in [their] own voice, in [their] own language, that’s not imposed upon [them].” The book is composed of “life stories,” histories of the children of the liberation. For example, in an interview with the Jewish Museum of Berlin, Marion explains, “The title Children of the Liberation refers to the liberation of Germany from fascism” and “stands in contrast to the term ‘occupation’ and at the same time refers to liberation from the discriminating labels that prevailed for a long time to describe the children of Allied soldiers and German women, in particular the Black children.” The language used by ADEFRA and Marion is crucial to the liberation of Black Germans from colonial imposition and naming of certain minority groups. As she writes in “Coming in from the Cold: The Black German Experience Past and Present,” “The self-definition of Black Germans began in the 1980s, and the visions and actions of the generations born after World War II have had a profound influence on the development of a Black German cultural and political consciousness.” Our panelists and guests, which also included—to our surprise—Ika Hügel-Marshall and Dagmar Schultz, nodded in agreement that today’s young Black Germans admirably have a certain kind of self-confidence about their identity and belonging. We concluded that this confidence developed, in part, because of our guests’ generation, the children of the post-war era, a generation of elders that allowed this confidence to come to fruition.

Photo Credit: Nikki Mills

Marion also argues that Kinder der Befreiung is a vital way of combatting the notion that racism is in the past. For example, the forward opens with Anton Wilhelm Amo, an influential Black German philosopher from Ghana who was also a contemporary of Immanuel Kant’s. At the same time that Amo was teaching and writing in Germany, Kant claimed that no African has ever made anything of a contribution to society. Marion used this anecdote to highlight the racism that has saturated society. But that was the 18th century right? Marion then juxtaposes this problem with a more contemporary philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Arendt wrote in the 1950s that the social structures of the Black community were something akin to that of animals. Even more contemporary, a current street sign in Berlin proudly sports an extremely racist slur about Black people despite their resistance.

This, of course, can best be understood through an intersectional lens that carefully considers multiple forms of oppression. Along these lines, Judy has found herself immersed in the particular discourse on inclusion and what that means in terms of human rights. It’s a discourse about how to live together and allow all people the fundamental right to live. It’s also about moving away from words like “integration” and “assimilation” so often the terminology used to describe “progress.” Whether it’s a salad bowl, mosaic, or a majestic multi-colored coat, the discourse remains the same. “Integration” is not the goal. In Germany, this word often targets “people with a migration background” and problematizes them rather than the barriers they face. It is also important, as Judy asserted, to include all Black Germans, to pull everyone out of the “total isolation” Marion described and give them a voice in the conversation on Black German identity.

L to R: Ria Cheatom, Judy Gummich, Jasmin Eding, Marion Kraft, and Nikki Mills [Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis]

The work that these women are and have been doing to give the next generation of Black Germans a clear identity, a cohesive history, a voice in a country that pretends they don’t exist, is remarkable. As I walked out of the museum into the evening drizzle I couldn’t help wonder, did I just meet this generation’s Audre Lorde and May Ayim?


Nikki Mills hails from the swampy Washington, D.C. area, and treasures the moments she gets to spend in sunny Colorado. She’s an Anthropology major and Political Science minor, but in an effort to leave her comfort zone and still explore issues close to her heart, she’s chosen to take her first official Feminist & Gender Studies course this summer. On campus, Nikki can be found hanging from ropes in the climbing gym and attending Shabbat dinners at the Interfaith House. Throughout school and beyond, she hopes to continue working hard for the disregarded in our society and find creative ways of moving past this particularly vile moment in U.S. history.

 

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