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.

Difference is Key: Audre Lorde and Afro-Germans

By Amy Valencia

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
—Audre Lorde

It was the first day in Berlin, and I didn’t know what to expect. When I walked outside and listened to the sounds, I realized this is one of the few instances I have experienced not understanding what people are saying. In the United States, the two dominant languages are English and Spanish, both in which I am fluent. There are rare occasions where I have absolutely had no idea what someone is trying to communicate. When I looked around, I knew I wasn’t at home anymore, because at home, I am not in the minority. I come from a predominantly Latino community where I don’t feel othered. Here in Berlin, it is quite obvious that white people are the majority, and that people of color are few and far between. Still, I was ready to take it all in.

Audre Winterfeldmarkt j

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde began regularly visiting Berlin in 1984. She became an influential actor and mentor in the Afro-German movement. A form of resistance against Black Germans being defined by others, the term Afro-German serves as the community defining themselves (Oguntoye, xxii). Even in the early German women’s movement, racism was a form of oppression that was rarely discussed (Schultz, xxiv). This is why Audre Lorde’s relationship to various communities in Berlin is so important. In Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, producer and director Dagmar Schultz (one of Lorde’s closest friends in Berlin) recounts a portion of this influence. By watching The Berlin Years, we learn that Lorde encouraged Afro-Germans to learn from one another, to learn from African-Americans, and to seek out the history they didn’t know. For example, in the film, Lorde is shown giving a speech to a crowd of women, during which she asks the white women to leave and asks the Afro-Germans who remain to connect with one another. She asked them to begin to build a network, a community in which they can unite and give voice to the issues they face.

Lorde also emphasizes the importance of difference. In a lot of her writing, she argues that is vital that Black women acknowledge and learn from one another’s differences and recognize that there are some shared goals. One of the goals is to eliminate the fear that results from oppression. For example, she once said to many of her fellow activists, “I value myself more than I value my terrorist.” Hence, the new sense of collective identity Lorde inspired in Berlin, based in large part on this sentiment, made it possible for Afro-German women to organize and be active to change a society that had relegated them to the margins. Their actions, then, would debunk the “myth that there are no Black people in Germany, and if there are any, they have nothing of importance to say” (Eggers, 3). Subsequently, their collective voice became stronger.

Eggers

Aishah Shahidah Simmons (2015 Course Associate), Dr. Maisha Eggers, and Heidi

Along these lines, in “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging,” Dr. Maisha Eggers emphasizes that the beginning of the Afro-German women’s movement was focused on discussions about Blackness. Throughout these discussions, Lorde encouraged Afro-Germans to feel like a part of a community, a community whose narratives needed to be told. In this way, it is important to write your own narrative and not let someone else write it for you. In “Troubling Categories, I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” Ruth Linden discusses how the history we learn and/or write about is reflective of our own time, locations, and identities. For the Afro-German women whose history is still being written, it is important that their narrative isn’t lost due to others’ socialization to denigrate their experiences.

Throughout the rest of my stay in Berlin, I want to be conscious of the spaces and people we interact with and how their narratives have been and continue to be told. I want to always remember that we are in a privileged position to be outsiders within these communities and to be able to interact with marginalized communities in Berlin. Sitting by my window, I look out and think about narratives that are silenced and what has yet to be told.


ValenciaAmy Valencia is a senior at Colorado College from Waukegan, Illinois. She is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Feminist and Gender Studies. She focuses her studies on immigration policy and the effects of these policies on Latin American communities. Amy is excited to be studying abroad for the first time and ready to explore Berlin!

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Meeting with Dagmar Schultz and Ria Cheatom

By Kaimara Herron

Ria and Dagmar

Ria Cheatom and Dagmar Schultz

It is only the first week of our stay in Berlin, but it feels like an eternity since my plane took-off from O’Hare. But this is certainly not a complaint. We have had the opportunity to do such amazing things in only a few short days, and we have so much more to do.

This morning, we started the day in the classroom at Frauenkreise to talk with Dagmar Schultz and Ria Cheatom about their film Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984 to 1992, which documents their lives as activists and their work in the Afro-German feminist movement. Melissa began our discussion by asking about Audre Lorde’s experiences living with cancer while continuing to work in Berlin. More specifically, Melissa was interested in Lorde’s use of holistic treatments in Berlin instead of conventional methods to treat her cancer. Dagmar’s response was that Lorde never wanted to stop working because it was, and continues to be, a necessary movement. Dagmar believes Berlin had become Lorde’s replacement for New York City, as her work in Berlin became central in her life. Dagmar also discussed how such a major portion of Audre Lorde’s career is often forgotten or glossed over and how unfortunate it is that people like Lorde (similar to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.) are often simplified down to a “list of fancy quotes.” Thus, the actual scope of their work is never fully realized or appreciated. Similarly, Dagmar’s own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States between 1963 and 1973 was not fully acknowledged after her return to Germany or in the present day. I think this reduces their dignity as people while diminishing their legacies as movement leaders. It is very easy to do an internet search for a quick excerpt without being required to obtain any knowledge from the lessons being taught.

May Ayim

May Ayim, 1960-1996

As the conversation moved along, we started talking about the first few meetings between Afro-German women and Audre Lorde. Ria offered an anecdote about how she had trouble accepting some of the women who attended these meetings as “real” Afro-Germans because of their really light skin and strong European facial features. The topic of color and skin tone was first brought to my attention while reading a section of May Ayim’s Blues in Black and White: A Collection of Essays, Poetry, and Conversations. In “White Stress/Black Nerves,” she briefly mentions how the benefits of privilege become more complicated when examining the experiences of Black and immigrant women based on skin tone. In other readings, I’ve also seen the authors refer to their “dark skin” in contrast to the white Germans around them. My own personal experiences as a dark-skinned young woman initially made me flinch at an Afro-German person referring to their skin as dark. The flawed perception being that they would have lighter skin as biracial people. Growing up, I was made to believe that one of the worst things you could be was dark-skinned. I can recount multiple times when I felt lonely, hurt, and confused after someone used me as punchline because of the amount of melanin in my skin. It is hard to come to terms with being marginalized for something over which you have no control. Along these lines, Ria discussed her own “coming out” as Black, and I believe a major part of that is in realizing how much value society has or has not placed on your life because of your skin color. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized my own slight privilege, because I am able to search and find influential women who share not only my complexion but my history. During our discussion, we learned that this is something most Afro-Germans were not able to do, because they were being actively erased from mainstream consciousness. This was the moment the reality of the isolation imposed on Afro-Germans began to be cemented in my own consciousness.

Heidi, Ria, and Dagmar

Heidi, Ria, and Dagmar

On a brighter note, it was great to listen to Dagmar and Ria recount stories about their time with Audre Lorde. What surprised me the most was that they rarely encountered any resentment from inside the movement because Lorde is an African-American. Lorde’s work was to build coalitions around differences without being completely fixated on similarities. She was warmly embraced by people who desired and even needed connections with other Afro-Germans. Dagmar’s documentary also emphasizes Lorde’s desire to listen not to just talk. Yet, when other feminisms cross national boundaries, the goal is to liberate, but only with the visions of the integrating feminists in mind and not those needs or goals of the communities they are supposedly uplifting. According to Dagmar, Audre Lorde considered the Afro-German feminist movement as more than just a cause. She regarded it as a community  that was mutually beneficial to its members. Hence, they were able to create a space to self-identify and validate their own existences.The friendship these women shared and the respect that they had for one another is very encouraging in a society that dictates that relationships between women, in any form, are innately catty and jealous.

With these herstories swirling around in my head, I’m eager to hear more. And hopefully the warm weather will return soon.

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KaimaraKaimara is entering her third year at Colorado College, majoring in History with a minor in Feminist and Gender Studies. Kaimara is also a Middle Hitter on the CC women’s volleyball team.

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Meeting with Ika Hügel-Marshall

By Ximena Buller

Heidi, Ika, and Dagmar

Heidi, Ika, and Dagmar

Today I woke up very excited that we were going to meet Ika Hügel-Marshall, one remarkable and admirable woman and the author of the autobiography Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany, which the FemGeniuses are studying for our course. Born of an African-American soldier and a white German mother in 1947, Ika had to endure physical and psychological alienation because of being “different,”specifically because she is a non-white German. Ika faced prejudices and stereotypes from her childhood into her adult years. She is currently a teacher of gender studies and psychological counseling, focusing on intercultural teams and bi-national couples, and she has a degree in social pedagogics, publishing works that raise consciousness against racism.

For about two hours at Frauenkreise, we were given the honour of asking Ika questions that we had formulated together as a class the day before about her life, her book and Afro-German communities. During the session, Casey, another FemGeniuses, would ask the questions in English which were then translated to German by activist, author, and filmmaker Dagmar Schultz for Ika to answer. Ria Cheatom, Co-founder of ADEFRA and script Co-Author for Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984-1992, was also in the room. She and Dagmar also contributed to the discussion. At first, it felt unreal for me to be in front of Ika, the person I had read a life story about, which included the struggles she had to endure as well as her achievements. She had become an icon for me, a representation of strength and an example of how people can accept and come to ease with their identity even though they have been rejected and bullied by society because of it. Her bravery is very symbolic and inspirational, thus it meant a lot to me to be able to have this opportunity.

One of the responses by Ika that I will always be able to recall was about her relationship with her family in Chicago. She mentioned that she was very happy to find her father and her big family in the U.S., an event many Afro-Germans could only dream of. She mentioned how she could just be Ika in Chicago around her family without having to worry about stereotypes or being judged. She told us how she and her family would grill, dance and sing without any worries. At the beginning, she found this very impressive because those stereotypes that people spoke about in Germany, such as the idea that all Blacks like to sing and dance, her family in the U.S. was embracing without being solely defined by them. This reminds me of a passage in Invisible Woman when Ika writes, “In the eyes of my teachers, everything I do-especially the difficulties I have in school, but also my successes, achievements, and all that I’m proud of – is a function of the colour of my skin.” During our discussion, she also told us that visiting her family “strengthened her” as a Black person, “healed her,” and “allowed her to deal with racism” in a different and healthier way. She had finally came with ease with her identity, and she said that although she felt comfortable being Black, she also felt comfortable feeling German.

Class with Ika, Dagmar, and Ria

L to R: Beril, Kadesha, Casey, Ika, Ximena, Stefani, Blaise, Heidi, Dagmar, Nicole, Melissa, Ria, and Kaimara

This response relates to another question we asked regarding how her relationship with and responses to racism changed over the years. When answering this question, Ika mentioned that she had become more calmed and relaxed about the issue of racism and that “it is more important to face things than to take distance and try to ignore them.” She is now willing to accept other perspectives and contributions to conversations about racism, and she is able to respect these views, especially if they are coming from the minds of white people, whom she used to mistrust and avoid due to her anger.

When listening to Ika, one of the things that impressed me the most about her was the confidence with which she would answer all of our questions and her soft but energetic way of expressing herself. It was a great honour to meet her in person and be able to hear from her all those experiences that made her strong and make her an inspiration for other Afro-Germans. Although this blog is just a small taste of our talk, it is a demonstration of the kind of issues we discussed and the kind of role model she is. Thus, I encourage everybody reading this blog to look her up and learn more about her amazing life. For us, this was certainly an experience that we will cherish and that has inspired us to make a difference in the world as the strong-minded Femgeniuses we are!

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XimenaXimena an international student at Colorado College. She is from Peru, and will be a sophomore this coming year. She is currently undeclared, but debating between majoring in Anthropology or Sociology. She is very excited to be in Berlin taking a course with Heidi and through CC, because it has so far allowed for a unique learning experience.