by Eliza Strong
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
On June 8, the #FemGeniusesinBerlin sat in our classroom at xart splitta for only the second time, awaiting the arrival of Jasmin Eding. We had read Jasmin’s work in anticipation of meeting her and started to understand the gravity of her experience and her work as an Afro-German. After speaking with her, I was left even more in awe than I expected. Jasmin is likely most well-known as one of the co-founders of Adefra, an organization founded by Black German women in 1986 with the purpose of creating a space for them to acknowledge their identities and define themselves while living in a largely white German society. While creating this space for solidarity alone is an impressive and important act, in the context of dominant German culture, it becomes clear just how groundbreaking Jasmin’s work has been. I appreciated how clearly Jasmin emphasized that she could only speak to her own experience and did not want to dictate the experiences of anyone else. Keeping this in mind, her experience does provide an excellent testimony to the ways dominant German culture has affected Black women and Black people’s identities and positionalities.
We began our session hearing about Jasmin’s childhood. Jasmin was born to a white German mother and a Black American father who was serving in the military. After her parent’s divorce, she was raised in Bavaria by her single mother alongside her twin sister. Bavaria, which is located in the south of Germany, was both rural and homogenous, and Jasmin stated that for a long time, she didn’t know what it was that made her feel different in her community. She only realized later that it was the color of her skin that made her feel outcast. It was a white teacher who better understood racism in Germany (largely because of her Black partner) who gave Jasmin the initial language to describe her feelings of isolation when she was in her early teens. When she noticed how quiet and unhappy Jasmin and her sister consistently were at school, she gifted Jasmin Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. As she recounted this experience, Jasmin said, “That was the first time I realized, wow, that’s about us…and I’m not alone.” This initial inkling of the possibility of community around her Black identity, and the message in the book that encouraged resisting oppression, propelled Jasmin to write a line from the book on the blackboard in her classroom. The message was ignored, but Jasmin described herself as still determined to build a community where she was supported and celebrated.
Jasmin went on to describe an experience that happened years later when she was visiting a friend in Berlin. She noticed Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (translated in English to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), the first book by Black Germans, a collection of many stories and essays. Jasmin described the book as a “mirror” of her experiences. The specificity of the experiences of Black German women struck her, and Jasmin and wrote a letter to the publisher requesting to be put in touch with Katharina Oguntoye, one of the editors. Katharina then invited Jasmin to a Black women’s meeting in The Netherlands, and for the first time, Jasmin sat in the community she had been continuously searching for. With this community supporting her, Jasmin recruited many women to come to an initial meeting at a women’s center where Audre Lorde was scheduled to do a reading. She described this meeting and those soon after it as the beginnings of Adefra. As Jasmin continued speaking about the process of creating Adefra and organizing during a time without internet, other students and I were struck not only by how hard she worked to create community, but also by how measured and thoughtful she had been throughout her activism, even while navigating the intricacies of Black identity in Germany from so many perspectives, when in her earliest years she didn’t even have the language to identify herself.
While we have not yet spoken extensively about transnational feminism, after our meeting with Jasmin, we discussed its meaning at a beginner’s level. We defined it loosely, and in part, as the ability to recognize there are different definitions of what liberation means based on positionalities. It seems to me that many budding activists of our generation feel as isolated as Jasmin did, at least to some extent, because of our identities and the ways we navigate the world. But because connection with each other is simpler with the internet and social media, , for the most part, people can afford to disregard a transnational perspective and outcast those who may react to or organize around their experiences differently.
Photo Credit: Eliza Strong
My peers I’ve talked to since the session and I valued Jasmin’s wisdom and transnational perspective. For example, her thoughtfulness was exemplified by her answer to a question about the complexity of West Germans connecting with East Germans within Adefra after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While she noted there were some tensions between them (as some West Berliners tended to consider East Berliners as “behind the times”) and she did say Black German activists experienced other conflicts after the Wall came down, she provided complex and measured perspectives. She told us about the different ways East and West Germans experienced racism, making it clear that Black Germans were not entirely free by their own understandings on either “side.” While some Eastern Germans made claims of racism not existing there, she described African students experiencing discrimination there and sometimes even being deported after the fall of the Wall. She also noted the rise of racism in East Berlin during this time.
Jasmin has taken into account the specific experiences of Black people and exemplified respect and a consistent willingness to work with those who approached their barriers to liberation differently. In her words, “We are Black, but still, we are different.” Despite her lack of access to language to define herself as a young person and the hard work she has put into understanding her identities, Jasmin acknowledged she is interpreted differently by people with different identities and experiences. While she is confident in both her Blackness and her Germanness, she described without judgement that some Africans do not see her as a Black woman because of their specific experiences with and knowledge of Blackness. As I move forward in my studies and in my personal life, I will consider her patient, considerate, and inclusive approach to activism, and hope to move away from the frantic need to determine one correct answer.
It seems Jasmin’s relationship to joy aids in this calm approach to change and creating solidarity. One student asked her about how she copes with burnout as a long-time activist, and she lit up discussing the pleasure she takes in dancing and spending time with friends. For people of color, especially, she noted, enjoying themselves is a powerful act. While I didn’t get the chance to ask specifically about how she incorporates this joy into her work with Adefra, she did mention how community-based this pleasure can be and told us about providing massages for her friends and singing with them. Not only does joy create solidarity across differences, I also understand it as combating the franticness of activist culture because it values rest. This concept is also addressed in Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which, along with adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, has been integral for me in framing relationships to joy and pleasure, and I was excited to hear Jasmin touch on these topics. I wonder whether Jasmin and Audre Lorde might have talked about this concept when they worked together in Germany and whether the erotic as a source of power has been a consistent philosophy in Adefra or whether prioritizing pleasure in activism has been a more recent journey for Jasmin.
Our visit was a wonderful chance to reframe our attitudes toward activism and identity, and I felt incredibly grateful to learn from such a grounded and smart person who was so integral in establishing the tradition of Afro-German thinkers and community members in Germany and specifically in Berlin. I am honored to learn from this tradition through this course and to have been in her presence. Our meeting with Jasmin Eding will continue to guide me.
Eliza Strong (she|her) is a rising junior at Colorado College (CC) from southern Oregon. She is pursuing an Independently Designed Major, Critical Art Studies, which entails studying art and its role in defining the self and communities through a transnational feminist lens. Outside of school, Eliza plays in a roller derby league, makes art, and works with the Student Organization for Sexual Safety at CC. She is grateful to be in Berlin, learning from many knowledgeable people who have worked tirelessly to create counternarratives.