A Conversation with Judy Lynne Fisher

by Riley Hester

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Since the beginning of this course, Course Associate and former student of Dr. Heidi R. Lewis, Judy Lynne Fisher, has comforted me as a student new to Feminist and Gender Studies. As we spoke during our first class session on Black and transnational feminisms, I sat quietly in my seat, quickly realizing how naïve I was in my previous thinking about feminist movements and how I had neglected the idea and possibility of counternarratives. I was embarrassed at my ignorance, especially given my positionality as a white woman; yet, I felt compelled to voice my feelings of unfamiliarity to the class.

When I spoke, Fisher looked at me with empathy and understanding, listening closely and nodding her head. My anxieties lessened as I realized the classroom was a safe place for discussions such as this. Since that first encounter, I’ve been lucky enough to hear vulnerable stories from Fisher related to her experience as an Indigenous woman in academia and of her impressive motivation despite it all. I have appreciated her empathy and passion for Indigenous people and other minorities. I was not surprised to find these qualities evident in her presentation on Transnational Indigenous Feminism and her research on the topic of the relationships between Indigenous people and Germany.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

She began her talk by clarifying terminology. Again, as someone with little knowledge of Indigenous communities, I sat next to her relieved to be getting a clearer understanding. Her explanations of certain terms ensured that everyone could refer to herself and her people properly. However, she clarified that since these terms have been thrown around by Non-Native people for so long and since Indigenous people don’t all have the same ideals, there will always be debates over “proper” usage. When it comes to her, Fisher is a citizen of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma. Though, she uses the term “Indian” in her research more specifically to refer to the stereotypical homogenous images people use to describe and understand Indigenous people. When referring to actual people in the community, “Indigenous” and “Native” are often used interchangeably. Through this preliminary discussion, I was reminded of the importance and power of language and specificity, something I have also come to be extra mindful of in Dr. Lewis’ course.

Before coming to class and hearing Fisher’s talk, I wondered how she could be inspired to do such meaningful work after coming to Berlin. Like many of the other speakers who visited our class, Fisher seemed to have had a moment of revelation at a somewhat random moment on her trip with Dr. Lewis in 2017. During a graffiti and street art walking tour, she noticed a bronze statue of an Indigenous man in a headdress wearing an “I Y NYC” t-shirt. She wondered what it was and how it had gotten there. Even more, she questioned what Native people were doing in Germany in the first place. When the tour guide and Dr. Lewis could not provide any information on the statue, Fisher decided to nurture her curiosity and start her own research.

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

Upon speaking with her family, she learned from her father that she had Indigenous family members enlisted in the U.S. military who had been stationed in Germany at some point. In fact, I learned from Fisher that Native Americans have the highest enlistment rate in the U.S. military. Growing up an “Army Brat” myself, I wondered why I had never noticed this majority. I also thought of my father who was stationed in Germany at the time I was born, and how I know little information about his time serving in Germany. Though I am proud of my father and everything he has sacrificed, I do feel that my upbringing may have censored me from realizing the unfortunate erasure and manipulation of various people and cultures at the hands of the U.S. military.

When Fisher introduced the term “Playing Indian” to the class, I was already wary of what I was about to hear and see. Like the term implies, and to my understanding, “Playing Indian” is the act of Non-Indigenous people taking and appropriating Indigenous culture and practices. With the help of Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra, Director and Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College (CC), Fisher was pointed toward various articles and the Karl May Festival in Germany, which prompted her to further explore “Playing Indian” and hobbyism in Germany, both of which ended up being a great part of her undergraduate work. She informed us that Karl May was a German explorer and author who wrote about the Wild West and Indigenous tribes, including several adventure trilogies.

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

In 2019, Fisher received a grant from CC to come back to Berlin to study Indigenous Feminism in Germany, which included attending the Karl May Festival. Prior to attending the festival, Fisher explained she was surprised to see that actual Native groups would be coming to perform at the festival on its website. This meant Native people would be educating predominantly white visitors on their communities and cultures. The festival included banners supporting the freedom Leonard Peltier, who has been imprisoned since 1977. In addition, visitors were encouraged to sign postcards that would be sent to President Donald Trump in support of Peltier’s freedom. Activism such as this encouraged Fisher, who says there is hardly anything of the sort being done at similar festivals in the U.S. However, Native appropriation was still very present at the festival. Non-Indigenous adults and children scattered the fair wearing Native headdresses, jewelry, and other clothing.

Fisher had a similar experience attending the El Dorado-Templin Wild West Theme Park in Germany. Although there are opportunities for Native participants to provide education for the predominantly white European audience, the theme park still features disturbing visuals and experiences inside the park. This includes displays of Native scalps, hypersexualized Native CD cases, and soap with offensive caricatures of Black people on the packaging. These displays and these kinds of environment contribute to the erasure of Indigenous people, something Fisher continues to study as a apart of her doctoral studies.

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

What I also found particularly fascinating was a conversation we had about “authenticity” and how one may create an “authentic” place where a community, in this case Indigenous people, can be represented and communicated with. It is something I have spoken about in other classes in terms of modernity and what some historians have called the “Teleological Timeline.” From my previous understanding, western ideas and portrayals of minority groups, such as Indigenous people, create a set image of what a community looks like and how people in those communities should be acting. This image is usually adapted and manipulated to fit western ideas and biases in order to place these communities “behind” in terms of advancement and development. This stagnates and isolates a group of people. Therefore, no representation could be truly “authentic,” depending on one’s definition. I could not help but be reminded of this as Fisher expressed the lack of space the full humanity of Indigenous people is given due to the historicized western ideals.

Fisher used herself as an example of this, sharing that she does beading that sometimes does not fit the “typical” idea of what Indigenous beading should be. She explained that sometimes she beads memes or other silly requests from friends and family. She even beaded the book cover of In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table Talk for Dr. Lewis. As impressive and talented as her beading work is, it is sometimes seen as shocking or surprising by those who are expecting “traditional” Indigenous beading. This is most certainly due to the historicization of Indigenous people practices. When people have a set image of what something or someone should look like or act like in their heads, it is difficult to accept anything outside of this idea as “authentic.”

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

I think, if nothing else, Fisher wanted us to take away an understanding of and shared frustration with the lifeless image that has been placed on her people throughout history and into modern day. People are ignorant to the existence of Native people in many countries today because of such immense historicization. Indigenous communities are set in place and tied to specific land, making them seem set in particular times and places. This has greatly impacted expectations about Indigenous people. Many people do not expect to see Native people in street clothes or in the city or on the train or in the workplace or in academia. Many people only expect to see Native people wearing headdresses and making dream-catchers and in Western films and in museums and in children’s books. This makes it ever so difficult for Indigenous people to remain connected to their heritage while still living and expressing themselves today. My admiration for Fisher has only grown greater as I now have a better understanding of what she has experienced.

Even more so, I left with a greater sense of what it means to be passionate about your work, what it means to be motivated, and what it means to be constantly mindful of the representation (or lack thereof) of vulnerable communities. I also know now what it means to be understanding and forgiving, even when some people are the least deserving. Fisher’s empathy and devotion are tied to her work and also her daily interactions. I am thankful to have had the chance to speak with her in class, and better yet, to have had the chance to be on this trip with her. I look forward to reading what her published work, which focuses Indianthusiasm in Germany and explores how the figure of “the Indian” in Germany and its relationship to German colonialism.

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Riley Hester is a rising junior at CC. She was born in Germany and has since lived in 6 different places, including Illinois, New York, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and now Colorado. She is a Psychology major and a double minor in English and German. She is new to Feminist and Gender Studies and hopes to expand her knowledge about the experiences of all people in Germany outside of what she has previously learned. She hopes to one day enter the clinical field of Psychology and work to change the mental health care system to make it more welcoming to and accessible. At CC, she is involved with NAMI and is a member of the swim and dive team. In her free time, she enjoys painting, writing, and exploring whatever area she is in. She’s enjoyed her time in Berlin and has valued the relationships she has built with her classmates over such a short period of time.

Graffiti & Street Art Walking Tour + the Urban Nation Museum

by Alexis Cornachio

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The arts and Berlin. Somehow it had been ingrained in me to immediately associate each one with the other. I think it was my limited knowledge of the city of Berlin that had informed some romanticized imaginations of an exploding and dynamic queer arts scene. On the car ride from the airport to the apartment we would be living in for the next three weeks on Pohlstraße in Schöneberg, my imaginations were confirmed as I looked out the window onto passing buildings, cafes, shops, and street signs that had all seemed to be covered with splatted illustrations, unfamiliar symbols, and words—art was everywhere, and it was explosive.

Ignorantly, I had thought little about how my vivid preconceptions of the city had been contributing to a narrative of the exceptionalism of Berlin, a narrative that works to render marginalized groups invisible by relying on the prominence of street art culture and what this culture symbolizes.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Street and graffiti art are inextricably bound to opposition. They possess resistive qualities not only because they are technically illegal in Berlin, but also because they represent a form of self-expression and can work as modes of making political statements and commentary on society. With the qualities of street art and graffiti being inherently resistive and the city explicitly welcoming artists to participate in this form of artistic expression, an exceptionalizing narrative has been carefully constructed and continues to be reproduced as street art culture is commodified for tourism.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

I am obviously not an expert on Berlin. I certainly do not think I am qualified nor knowledgeable enough to argue that the dynamic and accepting image of the arts culture of Berlin society is a façade. However, I do find value in critiquing the function of this narrative. I think it is important to examine which groups are being affected most by the perpetuation of an exceptionalizing narrative and by the impact of commodifying street art culture. Is a society that seems to be bursting with art, queerness, liberalism, and inclusivity on the surface, in actuality, invisibilizing voices of marginalized people, such as immigrants, people of color, and the transgender community?

I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of community and culture among street artists during a walking tour our tour guide whose name is Cole. I came in with some loose knowledge of the so-called “rules” of street art. I knew that everyone has their own “tag,” artists rarely ever cover other artists’ work, and that there is a solidarity in anonymity. Cole further explained the importance of adhering to these rules and how the culture of respect strengthens the graffiti and street art community. Street art in Berlin has a genuine uniqueness to it, which values artists regardless of background. The community respects each other’s art, and there is a unified value in self-expression and ultimately in humanity, which I found to be very inspiring.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

When it comes to the ways city authorities like police react to street art and graffiti, I question whether it comes from a place of respect and genuine value in humanity. Cole claimed that in Berlin, the police often turn a blind eye to street art and graffiti. For example, he told us about two artists who were creating on the side of a building when a cop slowed to a stop next to them, gave them a thumbs-up, and left. For Berlin, street art is a significant part of the economy. Hence, the Urban Spree area we had the opportunity to visit is in the midst of gentrification. It is being sold off to a corporation that will build “luxury” apartments and clubs. Moreover, only two squats exist when in the years following the Cold War, the city was one of the main hubs for squatters. Most of the spaces for squatting have been sold off by the city and replaced with “luxury.”

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Gentrification was a consistent theme throughout our tour. Cole described a sort of fetishization of Berlin’s “cool, crazy alternative scene” that manifests in the arts, specifically street art. One story that explained with how many street artists are reacting to the gentrification of their community was about the iconic artist Blu. Blu found out luxury apartments were being built in the space near one of his massive paintings that covered the whole wall of a building. Instead of the corporation destroying his art, they were advertising that their luxury apartments would face Blu’s painting for all the people living there to see. In outrage about a squat being destructed to make room for “luxury” apartments, a fire broke out in the exact area the corporation was using. The city was quick to blame the houseless for starting the fire; although, it is largely suspected that this was the doing of local street artists. One night soon after the fire, Blu and some friends decided to paint the entire wall of the building black, covering his painting. The painting depicted two hands reaching out, so Blu painted over all the fingers except the middle finger of one of the hands, leaving a poetic message for passersby. Stories like this make me think about the anger and frustration of street artists and question in what ways the culture of the arts will evolve and|or dissolve in Berlin.

A couple hours after our tour, we visited the Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art, which features various artists and multimedia works, including street art. Within the museum are “chapters,” different exhibits that focus on particular themes. When I walked in, I was met with the exhibit entitled “We Need to Talk,” which is focused on putting different works of art “in conversation with each other.” The curators placed artworks about different social issues such as race, femininity, war, and consumerism across from one another so that they look like they are “having conversations.” At the end of this exhibit, there is a sketchbook and a pen lying on a podium. I thought this was a cool interactive element of the exhibit, because if someone thought there should have been more representation of a particular issue or conversation, they could write that in. Also, if someone just had something on their mind, they were given the freedom and opportunity to share and have others read their thoughts.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Upstairs was, in my opinion, one of the most intriguing exhibits, because it featured artists who made their creative processes visible. One work by Ida Lawrence, “A Village and Surrounds VI (Mirrors and Moulds),” was breathtaking. Lawrence works and lives in Berlin, and uses a combination of imagery and text to illustrate memory and historical narrative. For this work, she used a large canvas filled with handwritten journal-like entries, differently sized and scaled images, and vibrant colors. My eyes moved around the canvas, and in every corner, there was something new to fixate on. It showed me how one artist can go through a diverse range of styles and thought processes, all culminating in one creative piece.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The art in Urban Nation exhibited an expression and reconciling of the self. According to the curators, the project of the museum is to create a space that will be used to educate and foster community among street artists of Berlin. In “The Heritage Of Berlin Street Art And Graffiti Scene,” Simon Arms describes postwar Berlin street art and graffiti as an expression of “what it meant to be free” (3). I think an important way my perspective complicates the idea of art as an expression of freedom is rooted transnational feminist discussions about how definitions of “freedom” differ. The past couple of days, I have been walking past an open studio space on Pohlstraße a couple of doors down from our apartment where two German students are building a wall that will soon exhibit a woman’s art starting early July. The students and I became friendly, and one day I mentioned this blog I was writing about urban street art in Berlin, and we started talking about Urban Nation Museum. One of the students had strong opinions regarding the ethics of the museum and how he thought it was counterproductive to uplifting street art culture. He was critical of how the museum categorized street art and graffiti and about how the artwork in the museum was not what street art in Berlin is about. I think their perspectives on museum politics and gentrification are important to consider when thinking about how freedom is defined and expressed in art and why it is damaging to conflate the art in the museum with street art on the streets of Berlin. Is the art in the Urban Nation Museum a representation of inclusivity in the art world? Is it taking something away from street art culture as Berliners and local artists know it? Is the art being exploited as a tourist attraction and perpetuating a narrative of the exceptionalism of Berlin?

In reflecting on my positionality as an American tourist and college student, I think I have been able to gain some insight into the ways various art in Berlin has been specifically catered to tourists. The ingrained image I hold of the lively, queer, and accepting arts culture has fed into my preconceptions of ideas about Berlin, even though I had limited prior knowledge. This exceptionalizing narrative draws in people and money that will continue to benefit the city’s economy, and street art and graffiti become commodified tourist attractions. Obviously, though, the arts community in Berlin is a community I think anyone can learn something from. From what I’ve experienced, it is expressive and fearless, and the culture among street artists themselves is representative of what it means to value one another’s humanity through valuing another’s art and expressions of the self.

Alexis Cornachio is a Sociology major and rising junior at Colorado College. She grew up in New York, and has been enjoying the urban setting of Berlin. She loves music and enjoys playing guitar and singing. She is passionate about what she has learned so far about Berlin society and is excited and grateful to travel and learn more in her life.

A Conversation with Dana Maria Asbury, Mona El Omari, and Iris Rajanayagam

by Vicente Blas-Taijeron

Photo Credit: Vicente Blas Taijeron

Life is a confusing, happy, sad, and beautiful thing all at once. Our paths in life bring us joy and heartbreak, and somehow we learn to navigate them and pivot when needed. On Friday, we got to learn about the experiences of navigating life’s nuances through the perspectives of Mona El Omari, Iris Rajanayagam, and Dana Maria Asbury. Each of these guests were featured in In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table Talk, sharing their perspectives on numerous topics from family to the pressures of academia. Mona El Omari is a social worker and systemic, individual, and family therapist based in Hamburg; Iris Rajanayagam was the former Director xart splitta, where we’ve had several classes, and now works for the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Berlin; and Dana Maria Asbury is a co-author of In Audre’s Footsteps and is a longtime friend of Dr. Lewis who now resides in Toronto.

The conversation started with a brief round of introductions and each of the students asking questions of the guests. The format in which the conversation was conducted didn’t seem like a normal lecture or panel. It was more like a conversation between good friends that we had the privilege of silently observing. I really enjoyed this, because it seemed as if the authentic self was present instead of the filtered and “professional” faces we usually see in academic settings. Moreover, some of the questions I was inclined to write about were focused on the pressures of academia, the idea of family, and how each of them balance experiences rooted in frameworks of abolition with their occupations.

As a rising junior at a challenging liberal arts college, I resonate with the feeling of being pressured to perform well and succeed in the cutthroat field of academia. There’s this over looming mission to get a degree, pursue graduate studies, and make a lot of money. However, it was nice to hear this topic addressed in a more complex way in this space. In In Audre’s Footsteps, El Omari speaks about the pressures of academia and how a piece of paper gives you automatic legitimacy regardless of context. More specifically, she notes, “One reason I decided to go down the path of pursuing a Ph.D. was because I was told I would need one to be taken seriously as a social worker” (71). She critiques the notion that in order to be taken seriously one must surrender themself to academia and value forms of knowledge that have historically only been afforded to the privileged. I found this liberating, because I often find myself saddened by the struggles I face when navigating higher education. I feel lost and question my ability often, but this makes it clear that many challenges I face are not a result of the incompetency of first-generation or marginalized students; rather, they are a result of operating within a system that is often against us.

Photo Credit: Chase Lewis

When asked about navigating between academic and nonacademic spaces, Rajanayagam spoke about the feeling of isolation she initially had entering spaces focused on German history and research. However, what helped her navigate these challenges was counter-spaces, which she contextualized more when she referenced “a safe bubble” that allows her to work with “people who you don’t usually meet in academia,” spaces that also help with her teaching and research. Moreover, it was comforting to see how these often “foreign” spaces can be interpreted and made our own by finding other anomalies or outliers like BIPOC people or marginalized folx and working with them as a way to navigate the whiteness and racism that pervades these conventionally elite areas.

The pressures of expectations in academia also have to do a lot with our upbringing and familial contexts. Parents with different positionalities may have different goals for their children and different ways of viewing success and the path to it. Due to this, our interpretation of family, biological or chosen, differs based on our experiences with the concept itself. Dr. Lewis talks about this in In Audre’s Footsteps when she notes, “My new family’s needs were the driving forces that pushed me through the program” (74). In this sense, family becomes a motivator that fuels a sense of obligation and the urge to provide. However, family isn’t only those we grow up with or raise, it is also those we build meaningful relationships with, despite no blood connection. El Omari talks about this as well, claiming, “I learn so much from those young Muslim brothers and sisters…they teach me of what it is that preoccupies their minds, of what makes up their lives” (77). She describes the deep connection she made working with Muslim youth that took on a more familial relationship overtime. Moreover, Asbury also spoke about her experiences with feeling empowered by chosen family in the book, noting, “There’s this built family I can determine and choose for myself” (78). I appreciate the ways they address the liberty that comes with choosing people around you who celebrate you, hear you, and care about you. On a personal note, my time away from home in college has made me see the importance of both perspectives. On one hand, my biological family is a driving force for me to work hard and give back to my parents for their sacrifices and love. On the other hand, I find myself seeking out communities to build familial bonds with as a sense of comfort in predominantly white spaces. Family takes on a multiplicity of meanings and not all of them are positive, but it’s important to remember that such concepts are complicated and that it’s okay to think about them in various ways as you go about life.

Lastly, I asked each of them about balancing their personal beliefs within systems that, in some ways, demand them to surrender certain aspects of themselves. With this question, I was seeking guidance on the struggles many marginalized folx experience when pursuing higher education. For us, there’s often the puzzling question of how much of ourselves we have to sacrifice to appease “the system.” Dr. Lewis and El Omari both link this struggle to feminism in the book, describing how they’ve sometimes felt pressured in some feminist spaces to be overtly critical. As a result, feminist in those spaces have sometimes pressured them to forget the work of their elders, some who may have been the most influential feminists in their lives but did not label themselves as such. In this sense, their passion for feminism co-exists with their ability to extend grace for those they care about. This inspired me, because I often feel like some feminist spaces require me to critique my elders without ever taking a moment to appreciate the good things they taught me. Moreover, this approach allows us to see the nuance and complexity in feminism.

Photo Credit: Vicente Blas Taijeron

During the conversation, each of them spoke about their beliefs in critiquing and potentially abolishing oppressive systems like the prison industrial complex. However, they each realize the complexity of operating within some of those same systems. Whether it be counseling inmates, educating students, working for government agencies, or simply just listening, each of them are making a positive difference and empowering the marginalized by infiltrating such spaces. Additionally, Rajanayagam also mentioned the significance of practicality, which ties back to the motivation of family. On a real note, people have to survive, they need money to make it in the world, and that may require them to face areas of discomfort or people that don’t share their politics.

After reflecting on this intimate and thoughtful conversation, I realized more than ever that life is complicated and nuanced. It’s not normal nor feasible for us to believe one set of things. It is not normal for us to believe in feminism and cancel our loved ones at the expense of being approved by the community. It is not normal for us to comply with “woke culture” by resisting while our health is deteriorating and our stomachs are hungry. We must believe in our mission and our vision for this world but also understand that there are many complex factors in the present to which we also must pay attention. Furthermore, this helped improve my understanding of transnational feminism, as it broke some U.S.-centric narratives of feminism that center individualistic and narrow ways of thinking and often require us to comply with a single set of beliefs without leaving room for culture or philosophy. In the context of marginalized communities in Berlin, this conversation allowed me to see the various struggles with family and academic expectations that are exacerbated within the context of immigration and foreignness in a predominantly white metropolis. It allowed me to see the nuances of life reflected in the experiences of three phenomenal people. It taught me that despite the stringent narrative perpetuated by some feminists, there is always room for me and the multiplicity of nuances in my life.

Vicente Preciardo Blas-Taijeron (he/him) is an indigenous CHamoru son from the village of Tamuning on the island of Guam. Blas-Taijeron, a rising Junior, is majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies with a minor in Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies while on the pre-law track at Colorado College. As an indigenous child, he is interested in thinking about how his identities are similar to and distinct from those of Black feminists and others in German society who come from positions of marginality. Moreover, Blas-Taijeron seeks to build a stronger understanding of Black transnational feminism and the legacy of scholars like Audre Lorde. When he is not studying, you can find him cooking, watching films, or listening to some of his favorite artists, including Ella Mai and Kiana Ledé. Blas-Taijeron is excited to have the opportunity to study in Berlin, a city of historical gridlock, and to unearth the truths of brilliant minds that are often forgotten.

Blackness in America and Europe: Where the Grey Space Exists

by Monica Carpenter

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The Black experience has never been uniformed, but being in Berlin and studying a different part of the Diaspora outside the U.S. has made it clear how intricate and vast it is. The complexities of Black identity and justice I want to explore have been primarily inspired by the work and wisdom of Mumbi Nkonde, Mitchell Esajas, Jasmin Eding, and my professor, Heidi R Lewis. My main interest in blackness has been rooted in the U.S. and the lingering impacts of slavery on Black Americans. My perspective of the Black Diaspora was never entirely limited but it was definitely lacking.

Before coming to Berlin, I was so excited to travel outside the U.S. for new experiences, but I was expecting to notice a difference in the Black culture and interactions. I did not expect the methods of community-building amongst Afro-Europeans and how they define their connections to blackness. Obviously, my views on Afro-European experiences and how they compare to Black American experiences are limited to my own perspective and the short time in which I’ve observed and listened to Afro-European stories and histories. It is important to highlight there cannot be any definitive claims on Blackness–to speak on the complexity of Black people, we must be comfortable with grey space. Dr. Lewis had said this in one of our recent class sessions, and it continues to be relevant to me as I experience Germany as a Black American woman.

My positionality as an American has played a huge role in how I have digested my time in Germany and the conversations we have had the past two weeks. I have been learning about Black issues and Black joy my entire life but always from an American perspective. Because of the frameworks through which Black history has been taught to me, I feel very unified with Black people. I understand my own Blackness and other Black people through shared experiences, a shared history, and a shared sense of pride. Although we have a lot of differences, the sense of community I feel in the U.S. certainly extends to the Black people I have met in Berlin. Whether it is the smile I receive from someone passing by while walking to the train or the pride I feel listening to the success of the Black women who have spoken to our class, I am so happy to be a part of such a widespread community. Regardless of our geographical location or ancestry, there is a strong feeling of solidarity amongst us that I did not really know was there before leaving the U.S. Being in another country was never fathomable to me, and it is still difficult to believe even now as I write this. Even more surprising is that there is a part of the Black community that exists in a place I never saw myself being in.

Europe, especially Germany, has always been depicted as a white country to me. I knew there were people of color in Europe, but everything I have been taught about it in school or online does not include them. Although representation is lacking in the U.S., Black people are an integral part of describing what America looks like–undeniably so. There are so many Black cartoons I grew up watching, Black musicians I listened to, and Black people I interacted with despite attending white schools. From what I heard at the BlackEurope: The Beginnings of Black Self-Organization in Europe and from Jasmin Eding, representation is almost non-existent comparatively. In our talk with Eding, she described her “Black coming out” story as she named it. My understanding of what it means to “come out” as Black is to fully claim your brown skin and the experiences attached to it. Jasmin comes from a bi-racial family living in the countryside of Germany. Her father was a U.S. Soldier who started a family with a white German woman. He then returned to the States as did many of the newfound Black fathers who were stationed in Germany. This left Jasmin to be the only source of blackness within her home besides her siblings. In addition to being raised by a white mother, she lived in an area with a particularly low Black population. Her coming out as black was imperative to embracing an identity that was not properly fostered in her youth. This was really shocking to me, because I have always been proud to be Black. I was raised to claim it in every situation, and it has been part of my identity my entire life because of my parents’ influence. I did not like to hear how deprived Jasmin and other Afro-German youth could be from a lack of Black representation. This is not to say my connection to Blackness is stronger or better, but it is different. Jasmin had to search for her Black community. Mine began within my own home. My dad passed it down to me and gave me the opportunities and the knowledge to understand and embrace Black American culture. Regardless, Jasmin fully loves her Blackness and said she was happy to be in spaces with just Black German women. She even helped build a network of people that connect her and others to blackness. Her story as a Black woman is relatable but also specific to Black Europeans.

Photo Credit: Erin Huggins

The conference echoed the disparity of the Black European community but the speakers also found this to be empowering. Mumbi Nkonde talked about identity as well as Black Europe’s relationship to Black America. Because Black people are so widespread within Europe, Black people have to actively find community. Nkonde spoke about how Black Europeans often do not relate to a singular nationality such as Afro-German. She said that for many Afro-Europeans, Black hardship and joy can be compared to the various other countries in Europe because they share a common experience of being Black in white-dominated countries. This is particularly relevant considering the close proximity between European countries. She spoke about how Black Europeans will move around Europe and experience similar hardships as Black people regardless of the country they are in. As a Black American, I feel particularly connected to America and not other countries regarding my identity as a Black woman. They way Nkonde talked about Black identity makes it clear that blackness can be much more complex than the way that I have often understood it.

The conference also highlighted America’s influence on blackness outside the U.S. Mitchell Esajas discussed Europe’s perceived tendency to mimic Black movements within the U.S. He referenced the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter Movement specifically, as there are European versions of each. Audience members and himself questioned the validity of Black European movements if they are rooted in American initiatives. This conversation only made it more clear to me how much America is centered even regarding marginalized communities. Black Europeans obviously have their own culture and connection to blackness that differs from the experiences of Black Americans, but how much autonomy do they have if they feel restricted to the American initiatives?

Overall, being in Germany as a Black American has made me realize how much privilege I have been granted by my citizenship. This is not to say the experiences of Black Americans are easier or more difficult than Black Europeans’, but it is important to recognize the advantages of being American with respect to Black identity and community. The Afro-Germans who spoke to our class and those we read shared their difficulties in discovering a community and proclaiming their blackness. This narrative is also somewhat shared by Black Americans, as we also lack representation. But the lack of representation experienced by Afro-Germans extends to a level of disconnect and erasure I have not felt. This is where the grey space exists in the Black Diaspora. Black people globally are experiencing similar hardships, joy, pride, and a sense of community, but we are impacted in vastly different ways.

Monica Carpenter is a junior majoring in Sociology at Colorado College. On campus, she’s involved with theatre, arts and crafts, and she’s a Student Ambassador at the Worner Desk. An immediate vibe check about Monica: her favorite color is purple or brown; she has a Gemini sun but has five cancer placements; and she can read tarot cards. Her favorite thing about Berlin so far has been all the nature embedded in the city, as well as the two Euro coins instead of paper dollars. A major culture shock she experienced since being here is the shared love for sparkling water and the fact that water is often not free. Overall, she really enjoyed her time in the city and is happy to have taken this course!

The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour

by Margalit Goldberg

Photo Credit: Margalit Goldberg

I think I romanticize the Cold War too much. Or maybe the right word is not “romanticize,” but the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. and podcasts about ridiculous CIA covert operations have led me to believe the Cold War was mostly just for show—a ridiculous period when tremendous amounts of money and manpower were put into ideas and tactics that, thankfully, never came to fruition. However, the stories I’m forgetting are the ones of bloody proxy wars, such as in Vietnam, and lives that were upended by the construction of the Berlin Wall. Not to mention the fear of total annihilation from an atom bomb that gripped the general population. I need to readjust my perspective and remember the stories of how everyday citizens were affected, not just secret agents or diplomats, and I sought to do that during our session on Thursday.

We began our day by going to The Wall Museum, which is connected to the East Side Gallery. A chaotic blur of multimedia led us through a series of rooms providing a mix of personal narrative and overviews of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. After World War II (WWII), Germany was divided and occupied by each of the victors. The West was divided into three parts occupied by France, Britain, and the United States, and the East was occupied by the Soviet Union. However, Berlin—situated squarely in the East of Germany—created an issue. So, it was decided that, like the whole of Germany, Berlin would be split into East and West. In 1946, the Cold War began, but it wasn’t until 1961 that tensions had escalated enough for the Berlin Wall to be built. The German Democratic Republic or GDR (East Germany) had lost a significant amount of its population from emigration to the West and wanted to prevent additional losses. Nikita Khrushchev advised East Germany to inhibit access between the two sides of the city and on August 12, 1961, Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, enabled the beginning of construction of the Berlin Wall. The wall was not only a physical barrier between East and West but a symbolic “Iron Curtain” representing the ideological split between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Whenever a wall is built or a border is created, people will cross it by any means necessary. People jumped out of apartment windows, stole trains to transport citizens, dug perilous tunnels, and swam across canals. Yet, the insidious nature of the Berlin Wall was that each time it was breached, the GDR would figure out how it happened and then close that loophole. Each time someone crossed through to the West, they inadvertently made it harder for the next person who attempted.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Between 1961 and 1989, 138 people died attempting to cross the Wall. What shocked me the most were the deaths that occurred between the Osthafen docklands and Oberbaum|Schilling Bridge over the Spree River. There were 18 fatalities in that border zone, eleven of them Eastern refugees. The other seven were West Berliners who fell into the river and drowned. They were unable to be helped by West Berlin police or fire service because the Spree was Eastern territory. By the time GDR services were contacted, it was often too late, and the victim had drowned. Eventually, an agreement between the East and West was made for accidents and emergencies along the river. As I read this information, placed on a relatively inconspicuous placard on the balcony overlooking the Spree, I was saliently reminded of all the victims of governments that think impermeable and protected borders are an effective solution—all of those who are hurt by borders without even trying to cross them.

The Wall Museum, not surprisingly, solely presented a Western German perspective of the events that led to the construction and then eventual deconstruction of the Wall. I wish the museum had focused on what daily life was like on either side of the Wall, but instead, it limited the personal narratives to stories of escape from Eastern Germany. How did families that were split stay in contact? What did dissidence look like in Eastern Germany under Communist rule? This also makes me wonder if former East Germans feel as if the narrative of the lives they lived is inaccurate or doesn’t provide the complexities they wish it did.

Later that evening, I ended up seeing a German comedy with a group of study abroad students from the college my sister attends. The film, Stasi Komodie (A Stasi Comedy), was directed by Leander Haußmann and followed the life of a young boy living in East Berlin who is recruited to be a Stasi agent and spy on a counterculture movement in Prenzlauer Berg. He ends up becoming an underground poet and living a double life. The movie poked fun at the ridiculousness of many Stasi covert missions, but also lent complexity to the lives of East Berliners, especially those involved in dissident movements. The film also included quite a bit of ostalgie, nostalgia for specific aspects of life in East Germany. The movie used a motif of the specific cheery-looking crosswalk man that was specific to East Germany but remained after reunification upon request of the people. This was an interesting look into how life in East Berlin is being portrayed with humor thirty years after reunification.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union and was a big proponent of democratic reforms and Glasnost, permitting greater openness and discussion of political and social issues. By 1989, the Cold War was beginning to thaw and many countries in the Eastern Bloc were on the verge of revolutions. On November 9, the Berlin Communist Party announced at midnight it would allow people to freely cross the border. The Wall had fallen. As the museum recounted the joyous events and celebrations that subsequently occurred, I found myself feeling nostalgic for an event I wasn’t even alive for. How cool would it have been to take a hammer to the wall or listen to Pink Floyd perform as the hope of reunification intoxicated citizens?

Yet, I find myself also wondering if East Berliners were aware that their political and social structure was going to be completely upended once again. The museum painted the narrative that the wall fell, and everything was reunified and perfect. From a historical perspective, we can see that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the end of many state supports in East Germany. In “Women and East Germany Today” by louise k. davidson, I was delighted to read about all the reproductive freedom and support for having children that women had in the GDR: “Women have long enjoyed the freedom to make informed decisions about birth control without worrying about its affordability of availability.” Still, I can only imagine the experiences of a difficult reunification for further marginalized people, stories not often told in the “mainstream.” In “Feminism and Post-Communism,” Nanette Funk explains that “in virtually all post-communist countries there is a tendency towards a repositioning of women away from the workplace and into the family,” citing high unemployment rates for women in the former GDR and the Soviet Union and decreased access to abortion and family planning resources.

Both davidson and Funk take a transnational approach to what feminist work should focus on in reunified Germany. They argue that not only did former GDR women have less support for reproductive labor after reunification, but that they also had different understandings of feminism and ideas about the goals of a women’s movement. This has led me to have a deeper understanding of the social and cultural implications of the division of Germany. I think seeing transnational thinking within a single country can help us to understand and extrapolate that different groups have radically different experiences that lead to their understanding of feminism. If people are to work across those divides, they must be willing to understand the other’s background.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The second part of our session was the “East-West Conflict in the Underground” tour with Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds). As we made our way down two flights of stairs into a bunker in West Berlin, I was afraid our tour would be led by some doomsday prepper dead-set on convincing us of the importance of bunker preparation. On the contrary, we had a wonderful guide, Elliot, who was not only extremely knowledgeable about the history but provided a critical perspective on the Cold War and the absurdity of the arms race and mutually assured destruction.

We began by touring a bunker that had been updated in the 80s to be a fallout shelter but had been used over 300 times as a bomb shelter during WWII. Despite believing Berlin wouldn’t have been bombed in the Cold War due to both sides of the conflict having citizens in the area, I was assured by Elliot that the city would have been sacrificed and that there were plans that could have been used to stage an attack if necessary. If bombed, the city of 3 million only had 28,000 spots in bunkers. As the guide described how ill-prepared the bunker was to handle the fallout and human survival, it became clearer to me that an attempt to survive an atomic bomb is futile, to say the least. As we sat under a direct replica of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that was used on Hiroshima, I struggled to comprehend how a 10 x 2.5 ft. piece of metal could generate 16,000 tons of TNT power and murder 139,000 innocent people. And how could someone decide it was necessary to hold that much power let alone detonate it? This was a stark reminder of how close the world once was to annihilation and that we still have this amount of power, more even.

Elliot ended the tour by telling us he believed good diplomacy ended the Cold War and prevented the detonation of atomic bombs. He gave the example of Stanislav Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, who judged a U.S. missile launch warning as a false alarm and made the decision not to launch a retaliation, thus preventing nuclear war. Another example was the Soviet border soldiers who were ordered to fire one warning shot and then to shoot to kill. Yet, many soldiers refused to shoot to kill, disobeying orders and therefore saving lives. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, this tour gave me some semblance of hope, hearing stories of those who resisted violence and knowing I’ve never in my life genuinely had to think about using a bunker. Maybe our world is moving in the right direction.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The Cold War was fundamentally an ideological conflict between capitalism and communism that affected almost every part of the world. The demarcation of Germany and subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall created division in an already fractured country. In 1945, two nations were created in a country that had not long ago rallied for an idea of nationhood far from what the East and West provided. Divides were not healed before more divides were created. Reunification came at last in 1990, but the future also contained struggles for women, racial minorities, and the unemployed that we must not forget. As Ika Hügel-Marshall poignantly writes in “Crossing Borders, Overcoming Boundaries,” “As we can see in Berlin, the society around me has a long way to go before it recognizes that crossing borders does not mean overcoming boundaries, if experience is limited to national borders.”

Margalit Goldberg is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is interested in pursuing History-Philosophy and Feminist and Gender Studies although she has still not declared a major. Described by a friend as “a messy bookcase of a person”, she loves to learn and explore ways of knowing. She is especially excited to be in Berlin connecting the stories of marginalized people to the complex history of the city. When she isn’t reading for class or deep in a Wikipedia rabbit hole, you can find Margalit climbing and setting at the campus gym, having dinner parties with friends, and engaging in non-violent activism with the Bijou Community in Colorado Springs.