The Power of Our Own Spaces: A Conversation on Colonialism and Belonging with Iris Rajanayagam, Melody Ledwon, and Mona El Omari

By Baheya Malaty

IMG_0673As we emerged from the Rehberge U-Bahn station into the blinding sunlight, it dawned on me that this would be the last time we walked together to Each One Teach One (EOTO), the organization which has been kind enough to allow us to use their space for several of our sessions. Today was our hottest and fullest day yet here in Berlin. Between the nearly 90 degree temperatures and the three class sessions, I wasn’t sure how my energy level would hold up as I walked to our last session. But even as I walked, the heat and exhaustion slowing my every step, I felt a great sense of anticipation and excitement. Contrary to any of our previous sessions here in Berlin, this one would be a space for people of color (POC) only. POC spaces have been critically important to my mental health and well-being. Beyond that, though, POC spaces have also inspired me greatly and provided me and people whom I care about with the opportunity to really thrive in community together. In the past, POC spaces have been brilliantly creative, passionate, and supportive. Despite my exhaustion, my expectations were high.

IMG_0676And needless to say, I was even more blown away and inspired than I thought I would be. At EOTO, we were met by the Director of the organization, Melody Ledwon, as well as our two presenters, Iris Rajanayagam and Mona El Omari. Originally from an area heavily populated by Turkish and Arab migrants in West Germany, El Omari moved to Berlin and began working with Der Braune Mob, a Black/POC media-watch organization. As a Jordanian Muslim queer woman, she became involved in feminist and queer Muslim self-organizing throughout Berlin. For Rajanayagam, her involvement with political activism began when she moved to Berlin ten years ago. Her search for a space in which she could both conduct her activism and feel comfortable as a woman of color led her to become involved in self-organizing. Additionally, she wrote her Master’s thesis on colonial continuities in Germany with an emphasis on refugee and asylum policies.

Within the first five minutes of the session, Ledwon referenced a theme that would remain critical to our discussion: the notion that people of color are constantly forced to defend their right to “come together on their own terms.” We are always told that we are self-segregating, that we should focus on becoming more “integrated,” met with blank expressions when we explain why it is important for us to come together in our own space. However, as El Omari, Rajanayagam, and Ledwon articulated, POC spaces are absolutely critical to our empowerment, our learning, our community, and our creativity. In the foreword to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak OutAudre Lorde writes, “To successfully battle the many faces of institutionalized racial oppression, we must share the strengths of each other’s vision as well as the weaponries born of a particular experience. First, we must recognize each other” (ix). One tactic of white supremacy has been the intentional fracturing of communities of color, as well as the erasure of Brown and Black cultures and histories. For people of color, then, coming together on our own terms allows us not only to build community, but also to determine a collective vision, a way to move forward. Along these lines and regarding her work with Der Braune Mob, El Omari spoke of the importance of going beyond work that is strictly reactionary. Not only does the organization critique the presentations of Black people and people of color in the media, but it also creates an archive of alternative media and news articles in order to encourage people of color to write their own stories and to break the silences of the mainstream media. A critical part of her work at Der Braune Mob, then, has always been asking the question: What do we as POC communities do to empower ourselves? Mona explains that focusing on this question afforded her the opportunity to reflect, think, and develop visions for the future on her own and with other people of color.

As we continued to unpack the importance of people of color having the opportunity to assert a space, our discussion turned to the legacies of colonialism on the notions of inclusion, belonging, and citizenship in Germany. When Germany began its colonization of Namibia, German law stated that if you had a German father, you were German. As the rape of Black women by white men as well as sexual relations between Black people and white people created an increasing population of mixed-race babies, the German government decided to change the law. Now, if you had a “drop of Black blood, you could not be German.” Thus, the notion of German-ness as whiteness was born. The notion of Germany as a nation-state with colonies reinforced the binary between whiteness and blackness, German-ness and foreignness: the nation-state of Germany was white, and its colonies were Black. To this day, the law of (white) blood reigns supreme in Germany. For example, El Omari provided the example that if your great-great-great grandfather lived in unified Germany before the Second World War, but was in fact a white Polish citizen, you as a white Polish citizen would be able to obtain German citizenship. On the contrary, people of color who were born in Germany but lack a German passport can be deported from the country in an instant. Thus, in order to be German, one must be white. Similarly, in the introduction to Winter Shorts, Clementine Burnley and Sharon Dodua Otoo discuss the problematics of the prevalence of the term “people of a migration background” in Germany. More specifically, Otoo writes,

The phrase “person of a migration background” seems to suggest that you can see or hear whether a person is of “foreign” descent or not. However “person with a migration background” is a euphemism. It is rarely used to describe certain white non-Germans—I think white US Americans for example do not feel addressed by it. On the other hand, people who were born and raised in Germany, and who do not look white, are often labeled as having a “migration background.” (15-16)

IMG_5741Hence, if you are not white, you do not really belong in Germany. You are a “guest worker,” a refugee, an asylum seeker, or a visitor. El Omari, Rajanayagam, and Ledwon all testified to the fact that most people assume they cannot be German because of their color. They spoke to constantly being asked questions such as, “Where are you really from?” and “When are you going back?” In fact, a few years ago, El Omari was taken off the voter registration list, because a German government official saw her name and automatically assumed that she could not be German with a name like hers. Additionally, the police began to search for her, because they assumed that she was an “illegal” migrant, and when she protested, German authorities explained, “You must understand, we thought a person with a name like yours could not be German.” In Showing our Colors, May (Optiz) Ayim speaks to notion that her identity as Afro-German is read as unintelligible and not really German:

You planning to go back?
What? You’ve never been to Papa’s country?
What a shame…Well, if you ask me:
A background like that, it sure does leave its mark
Me, for example, I’m from Westphalia
and I think
that’s where I belong. (138)

IMG_5745The notion of belonging as a person of color in Germany is a very complicated one. On the one hand, because German-ness equals whiteness, people of color are excluded from the German identity. Still, as our session with these three amazing women came to a close, I could not help but see some silver lining to the situation at hand. This is not to excuse the erasure and exclusion of people of color in Germany or to say that it is justified or to glorify it in any way. Rather, I wish to emphasize the ways in which German people of color have been able to establish spaces together on their own terms and develop a collective vision for the future. As today’s session with El Omari, Rajanayagam, and Ledwon taught me, the power of POC spaces is incredible. Not only do they function as ways through which to heal and build community, but they also offer us radical liberatory possibilities. POC spaces allow us to create and exist within a space on our own terms. Colonialism has taken so much from people of color; people, land, resources, cultures, and histories have all been destroyed and erased. Thus, the act of people of color creating and gathering in a space on their own terms is radical in and of itself; it represents the reclaiming of our bodies, our histories, and our cultures. Perhaps most importantly, as Melody taught me today, POC spaces allow us the opportunity to thrive together.


MalatyBaheya Malaty is a rising junior at Colorado College studying Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and Feminist and Gender Studies. As co-leader of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Feminist Collective (FemCo), they are passionate about challenging Zionism and engaging in creative activism in solidarity with Palestine using a feminist lens. They are known to many of their friends as “Dad,” due to their superb barbecuing skills, knowledge of sports, classy button-up shirts, and their general Dad sensibility. Their dream is to one day develop a program through which students of color can travel to Palestine and learn about the occupation through a comparative, transnational, and feminist lens. Their alternative dream is to become a stay-at-home Dad.

Witnessing Powerful Art: A Conversation with the Editors of Winter Shorts

By Ivy Wappler

IMG_20160615_095851662 (1)The FemGeniuses greeted the day with a rainy walk to the U-Bahn and a stuffy, damp subway ride. Peeling off our wet jackets, we settled in for class. This morning, we were lucky enough to sit down with the editors of Winter Shorts, the latest installment of the Witnessed Series. It was a pleasure to hear from Sharon Dodua Otoo and Clementine Burnley, co-editors of the influential collection. Otoo, a London-born artist and activist, moved to Berlin in 2006 with her three sons (she now has four). She described the motivation for the Witnessed Series as a desire to use her international connections to create momentum, shared understanding, and support for Black German activism through writing. Burnley has been in Berlin for 6 years, and writes poetry when she isn’t working for MSO Inklusiv. In 2015, MSO focused its work on youth, Black, and Queer people of color communities, collaborating with organizations like Street UnivercityJugend Theater Büro, Katharina Oguntoye’s Joliba, and the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland. This year, they’re working with Wagenplatz Kanal, a Queer grouping within the Sinti and Roma community, a Black Trans organisation hosted by Der Braune Mob, and a youth organisation in Heidelberg.

Otoo and Burnley emphasized that Witnessed, the first English-language series about the experience of Black people in Germany, is not meant to replace anything already written in German about the Black German experience. Witnessed is, rather, a diverse collection, a reflection of the myriad experiences that comprise a Black German collective consciousness. Previous installments include The Little Book of Big Visions How to Be an Artist and Revolutionize the World edited by Otoo and Sandrine Micossé-Aikins (2012), Daima by Nzitu Mawakha (2013), Also by Mail: A Play a Olumide Popoola (2013), and The Most Unsatisfied Town by Amy Evans (2015), which is based on the deeply controversial Oury Jalloh case. The original book launch and reading of this play was a collaboration with Roses for Refugees, a project Otoo developed that sought to engage with refugees living and protesting in Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg in order to improve the policies and discourses around refugees in Germany. A catalyst for activism, Witnessed also organized and hosted youth workshops in schools, along with performances of the play.

After Otoo and Burnley discussed their work, we asked questions about the texts we read for class from Winter Shorts, including Burnley’s “Boom,” and Otoo’s “Whtnacig Pnait (Watching Paint).” I found it interesting that Otoo explained that the latter was inspired by her son’s struggles with dyslexia. The protagonist hates school, in part due to this and also his new, unfamiliar home in Germany. Still, when the boy finds himself in a magical, secret safe space for people of color, he still feels somewhat out of place. This story, Otoo shared with us, was her way of saying “Look, I’ve been listening!” not only to her son, but also to all people on the margins of the Black community, estranged by forces like ableism, cissexism, and heterosexism.

IMG_0446I loved reading fiction for a change, and these stories were no disappointment, inciting rich discussions of racism, hegemonic narratives, and the role of art in activism. For example, I asked, “What role does autobiography play in your stories? How much of your writing is rooted in personal experience?” The answers I received were far more nuanced than I expected. Otoo articulated that, for her, even if she writes about something directly from her own life, that the very act of writing it down is interpretation. She is wary of the term “autobiographical,” as it may limit the interpretations of her work. Her stories are invitations for connection and inspiration, not simply narrations of disparate, specific happenings. Burnley responded, “I can’t write what I don’t know,” explaining that even though everything she writes is fueled by something she has seen, heard, or imagined, as soon as she’s written a story down, she no longer has anything to do with it. “What is more important,” she argued, “is what the person reading the story brings to it.” For Burnley, delineations of fact and fiction matter not: “Sometimes you write a story, and it’s complete factual experience, but for me it doesn’t make a difference. It’s still a story.” These responses made it clear, then, that no matter how connected to reality stories are, what matters most is how the reader can relate to the story.

As a follow-up, Heidi raised a concern that  too often marginalized writers, especially Black women writers (the literary community she’s most studied) are assumed only to write autobiographical content, that they rarely considered to be creative. Otoo agreed and added that the literary perspective of white men seems to be the neutral perspective, rich in variation and creative freedom, while perspectives of Black women and other marginalized groups are seen as a specialized, specific and connected to the narration of their marginal experiences. She suggested that since the wealth of literature catered to the masses is written by white men, the small amount of writing done by PoC or QPOC is usually assumed to be simply nonfictional, and not creative. It seems that writers from minority groups have been affected by what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of the single story,” something that Burnley mentions in the introduction to Winter Shorts. When dominant narratives are written only by those in power, those without power suffer. Burnley actually touches on this frustration through one of her characters, Mimi, in “Boom.” Upon researching the Bab el Mandeb straits for a vacation, “Mimi was at once pleased and annoyed at the morbid romanticism of the language and the way it entirely avoided mentioning the slave trade and the more recent wars in the region” (47). Otoo, Burnley, and the writers of the Witnessed Series are all painfully aware of the danger of the single story, and aim to complicate limited narratives about the Black experience with their colorful collection of writings.

Talking to Otoo and Burnley this morning helped us see a real relationship between creating art and Black political thought. All the scholars in the room seemed to agree that this work against the danger of the single story, the Witnessed Series, is certainly political. Along these lines in the introduction to Winter Shorts, Burnley reminds readers of Toni Morrison’s insight: “If there is a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Burnley laments that capitalism has turned the appreciation of the arts into an elitist endeavor that many do not have resources enough to access. But she urged us today that her art, and subsequently her manifestation of political thought, is not always found in the high, abstract realm, “because we don’t always have the time or the money.” Among capitalist frameworks that commodify creativity and impose limiting structures such as genres, Burnley sees an opportunity for artful dissent. “That’s freedom for me,” she states in a matter-of-fact manner, “writing what I want.” Otoo agrees, “I like to write in a way that leaves room for interpretation…leaves room for dreaming.” Through their collections of art, Otoo and Burnley have invited their readers to dream of liberation. Through conversing with them and getting acquainted with their work, it is clear that they see art as a powerful political tool.

IMG_20160613_104425639The curation of the Witness Series, including Winter Shorts, is a glimpse into the multiplicitous nature of the Black German experience, meant to engender awareness and solidarity for their movement towards liberation. Winter Shorts does a beautiful job of showcasing the difficult everyday moments in which multiple intersections of identity manifest. Clearly, in these personal stories, rife with racially charged struggle, is where the revolution is situated. Otoo and Burnley are uniting people with these stories and inviting collaboration and change to be made. As Heidi writes in her book-jacket praise for Winter Shorts, “The revolution happens in our hearts, minds, and spirits during moments when we might least expect it.”  I want to thank both Otoo and Burnley for sharing their keen, revolutionary, and poetic minds with the FemGeniuses this morning.


WapplerIvy Wappler hails from Long Island Sound and is grateful to spend her summers in New England, and her winters in sunny Colorado. She is a Feminist and Gender Studies major, and an Environmental Issuesminor. After school, she hopes to explore environmentally and socially responsible tourism. She may also end up reforming sex education. An avid foodie, Ivy is ready to experience Berlin through its food and drink when she’s not in class. You may find her taking walks through sunny streets, seeking out farmer’s markets and green, open spaces.