Beware of the Street Signs: The Hidden Realities of Colonialism in Berlin

By Baheya Malaty

IMG_0551When you think about racism and oppression in Germany, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? More than likely, your mind will jump to the Holocaust and Nazism. This is an understandable first thought: the Holocaust represents one of the most massive genocides in human history, and Nazism one of the most terrifying fascist regimes to ever come to power. Over the past nearly three weeks in Berlin, it seems that every day we have stumbled on some recognition of the Nazi past, be it the plethora of museums dedicated to educating people about Nazism’s crimes against humanity or the tiny golden “stumbling stones” that dot the city’s sidewalks, honoring the victims of the Holocaust. Visitors praise Berlin as a city that has recognized and atoned for its dark past. The first time I visited this city, aged 14, our tour guide took us to the site of Hitler’s bunkers and proudly proclaimed that Berlin was a city that had reclaimed its history. “Look,” she said. “Within 500 meters of Hitler’s bunkers, you can see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an organization which fights for the rights of the physically disabled, and a gay bar!”

Throughout my time in Berlin, I’ve been curious about the ways in which a singular narrative of oppression in Germany—which takes the Holocaust and Nazism as the chief and/or only example of racism—has erased other narratives of oppression. When a society goes to great efforts to apologize, atone for, and learn from a singular catastrophe without employing an intersectional lens, what other “catastrophes” are erased? In “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” R. Ruth Linden problematizes how Holocaust scholarship often “privileges the experiences of one group…while turning our gaze away from other groups” (24). In this way, she argues, several categories of people who were targeted by the Nazi regime—including the Sinti, Roma, gay men, Communists, Jehovah’s Witness, Slavs, people convicted of crimes, and Hutterites—have been “marginalized in Holocaust discourse” (24). Expanding on Linden’s thinking, we must also question how Holocaust discourse in Germany itself marginalizes other narratives of oppression. Our “Africa in Wedding” tour gave me a lot to think about along these lines. Led by our wonderful tour guide Josephine “Josy” Apraku, the tour examined a (not so) different form of oppression: that of German colonialism and its legacy in the so-called “African quarter” in Wedding, a neighborhood of Berlin.

IMG_5682Josy began our tour by explaining that, contrary to what most people who come on her tours believe, this would not be a tour of the African quarter. Rather, this tour would take us through what can be more appropriately called the colonial quarter, referred to this way because 24 streets in the area are named in reference to the history of German colonialism in Africa. As we walked through the rain, Josy guided us past street signs which read “GhanaStraβe,” “TogoStraβe,” and “SwakopmundStraβe.” The latter is a reference to the city in Namibia, Germany’s first settler colony in Africa. In Swakopmund, the German colonizers constructed Germany’s first-ever concentration camp, built for the exploitation and murder of the Herero people. The idea for the concentration camp was borrowed from British colonizers, who had constructed similar work camps for the internment and exploitation of indigenous people in the British colonies, and was later used as model for the concentration camps that Hitler would build across Europe.

Although the Holocaust discourse in Germany has marginalized other systems of oppression, there can be no doubts about the strong links between Nazism and German colonialism. A major part of the Nazi agenda was to reclaim the lost German colonies. Furthermore, Hitler was inspired by many of the racist theorists whose writings were used to justify German colonialism. One such “theorist” was Carl Peters, a key individual at the helm of German colonization in East Africa. Peters, who was in a sexually abusive relationship with an African woman, became infamous after he discovered that this woman had been having a relationship with an African man. Upon learning this, Peters had both of them executed and burned their villages. In 1939, Hitler chose to name a street in the colonial quarter after Peters, as he saw him and his racist theory as an important source of inspiration for Nazi ideology. Sometime after the fall of the Nazi regime, city officials were tasked with renaming and rededicating the street. In Germany, the chosen method for renaming public relics of Nazism is that whatever public space is in question will be renamed after someone who resisted Nazism. City officials chose to keep the street name the same as what Hitler had named it, Petersallee, but rededicate it in memory of Dr. Hans Peters, a Berlin doctor who helped Jews to hide and escape during Nazi rule. Much to our chagrin, Josy informed us that during the process of the re-dedication of Petersallee, no mention was made of the legacy of German colonialism from which Hitler derived the name. This is exemplar of the way in which the recognition and atonement of Nazi crimes has erased the legacy of German colonialism which had always been a critical part of Nazi ideology from the start.

IMG_5679As we continued our tour, hiding beneath giant oaks in order to avoid the rain, Josy taught us about another critical legacy of colonialism, which is often erased: the ways in which the earliest women’s rights movements in Germany were driven by colonialism. Through aligning themselves with colonialism, white German women were afforded more political power and freedom. They were enlisted by and participated in the colonial project in several critical ways. In Showing our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, May (Opitz) Ayim quotes Baroness Zech, the director of a German colonial school for women, as she articulates the mission contract for German women:

Her energy should not take the form of a free, tomboyish nature, but through true femininity she should put the stamp of her nature on the new overseas Germany; she should not merely strive and work out there, but she should be imbued with the spirit of pure Christianity, the high priestess of German breeding and custom, the bearer of German culture, a blessing in the foreign land: German women, German honor, German devotion across the sea. (27)

As Ayim further discusses, racism, sexism, and colonialism went hand-in-hand. The notion of a pure, chaste, white German woman, whose primary responsibilities were to carry on the “master race” through reproduction and to impose the German culture and moral code onto the “savage” natives, was used to enlist white German women in the colonial project. First and foremost, white German women were encouraged to move to Germany’s colonies in order to increase the white population; thus, they were essentially enlisted as “birthing machines.” Ayim argues that at the end of the 18th century in Europe, the new bourgeoisie offered a new feminine ideal that was “characterized more than ever by passivity” (11). This new ideal, that went hand in hand with the rise of capitalism, relegated women to the domestic sphere, where their chief duties were giving birth, raising children, and caring for the home (13). It was this ideal of femininity which was used in service of and allowed for the continuation of German colonization in Africa. In addition to their enlistment in the colonial project as birthing machines, white German women also participated in the act of “civilizing” the native population. While German men were primarily involved in the colonial military and administration, women took up the project of imposing a set of German ethical, moral, and cultural codes onto native societies.

IMG_0562On our first full day of class in Berlin, our tour guide Carolyn Gammon warned: “When in Berlin, beware of the green spaces.” This saying is a reference to the plethora of green spaces in the city, underneath which lie relics of Nazi crimes against the Jews: makeshift cemeteries in which the dead were piled on top of each other, the remains of a burned synagogue, and so on. Following our “Africa in Wedding” tour, we might add: “When in Berlin, beware of the street signs.” In Winter Shorts, Clementine Burnley and Sharon Dodua Otoo discuss the way in which people seek to deny the reality of racism. Burnley writes, “I believe that people invest more effort in denying racism than in dealing with it because facing the purpose for which institutional racism is constructed, is painful.” (13). In this way, people seek to hide or mask the realities of racism and colonialism in their daily lives, those unpleasant reminders that things are far from perfect. The ghosts of colonialism and racism appear eerily similar: in the United States, the tribute paid to victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the Statue of Liberty is completely hidden; in Israel, the side of the apartheid wall visible to Jewish Israeli citizens is masked by hills featuring beautiful flower gardens; and here in Berlin, the names of racist German colonists appear “innocently” on street signs. These ghosts are disguised as street signs, green spaces, monuments, and statues; they are a part of our everyday realities, and yet their true meanings remain hidden. As we learned from Josy, if we are to interrogate and dismantle systems of oppression such as colonialism, we must start by educating ourselves on how these systems permeate into and influence our everyday. We must always search for those tiny, hidden windows to the truth.


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.

Our Second Weekend in Berlin

By Amanda Cahn

Cahn IFriday morning, during our walking tour in the heavy rain, half of the group decided to get phở for lunch to warm us up. We took the metro to Kreuzberg, and tried to walk under the restaurants’ awnings in the fruitless attempt to stay wet instead of soaked. Unfortunately, we arrived a half-hour before the restaurant opened. Not wanting to wait in the rain, we started our second weekend off with drinks and olives at the Knofi Feinkost restaurant and deli. A half-hour later, we moved to Green Rice for phở. We were already halfway through our meal when we realized there was a large photograph of a naked woman hanging right in front of us, demonstrating how conditioned we are to seeing women’s bodies used as decoration.

Cahn IIThat evening, the whole group took the metro back to Kreuzberg, where we had dinner and drinks at Ta’Cabrón Taquería and Que Pasa and went dancing at Havanna to celebrate Alejandra’s birthday. Unlike the majority of the nightclubs we’ve visited, Havanna did not play electronic dance music (EDM). Upstairs was primarily bachata; although, it switched to reggaeton later on in the night. Downstairs, there was an active salsa room, as well as another room playing mostly hip-hop and R&B, which is advertised as “Beautiful Black Sounds.” It is important to note that the other rooms are not referred to as “Latino Sounds” or any other similar label. Furthermore, many of the songs were not even by Black artists. The way in which the music is uniquely racialized is problematic, especially when the majority of the people in this room were white (or white-passing), suggesting the music is racialized primarily for marketing purposes.

Cahn IIIOn Saturday morning, a German friend of mine arrived at the apartment, bearing coffee for the both of us. Because it was sunny and still early, Chris and I walked around the city for a while before heading to the Boros Collection (Sammlung Boros), a contemporary art exhibition in an old Nazi bunker (Reichsbahnbunker). Forced laborers constructed the air-raid shelter in 1942, and it was referred to as an M1200 because it was intended to shelter up to 1,200 people, but it ended up sheltering around 3,000. We could still see the artillery damage on the exterior of the building, because in 1945, the Red Army used the bunker to house prisoners of war. Since WWII, the bunker has been used in quite a variety of ways. In 1949, it was used as a textile warehouse. In 1957, it became known as the “Banana Bunker” because imported fruit from Cuba was stored there.

Cahn IVCurrently, there are three pieces on display, all by Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade, which particularly interested me and are quite relevant to this course. In a small room visible from the lobby but blocked off with a chain, an organized stack of shining gold bars sits elevated and illuminated. However, the bars are actually coal-plated in gold leaf. Upstairs in another small room, precious gems sit protected and illuminated within an elevated glass case. These are stones Kwade took from the streets of Miami and had cut and polished. The last piece is in another small room, but it is dark and the floor faintly reveals its past life as a bathroom. Kwade shattered a mirror, outlined it, then used the outline to cut this steal and position it as the mirror had shattered. All of these pieces problematize how we decide what is valuable and what is not. Along these lines, in the introduction of Winter Shorts, editors Clementine Burnley and Sharon Dodua Otoo refer to W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness.” Burnley explains, “Du Bois wrote about the way double consciousness comes into being for us as Black people, because society sees us through a largely negative filter of assumptions and prejudices. Double consciousness is about both aspects: how we see ourselves as individuals or as a group and how society sees us” (10). Kwade’s work not only reflects the two aspects of the double consciousness, but also the filters that are used to manipulate which lives the mainstream society deems valuable.

Cahn VIn the afternoon, we were craving Thai food, so we took the metro to Charlottenburg and Chris showed me a little slice of heaven in Preuβenpark, also known as Thai Park. Exiting the flowery trail, we came upon a sea of umbrellas, shielding the vendors from the sun or drizzle, whichever one cared to pass by. There had to be at least fifty vendors, many who actually cooked the food right there in front of the customers after they ordered. Of course, I noticed that most of the vendors were Asian, whereas most of the customers were white. In Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak OutMay (Opitz) Ayim notes, “Turkish kabob, Greek gyros, Italian pizza, Indian and African teas have long since become a regular part of everyday life in the Federal Republic. Nevertheless the people who have made these and other enrichments possible through their contribution to cultural diversity are regarded with caution” (136). While Showing Our Colors was published in 1986, Germany may still be in much of the same situation. This also reminds me of the chorus of “Gold” by High Klassified,

They say melanin is in
I just can’t see why
‘Cause you love our style, ‘cause you love our skin
‘Cause you love our food but there ain’t no love within.

Cahn VIIThat night, half of the group went out for sushi and drinks at Le Coq D’or in Friedrichshain. Afterwards, everyone decided to go back to the apartment except for Nitika and I. On our way to Newton Bar, we were approached by a group of people on the metro and a couple of guys started asking us where we are from. For the first time during our stay in Germany, they did not take “the United States” for an answer. They said, “No, but where are you really from? You guys look Latina.” Nitika is Indian, and I am Indonesian, so when they said that we looked Latina, it only emphasized what we already knew: they wanted to know why we have brown skin, not where we come from (whatever that even means). Ayim describes an all too familiar sentiment, “No matter where I go, I know some guy is going to say something to me—especially at parties: ‘Well, where do you come from?’” (151). Again, we see that for the “Other,” not much has changed.


CahnAmanda Cahn is from Portland, Oregon and a rising senior at Colorado College, with a major in Feminist and Gender Studies and a minor in Spanish. She is passionate about advocating for reproductive rights and has worked with Planned Parenthood teaching sexual education in public high schools, as well as analyzing statistical data from their various sexual education programs. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and spending time with friends.

 

Hidden and Recovered Narratives: Women in the Center of Berlin Tour

By Amelia Eskenazi

IMG_2241We woke up to the pitter-patter of the rain once more, looking out the window, saddened by the gray skies greeting us. After all, it was Alejandra’s 20th birthday, and we were looking forward to celebrating later. At 8:07, we frantically tried to find a route to the Reichstag that would allow us to take some form of public transportation, preferably the U-Bahn, seeking the dry sanctuary of the train. Luckily enough, Baheya was able to find a subway route that got us partially there. So, I trudged out of the house with my fellow FemGeniuses, regretting the fact that I did not have a raincoat and the fact that I had not planned further in advance, as the prospect of finding an umbrella to buy at 8:15 am seemed unlikely.

At the Reichstag, we met our tour guide, Dr. Iris Wachsmuth, a self-identified lesbian and feminist activist. She is a member of the group Miss Marple’s Sisters, a “network for local women’s history.” Founded in 1989 around the goal of researching women’s history, this group of female historians seeks to “think [of] women’s history as [the] center of historical analysis” as well as “acquire symbolic competence.” Dr. Wachsmuth began the tour by explaining that her goal was to “find traces that don’t belong to the mainstream” and expose new stories. This reminded me of Dr. Maisha Eggers’ idea in “Knowledges of (Un) Belonging” about “contesting racist representations towards dismantling legitimized and historicized racialized knowledges” (1). Dr. Eggers continues to write,

Hegemonic knowledge systems around Blackness (as well as around gender and sexuality as intricately linked to Blackness) have tended to be deeply implicated in a form of projection in which Blackness is marked and scrutinized to actually produce constructions of whiteness” (12).

Similarly, Dr. Wachsmuth told us that on November 15, 1884, the Berlin West Africa Conference began and took place for months after in Berlin. This conference was organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany, as a means of mitigating arguments surrounding the furthered colonization of Africa. Africans, however, were excluded from this conversation, while various countries, including Germany, Belgium, England, the United States, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, discussed the division of Ethiopia and Liberia. Before leaving the site commemorating this conference, Dr. Wachsmuth explained that the Herero were demanding reparations after the genocide from 1904-1907 as a result of the Herero Wars. Few people know that several dead bodies were also brought back to Germany for research purposes. Nevertheless, Germany has not formally recognized these actions as genocide. Now, that’s something you don’t learn about in history class!

IMG_2229I found it interesting that Germany has candidly acknowledged the history of the Holocaust, yet is still resistant towards the recognition of a genocide that took place over a century ago. Germany’s history, drenched with the filth of white supremacy, must be admitted in full. It is not enough to attest to atrocities when it is advantageous. As R. Ruth Linden notes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections On Women in the Holocaust,” “By defining certain historical and cultural subjects as epicentral while regarding others as peripheral,” gender is “universalized” (18). She continues to ask: “How do our locations as knowers, including our feminist commitments, shape the questions we ask, and hence, the knowledge we produce?” (18). If we claim to value the history of all women, why is more focus placed on some narratives over others? Furthermore, how are specific narratives used as a convenience for covering other lived experiences?

As the tour continued, the rain lingered, seeping through my black boots, my socks sloshing with every step. We eventually had to stop inside of an S-Bahn station after a quick coffee break because of the deluge. Here, Dr. Wacshmuth explained that the beginning of Berlin’s governmental leadership was a constitutional monarchy made up of strictly white men. It was not until after the First World War in 1918 that the government was a democracy and women delegates were able to partake. Nevertheless, women were not able to be on committees involving finance or the economy, only social committees such as education. This seems to be quite ironic, however, considering the fact that women were not able to attain any higher education in Germany until the early 1900s. Even then, many women were seen as guest students and were required to go through side doors in order to get to their classes. This was nearly 60 years after the first Women’s Movement in Germany, during which women from rich families demanded an increase in rights as well as the ability to obtain an education. While most women in Germany now are able to obtain an education, an important question to consider remains: who are the women who lack this privilege today, and why?

During our tour, Clara Zetkin, German socialist and advocate for women’s rights was brought up several times. Zetkin was instrumental in organizing International Women’s Day and impacted Germany enough to have a street named after her (though it was changed for some time while the Berlin Wall was up under the influence of the GDR). According to Karen Honeycutt in “Clara Zetkin: A Socialist Approach to the Problem of Woman’s Oppression,” Zetkin was a proponent of “bringing working-class women together on a regular basis for organized activities separate from those of their male colleagues” (136). This made me think about working class women, immigrants, and women of color in Germany today. Have their rights been elevated alongside upper-class white women?

I began to wonder about the space that women of color are allotted in the prominent history of Germany. Why is it that two different walking tours did not mention a single name of a woman of color? There was never a mention of the struggles of Turkish women or the authors of Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), for example. I would like to end, then, with an expansion of Linden’s question from earlier: How do our locations as knowers influence the knowledge we value and the consequential subjectivities we ignore?


EskenaziAmelia Eskenazi is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Indianapolis, Indiana with a major in Feminist and Gender Studies. In their free time, Amelia is a fan of film photography, making zines, and listening to punky girl bands. While in Berlin, they look forward to eating vegan pastries, exploring flea markets, and documenting all of the street art.

Superqueeroes at the Schwules* Museum

By Grace Montesano

IMG_0500The Museum

Our guide, Hannes, was one of the exhibit curators and began the tour with some background information on the museum. The Schwules Museum* was founded 30 years ago by three white German gay men who were working at the Berlin Museum and wanted to establish a permanent museum devoted to gay history. “Schwule” means gay in German, and Hannes noted that, similarly to “gay” in English, this word had been (and continues to be) used in a derogatory many, but that many in the LGBTQIA community, including the museum, were reclaiming it.

Hannes also told us why there is an asterisk following the museum name. In 2008, the Board of Directors decided that they wanted to open up the museum for the rest of the LGBTQIA community, considering that it had focused primarily on the history of white, cisgender, gay men up to that point. Borrowed from something the trans community was doing in the U.S., the asterisk denotes that even though the name of the museum is specific to gay men, the museum itself is inclusive of many queer identities.

IMG_0477This strategy can be problematized through an examination of liberal politics. Many organizations that are marginalized sometimes feel they must expand the scope of their organization either to give the appearance of progress or out of a genuine desire to include other marginalized people. These both stem from liberal understandings of “inclusivity” and “diversity.” Black feminists have been critical of this notion for years, especially concerning white feminism. First, because other marginalized groups often have their own thing going on (Hannes mentioned that German lesbians have a more extensive archive that predates the Schwules Museum* by ten years), and second, because assimilation is not a tactic that helps the most marginalized, but rather a tactic that helps those complicit in existing power structures to maintain power. Additionally, “trans*” has been changed in the U.S., because it implies that anyone who is not binary/passing/post-op is conditionally trans.

In many ways, however, this is working quite well. For example, all the signs in the Superqueeroes exhibit use the “gender gap,” which resists how certain German words are gendered by replacing part of the word with an underscore. In addition, the exhibit featured several trans artists and the rest seemed to be almost equally about lesbians and gay men. Another exhibit that we stopped in briefly at the end was art entirely done by trans artists. While not perfect, this is in many ways a step above similar attempts in the U.S.

IMG_0484Although most of the comics in the exhibition are actually American, there were some interesting historical parallels that seemed relevant to Germany and other parts of Europe. Hannes told us about the comic burnings between 1945 and 1955 in the U.S., during which people would publicly burn piles of comic books. Much of this stemmed from author Frederic Wertham, who wrote Seduction of the Innocent in order to argue that comic books were turning the children into criminals. While Hannes didn’t mention this explicitly, his discussion made me think about the Nazi book burnings happening around the same time. As Erik Jensen writes in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” “While the American gay community often employed the Jewish Holocaust as a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, the German gay community generally avoided this comparison” (342). The collective memory of American gays concerning the treatment of homosexuals during the Holocaust is very different from the German understanding. Perhaps that is why this parallel seemed so obvious to me.

By Queers, For Queers

Throughout the exhibition, there were two main categories of comics that were shown: comics that were written by queers for queers, in which a significant part of the story line has to do with queer identity, and mainstream comics that incorporate queer characters as a side note to a larger plot line. These categories are both significant, especially given the influence of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Between 1955 and 2011, the CCA (a private board that governed all the mainstream publishing houses) dictated what types of content could be in comics. The list of banned subjects included any type of explicit sexuality, drugs, violence, the words “horror” and “terror,” undead characters, and critiques of military/police/judges. Further, homosexual content was not allowed by the CCA until 1989. In response, the 1960s brought about an explosion of underground comics that used “comix” instead of “comics” to denote the change.

IMG_0482Within this underground movement, there was yet another split as queers and women grew tired of the sexism, racism, and heterosexuality that dominated the underground scene. Comix publishers, such as “Wimmens Comix” and “Tits & Clits” were founded to counter this phenomenon. An important note is that in 1972, a woman named Trina Robbins created the first gay comic “Sandy Comes Out.” As our friends at the ADEFRA meeting pointed out, lesbians are always at the beginning of a movement, despite dominant groups trying to push them from the front lines.

In the newer era of web comics, one person making a name for herself is Scout Tran-Caffee (Dax). She is a non-binary, trans woman of color who has created comics that transcend the page and are only possible in the virtual parallel universe. This unapologetic love for the trans experience is amazing, especially when compared to the stale decades old statements that Marvel is trying to make about sexuality.

Mainstream Comics

IMG_0485There is an absolutely striking difference between the levels of political thought and storytelling in the mainstream comics and comix. The former use a quite different parallel universe in which gay sexual encounters exist between superheroes as a way to simultaneously draw in queer readers while retaining their (presumably) heterosexual audience (a tactic used in almost every form of media, commonly referred to as “queer-baiting”). Sadly, the most progressive comic we looked at featured Wonder Woman officiating a lesbian wedding and then explaining her actions by saying, “Where I come from it’s not gay marriage, it’s just marriage.” This sort of assimilationist, liberal language illustrates the significance of many queer artists saying that they are queer and actively queering the way comics are written and produced.

These comics also incorporate the problematic notion of “coming out.” Hannes repeatedly referred to the “coming out page” of a comic. As noted by many scholars, the conceptualization of “outness” is a Western construct that is often used as a litmus test for progressivism. Within the Western context, coming out is often problematized for perpetuating compulsory heterosexuality. As Jürgen Lemke writes about the coming out process in East Berlin before the Wall fell, “The coming-out generally catapults her or him…into the cold, hard world. Very often a banishment from the family unit will be the harsh result” (33). The “coming out pages” for these superheroes are only necessary because until that page is created, they are heterosexual by default. This marks another stark difference regarding comics being written by queers, for queers, because operating with a knowledge base of other sexualities changes the way you write about and conceptualize those sexualities in media you are producing.

Conclusion

IMG_0498Hannes informed us that this was the first exhibition about queer comics in all of Europe. It is quite obviously a highly interesting field and many books could be (and probably have been) written about it. The key lessons I took away from the experience are that independent artists have more political freedom, which almost always means they produce more interesting art. The other thing I took away is that critical consumption of media is important and should be a constant process, but that sometimes it is just pretty cool to see Wonder Woman as a lesbian.


MontesanoGrace Montesano is a rising senior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies as well as Political Science at Colorado College. They love discussing politics, and are known for making obscure references to various media that no one else has heard of. Grace is skeptical of the 9/11 story we have all been told, and believes the jury is definitely still out about the existence of mermaids.

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.