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.

#BlackLivesMatter All over the World: Initiative in Memory of Oury Jalloh

By Samantha Gilbert

IMG_8809Why is it that Michael Brown, an 18 year old black man who stole a few packets of cigarettes, can be shot on the spot by a white policeman, but James Holmes, a young white male, can shoot an entire movie theatre and kill 12 people, yet still be able to go to trial? This is a question that ensued after an emotional and eye-opening discussion we had today with Nadine Saeed and Mouctar Bah, extremely passionate activists part of the Initiative in Memory of Oury Jalloh.

To start off our session, Nadine shared with us the story of Oury Jalloh. 10 years ago, three women cleaning the streets called the police because they claimed that a young black man named Oury Jalloh was “harassing” them. Though he was only asking to use one of their cellphones to call his girlfriend, the police showed up immediately, eager to arrest any person of color, especially a migrant. At 8:15 am, Jalloh was aggressively arrested and thrown into a police cell. Four hours later, he was chained to a bed and burned alive. The police claim Jalloh set himself on fire, and without any further investigation of the crime scene, this became the concrete story. But there was no possible way for this to be a suicide. For one, Jalloh was tightly cuffed by each arm and leg to the mattress which made any movement of his hands impossible. Secondly, the lighter “found at the crime scene” had no traces of fibers from Jalloh’s clothing or the mattress, and was not turned in as evidence until three days after the burning took place. And finally, the extent to which Jalloh was burned was only capable through the use of a combustive agent and the absence of the anti-flammable mattress cover. However, the courts didn’t care. Even with this evidence, they ruled Jalloh’s death a homicide, and only charged a 10,800€ fine to one police officer for not saving Jalloh when the fire alarm initially went off. They also charged the police chief for turning off the fire alarm despite his excuse that the fire alarm was broken. As this case continued to be appealed, video evidence disappeared and police stories kept changing, but the verdict stayed the same.

IMG_8811Hearing this story physically made my heart hurt, and it reminded me of the contemporary Black Lives Matter (also referred to as Black Life Matters) movement in the United States. The Brown vs. Ferguson case brought needed attention to this issue, but there are dozens of cases just like Brown’s. Take for example the story of Victor White. He was a young Black man who police claimed “shot himself in the head” in the back of a police car in Louisiana after being arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Despite being handcuffed with no ability to move his hands, his death was ruled a suicide. There are countless other Black men and women who have similar stories, so I am very aware of racism in America. However, racism in Germany is brought to a whole different, unique level.

Not only are police able to get away with killing minorities here, but the secret service in Germany actually funds and organizes the National Socialist Underground, a racist and terrorist group associated with the KKK that has been killing innocent minorities for years. Racism is not only tolerated in this country, but is deeply rooted in every system of power. I am shocked. I am appalled. I am disgusted. As Maureen Maisha Eggers made clear in her article “Knowledges of (Un-) Belonging,” it’s difficult to even achieve a discussion of racism, let alone find a way to fight it and end it. Sandrine Micossé-Aikins, who we met with earlier today, echoes this idea in the introduction of The Little Book of Big Visions, a text she co-edited with Sharon Dodua Otoo (whom we’ll meet with next week). Micossé-Aikins told us that racism is so rarely talked about in Germany that people don’t even understand it exists, even though it is happening everywhere every day. She tightly links racism with nationalism—since the normative narrative is that Germans are white, so if you are not white, then you “can’t be German.”

IMG_8812The Initiative in Memory of Oury Jalloh has been investigating this case for years, with the hope of finally exposing the truth. They have worked with investigative journalists and have interviewed dozens of people connected to Jalloh and the police officers responsible for this crime. They have also made short films and held conferences to inform people of the situation. Ten years later and Oury Jalloh’s case is still being fought, and I can only hope that this time the courts bring him the justice he deserves. The Initiative is aware that the lawyers involved in Jalloh’s case aren’t activists and that they aren’t concerned about fighting for the truth, but rather doing what is best for them and their reputation. Nadine told us today that although she no longer has any belief in the judicial system, she believes it’s crucial for everyone to try to change the things they see going wrong in the world. Similarly, Philipp Khabo Köpsell gives hope to ending racism in “A Futurist’s Manifesto,” in which he writes, “This poem tells nothing about racism…. / In the future we rap about love / over beats made from smashing laptops against walls / rhythmically in sync with the tapping of / next door’s love birds. / In the future we love too much.” I can only hope that Koepsell’s vision comes true, but until then, the fight for justice and equality will continue. Oury Jalloh may be gone, but he is most certainly not forgotten.


SamanthaSamantha Gilbert is a sophomore who hails from Northern California and loves to be outside. From hiking to snowboarding to just breathing fresh air, nature really has her heart. She also really loves being active, as she runs track and field at CC as the team’s main female sprinter. She also writes for the sports section of The Catalyst, and is extremely passionate about journalism. She hopes to create her own major in Sports Psychology and double minor in Film & New Media Studies and Feminist & Gender Studies. Other hobbies of hers include watching The Food Network (specifically Chopped), going exploring with friends, and developing strong one on one connections with unique souls. Samantha loves traveling and learning, so this course has her super excited!

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Nadine Saeed and Katrin Jullien of the Initiative in Memory of Oury Jalloh

By Casey Schuller

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Nadine Saeed

After a little confusion about our meeting place this afternoon, we met Nadine Saeed at Heidi’s apartment. We all snuggled in on and around the bed in the common room as Nadine started to tell us about her work in remembrance of Oury Jalloh. Nadine has been an activist for 5-6 years now, but the passion she speaks with sounds life-long. When Nadine was younger, she started listening to Bob Marley and was inspired by his words. Later, unhappy at her university, she started working with refugees. As she told her story, she said, “I feel alive when I’m with people willing to struggle.” Nadine feels that it is not necessarily important where someone came from or what their gender is, but its “just important what you have in your head.”

Oury JallohOury Jalloh was an asylum seeker born in Sierra Leone who later moved to Guinea. His parents collected money so that he could go to Europe, but he soon found that refugees live in isolation, in camps Nadine compared to concentration camps. They have little contact with the wider German society because of intense xenophobia. Hence, life is made very hard for them as integration is made almost impossible, especially since they are not allowed to work. In response to some women having German children so that they can get a passport, Nadine said that this is “not the fault of the women, but of the system.” Additionally, migrant men often get involved with drugs and alcohol, which sometimes leads to suicide. They are “killed by the government” in both psychological and physical ways.

Despite these hardships, Jalloh did his best in Germany. He fell in love with a white German woman who became pregnant with his child at the age of 19. Her racist brother and father insisted she give the child up for adoption because they felt she should not have a half-Black child. Despite changing her mind on the adoption within the allowed 3-month retraction period, she was refused her child because Jalloh was an asylum seeker who was considered less than human and certainly incapable of raising a child. Nadine mentioned that much of the problem with racism in Germany is the high tolerance the public has for it. Few people react to heinous racism, a problem we can definitely relate to in the United States.

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Nadine Saeed and the FemGeniuses

On January 7, 2005, Jalloh was arrested after he was asked for his passport and refused to give it.  He was fed up with being singled out and questioned because of his skin color. After tackling him and finding his asylum seeker card, the police determined he was still too hard to identify and they put him in a cell. After drawing his blood, he was fixed to the mattress with his hands and feet cuffed. His nose, ears, and wrists were broken, possibly among other bones. Later that day, Jalloh was killed in cell number 5 by a fire in the police station. This event received some news coverage at the time; although, many witnesses of this fire were soon deported.

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Hatef Soltani (CrossPoint) and the FemGeniuses

After his death, the police tried to spread the story that Jalloh somehow killed himself while being completely restrained. The State Office of Criminal Investigation made a video after the “suicide,” which includes pictures of his burned body. Again, “somehow” the majority of this video was deleted and only four minutes of it remain. Despite strong evidence that Jalloh was murdered, his case has yet to be fully successful. The police officers have changed their stories and have no alibi, evidence has disappeared, and laws were broken, one of which required the police station to call a judge within two hours of arresting Jalloh to get permission to hold him. The case has since been dropped several times because it “is not in the interest of the public” to continue it.

Part of Nadine’s work, then, has been collecting evidence for Jalloh’s case. After a lighter was found under his body (with no traces of his DNA or the mattress on it), the Initiative started looking into how he was burned and why no one heard him scream. After many trials using a dead pig’s body, they discovered that he must have been burned by fire experts and that an accelerant was definitely involved. After many, many trials and excessive amounts of petrol, they were never able to recreate the amount of damage done to Jalloh’s body. Lies told in court and gaps in the police’s defense aside, 2 or 3 revisions have been called in court—the next one this August.

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L to R: Kaimara, Melissa, Beril, Ximena, Nicole, Nadine Saeed, Katrin Jullien, Stefani, Kadesha, Casey, and Blaise

Nadine’s other main focus has been how the situation was handled. This includes the officer who turned off the fire alarm twice and the ministries helping to hide it, which encourages the mindset that it is okay for the police to kill. Heidi and Nadine discussed how unacceptable and horrible this brutality is, no matter who the victim may be. So often people try to make the victim into a saint; yet, whether the victim was high on drugs or a perfect student, it shouldn’t change the way the crime is viewed. Police violence is a big problem in Germany, and most cases are dropped quickly in court. Nadine’s goal, along with her comrades, is to keep his story alive, as forgetting only helps perpetuate police brutality. Even when the government interferes by cutting off the phones and communication of her and other activists, Nadine is not deterred. She will keep fighting and fundraising her whole life, if necessary. Despite this touching story and the influence it has had on Nadine, she finished by stressing that Oury Jalloh a symbol in a larger fight for many victims, such as Christy Schwundeck. Needless to say, we all came out of this talk asking for an Oury Jalloh t-shirt from Nadine so that we can also support this important fight!

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Casey IICasey Schuller is entering her junior year at Colorado College. She is majoring in Sociology with a minor in Anthropology, and she is particularly interested in media and gender. She has been particularly challenged by this class, since for the first time in her life, she is being out-sassed by those around her.