Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years

By Cheanna Gavin

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
—Audre Lorde

Snapchat-1321204095298185718As our third full day in Berlin comes to an end, I can’t help but reflect not only on all of the amazing opportunities we have already experienced, but also all of the amazing people we have been able to meet. Today alone, we were able to meet four women who worked closely with Audre Lorde and see first-hand how she influenced them, as well as the influence they have had on their own communities. The day started off at the Joliba Intercultural Network, where we met with Katharina Oguntoye, the organization’s Founder and Director. I had a small background on the work Katharina had done in the ’80s from reading Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, which was co-edited by her, Dagmar Schultz and May (Opitz) Ayim. Today, I got to see the work she continues to do now, and the changes she has been a part of for the past 30 years. After an exciting morning with Oguntoye, we were able to meet with Ika Hügel-Marshall, Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück, and Dagmar Schultz at Each One Teach One (EOTO), which felt like the perfect place. EOTO was created for the Black community, and its name means each Black person should teach another Black person their history/culture in order to form connections and build community. As the only Black student on this trip, this was a very special space for me.

Earlier this week, we watched Schultz’s film Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, and got a glimpse into Lorde’s time in Berlin, as well as her relationships with Schultz, Marshall, Oguntoye, Ayim, and other important people in the Black Women’s movement. As we learned in the movie, Lorde began visiting Berlin in 1984 as a guest professor. Schultz met Lorde in 1980 at the UN’s World Conference on Women in Copenhagen. Around 1984, the women’ss movement was just beginning in Germany, and Schultz believed Lorde would be a driving force. While teaching, Lorde met the Black Germans that came to her classes and encouraged them to write. Eventually, this led to the publication of Showing Our Colors. At this time, the term “Afro-German” was created, which exemplifies the influence of Black women activists. Along these liness, in “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” Maisha Eggers writes,

The naming project set out to embrace and acknowledge the position of subjects of African ancestry/heritage and German linage/situatedness/identity. At the same time, it symbolized a conscious endeavor to discard derogatory (German) terms connoting Blackness. Political self-definition as Afro-Germans, later Black Germans, initiated a new sense of collective identity and self-appreciation (3).

Not all of the activists involved in this movement were Black-Germans, though. Schultz spoke about how she interpreted her role in the movement as a white German woman, which often is not discussed. Regarding their participation in a movement for Black German women, Schultz arguess that White German women must critically analyze their role and intentions. In order to check her privilege and remain critical, Schultz said she would ask herself, “What am I missing out on by not including women of color?” instead of only asking, “How can I help them?”

IMG_0231 (2)While living in the U.S. from 1963-1973, Schultz learned from the activists she worked with and adopted the strategy of not primarily basing her participation on whether or not she would lose her job, something she had been threatened with many times. While in the U.S., Schultz lost multiple jobs for this reason, including a publishing job from which she was let go for publishing something questionable about the church and refusing to allow her boss to review all of her work after that article was published. By taking this and similar approaches, white Germans may find a way to escape the immobilizing white guilt Lorde discusses in the foreword to Showing Our Colors (xiii) and actively dismantle racism, sexism, xenophobia, heterosexuality, antisemitism, and other forms of oppression. As Schultz has aged and become less active in particular ways, her strategies have changed. Now, she works on telling her story of Audre Lorde in Berlin and teaches German to refugees.

We also got to speak with author Ika Hügel-Marshall, who was also a major factor in the formation of the Black women’s movement in Germany. Marshall is the author of Invisible Woman: Growing up Black in Germany (1997), which is the first autobiography written by a Black woman in Germany. In “Troubling Categories, I can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” Ruth Linden argues that the histories we learn are a reflection of our own identities. In this case, Marshall is making history, and it is important this narrative is shared. Marshall spoke a lot about the tremendous impact of her relationship with Audre Lorde, so much that she was with Lorde the day she passed away, along with Schultz and Ayim. [Note: Early on, Marshall mentioned her English was not as good, so she didn’t speak as much. For that reason, we did not get to know her as well, but we were still learn a great deal about her life and her journey as a Black German woman.]

Last, we spoke with Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück, who is from an el barrio in New York City and has lived in Berlin for 30 years. It was important for her to provide us with a transnational and intergenerational perspective. She spoke about her early connections in Germany (through the work of Audre Lorde and ADEFFRA) with Ria Cheatom, Judy Gummich, and Jasmin Eding, and still considers them her sisters today. She was also mentored by Gloria Wekker through a women’s/gender studies summer school. Here, she was able to connect with Black German women and women from throughout the Black Diaspora here in Germany. I see this as a continuation of the successful work that the Black women’s movement started in connecting the Black community.

Snapchat-1083077621951262231Dück also spoke about mental health and self-care. I was really able to relate to what she was saying, because many students of color back at Colorado College have been working to create spaces for people of color and to stress the importance of self-care. Dück discussed the toll that activism takes on the minds, bodies, and spirits of women of color and how spaces for women of color are crucial in mitigating this damage. As Eggers points out, “With the emergence of Black women activists, first individually and then collectively, belonging became a particular interest that required addressing” (3). Self-care is particularly important for women of color because of the battle fatigue they are constantly experiencing due to racism, sexism, heterosexism, and various other forms of oppression. By creating and nurturing these spaces, we allow for self-care, more opportunities for “Each One, Teach One” to occur, and more connections to be made.

Being in a room with these women was really grounding for me. Seeing them in films, reading about them, and reading their work made me a bit star-struck. But as Schultz’s movie intended to “humanize” Lorde, this opportunity “humanized” each of them to me. As our session was coming to an end, we were all sitting and looking at pictures and watching videos of Marshall and Oguntoye with Lorde from the accompanying website for Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, laughing and eating strawberries. Never would I have imagined I would get this opportunity, and I am beyond grateful to have been able to meet such influential women. I look forward to all the other amazing opportunities to come while I am here with my fellow #FemGeniusesInBerlin.

GavinCheanna Gavin is a rising Junior at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies and potentially minoring in Human Biology and Kinesiology. She is on the Pre-Health track and planning to attend Physical Therapy School. Cheanna loves playing sports and is ecstatic to be a FemGenius in Berlin, as she can’t wait to explore and learn about different German cultures.


Meeting with Ika Hügel-Marshall

By Ximena Buller

Heidi, Ika, and Dagmar

Heidi, Ika, and Dagmar

Today I woke up very excited that we were going to meet Ika Hügel-Marshall, one remarkable and admirable woman and the author of the autobiography Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany, which the FemGeniuses are studying for our course. Born of an African-American soldier and a white German mother in 1947, Ika had to endure physical and psychological alienation because of being “different,”specifically because she is a non-white German. Ika faced prejudices and stereotypes from her childhood into her adult years. She is currently a teacher of gender studies and psychological counseling, focusing on intercultural teams and bi-national couples, and she has a degree in social pedagogics, publishing works that raise consciousness against racism.

For about two hours at Frauenkreise, we were given the honour of asking Ika questions that we had formulated together as a class the day before about her life, her book and Afro-German communities. During the session, Casey, another FemGeniuses, would ask the questions in English which were then translated to German by activist, author, and filmmaker Dagmar Schultz for Ika to answer. Ria Cheatom, Co-founder of ADEFRA and script Co-Author for Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984-1992, was also in the room. She and Dagmar also contributed to the discussion. At first, it felt unreal for me to be in front of Ika, the person I had read a life story about, which included the struggles she had to endure as well as her achievements. She had become an icon for me, a representation of strength and an example of how people can accept and come to ease with their identity even though they have been rejected and bullied by society because of it. Her bravery is very symbolic and inspirational, thus it meant a lot to me to be able to have this opportunity.

One of the responses by Ika that I will always be able to recall was about her relationship with her family in Chicago. She mentioned that she was very happy to find her father and her big family in the U.S., an event many Afro-Germans could only dream of. She mentioned how she could just be Ika in Chicago around her family without having to worry about stereotypes or being judged. She told us how she and her family would grill, dance and sing without any worries. At the beginning, she found this very impressive because those stereotypes that people spoke about in Germany, such as the idea that all Blacks like to sing and dance, her family in the U.S. was embracing without being solely defined by them. This reminds me of a passage in Invisible Woman when Ika writes, “In the eyes of my teachers, everything I do-especially the difficulties I have in school, but also my successes, achievements, and all that I’m proud of – is a function of the colour of my skin.” During our discussion, she also told us that visiting her family “strengthened her” as a Black person, “healed her,” and “allowed her to deal with racism” in a different and healthier way. She had finally came with ease with her identity, and she said that although she felt comfortable being Black, she also felt comfortable feeling German.

Class with Ika, Dagmar, and Ria

L to R: Beril, Kadesha, Casey, Ika, Ximena, Stefani, Blaise, Heidi, Dagmar, Nicole, Melissa, Ria, and Kaimara

This response relates to another question we asked regarding how her relationship with and responses to racism changed over the years. When answering this question, Ika mentioned that she had become more calmed and relaxed about the issue of racism and that “it is more important to face things than to take distance and try to ignore them.” She is now willing to accept other perspectives and contributions to conversations about racism, and she is able to respect these views, especially if they are coming from the minds of white people, whom she used to mistrust and avoid due to her anger.

When listening to Ika, one of the things that impressed me the most about her was the confidence with which she would answer all of our questions and her soft but energetic way of expressing herself. It was a great honour to meet her in person and be able to hear from her all those experiences that made her strong and make her an inspiration for other Afro-Germans. Although this blog is just a small taste of our talk, it is a demonstration of the kind of issues we discussed and the kind of role model she is. Thus, I encourage everybody reading this blog to look her up and learn more about her amazing life. For us, this was certainly an experience that we will cherish and that has inspired us to make a difference in the world as the strong-minded Femgeniuses we are!


XimenaXimena an international student at Colorado College. She is from Peru, and will be a sophomore this coming year. She is currently undeclared, but debating between majoring in Anthropology or Sociology. She is very excited to be in Berlin taking a course with Heidi and through CC, because it has so far allowed for a unique learning experience.