It’s been a while since I contributed to “Some Final Thoughts.” So, bear with me, please, as I shake some of the rust off.
Despite earning tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this spring, this year had its rough spots—some worse than others, especially the death of one of my closest aunts. Because of that, a few people—some who I thought were close to me and others who I knew weren’t—recommended that I cancel this course. In some strange way, I’m glad they did, because it reminded me of two very important things:
A lot of people who compliment me on this course have no idea what it is, what it does, and/or what it means—not just to me but to my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
This course means a lot to me and my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
My faith in the course was rewarded by a great group of students. They were thoughtful, kind, patient, interested, curious, and outright hilarious. I had so much fun with them, and I miss them already even though it’s only been one week since the course concluded. I could fill this page with memories:
Charles declaring, “Those two left at the same time.”
Me and Charles, singing, “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”
Laila’s hilarious faces and hand gestures—I wish I could type the sound she made to complement her monster face and hands.
Dana’s and my “cheese fight.”
Our first long-distance trip in the course.
The constant references to John’s future run for Senate.
Sarah’s broad-shouldered dinner jacket.
The search for mom jeans and the finding of a pair “in pristine condition.”
Dereka’s new nose ring.
And as always, we had such a great time with and learned so much from everyone in Berlin who gave their time and energy to the course. Best of all, I think everyone knew just how much we appreciated them, because these students made every effort to ensure that from start to finish. If you haven’t yet, please check out the student podcasts (index below) and share them with anyone you know who may be interested in what we study here.
2018 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
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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 Univercity, Jugend 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 Worldedited by Otoo and Sandrine Micossé-Aikins (2012), Daimaby 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.
I 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.
The 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.
Ivy 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.
This morning Baheya, Ivy and I sat around our dining room table discussing the plans for the day and enjoying our breakfast—sort of. While Baheya and Ivy had opted to make eggs and toast, I went the muesli route. I was only partially surprised to find out that the milk I bought was actually liquid yogurt. The surprise was partial because I seem to make this mistake in almost every new country I visit. This wouldn’t be a problem for someone who could appreciate liquid yogurt, I’m just simply not that person. I dejectedly ate half of my cereal concoction (I needed the sustenance) and then left the apartment, hoping for a better experience with our first visit with Katharina Oguntoye, Founder and Director of Joliba Intercultural Network.
Joliba is housed in two unassuming buildings in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin. Upon entering, we were greeted by several large paintings by Young Eun Sun, one of the current interns. Katharina Oguntoye also greeted us. Katharina was a highly influential figure in the early Afro-German women’s movement in Berlin. For instance she co-edited Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, which is regarded as the first and one of the most important books about the experiences of Afro-German women. Along those lines she’s been working towards liberation for many years, and it was neat to talk to such an important leader of the movement.
Katharina founded Joliba (another name for the Niger River, meaning “big river”) in 1997 as a place for intercultural networking and aiding immigrants. According to Katharina, this name was chosen because the Niger River connects many countries in West Africa, and the organization brings together many different people within Germany. This reminds me of the foreword to Showing Our Colors, in which Audre Lorde writes, “This book serves to remind African-American women that we are not alone in our world situation. In the face of new international alignments, vital connections and differences exist that need to be examined between African-European, African-Asian, African American women” (xiv). It is clear that the movement Katharina participated in so heavily with Lorde has informed the rest of her life’s work.
In her office, Katharina gave us a bit of history of the organization, and then we were able to ask her some questions. One of the themes she spoke about was her own experience with racism. In “What I’ve Always Wanted to Tell You” from Showing Our Colors, Katharina writes about the feeling of otherness she experienced when she was the only Afro-German that she knew. More specifically she explains reuniting with her brother: “It felt so good that the form of his hands and feet looked so much like mine. i loved him for making me feel that i was not alone, not an accidental exception” (215). Today in our discussion, Katharina strengthened this observation in several ways. She told us that Black Germans weren’t (and perhaps still aren’t) automatically recognized as German citizens. People would often ask her where she was from despite her being born in Germany. She went on to give the example of some anti-racist workshops she once co-led with her partner Carolyn Gammon. She said it was a very interesting exercise because she is Black German, and her partner is a White Canadian. This is the inverse of the way that most Germans conceptualize race, so some of the workshop participants are a little bit taken aback at first. I asked Katharina if there was ever any tension between the desire to be treated like a German citizen and to escape the othering, while simultaneously acknowledging that the white Germans had waged imperialist and colonialist efforts against several countries in Africa, including Ghana, Togo, Camaroon, Rawanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Namibia. She responded that while there is a very specific and negative connotation to being “proud” to be German, she is happy to be German. She is glad to be able to claim the rights of a German citizen and to a certain extent not have to deal with the xenophobia that foreigners must.
Her experiences make a lot of sense, especially within the context of the racism of colonial Germany. As written in Showing Our Colors, “In the consciousness of the colonial avengers Blacks remained subhuman creatures to be civilized and disciplined. It is no wonder, then, that the occupation by Black soldiers was felt by much of the German population to be especially humiliating” (43). From the introduction to the book, we learned that for some Afro-Germans, “The nicest thing they [were] ever called […] was ‘war-baby’” (vii). With these quotes in mind, we can really begin to understand that the racism against Afro-Germans was exacerbated by the colonial history in which Black people were seen as less than human. It also makes sense that Katharina could desire being treated like the German she is, while also critiquing the Germany of the past, especially considering colonial Germany’s role in enhancing racism towards Afro-Germans.
After having this discussion, we took a short but beautiful walk through part of the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin to the other Joliba building, where met several more of the interns—none of whom are Germans. One thing about Joliba is that it truly is an intercultural experience. Another really important aspect of the work at Joliba that we learned about is the importance of appreciating culture and having joy. Katharina introduced us to cultural projects, such as children’s books and the kora. She emphasized that this type of cultural exchange and “fun” activity are so important to this movement, because the pain and difficulty of fighting injustice every day takes a physical and emotional toll on a person. Along these lines, in Jasmin Eding’s profile of ADEFRA (an organization we will be visiting with later in the week!), she writes, “We are working on our vision to make ADEFRA a place for empowerment for women and their children, a place of comfort, a place to learn and to grow, a place to heal” (131). I trust what Katharina has to say about self-care, not only because other scholars like Eding (and Heidi!) seem to agree but also because she said it with the authority of seeing a movement grow from the beginning to the present, with all the ups and downs and failures and successes.
I really appreciated this experience of being able to see a successful organization that actually helps people that is also founded on progressive principles. It is very difficult to understand for the first time the source of your oppression. It’s complicated and painful even though it might be rewarding and helpful. However, it is even more difficult to take that knowledge and create something to change the problem. What was so interesting about this visit is that we had read Showing Our Colors, and now we were seeing Joliba after 20 years of operation. As Katharina said to us, the movement started with Showing Our Colors so in the span of a week, we have seen both ends of 20 years of activism. This visit also elucidated some of the readings from this week by giving us a palpable context, i.e. meeting Katharina. There is such a large difference between reading someone’s work and then getting to speak to them about it face to face. After reading her essays, then seeing her (briefly) in the documentary, a chance to ask questions was great!
I have purchased some eggs and toast for tomorrow. Hopefully the day will start well and end well with the exciting sessions we have in store!
Grace 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.