I am not Your Idea of Me

By Thabiso Ratalane

IMG_8925While reading Sharon Dodua Otoo’s the things I am thinking while smiling politely, I was intrigued by both the narrative and the style in which the author chose to write her unnamed African main character. First of all, my preconception of Germany as a mono-ethnic white absolute majority country was challenged. Here was a middle-class black woman in Berlin dealing with “middle-class problems” like her emotions about a broken marriage. This is an atypical written narrative about African migrants, who are often written into Western history as perpetual victims.

IMG_8927The narratives we often hear or read about regarding immigration and migrants in Western literature are ones about suffering and struggling to adjust to a new country that alienates them. Often, the immigration is either illegal or even involuntary, like in the cases of asylum-seekers. For instance, in “Voices in Exile” Asoka Esuruoso writes, “The old asylum seeker from Sierra Leon looked at me. Her face was wrinkled. Her jet-black wig perched precariously above her head was in the slow process of falling, ‘It’s the stress,’ she said” (165). A hyper-focus on narratives like Esuruoso’s, whilst true, have the potential to perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes that black people do not belong in Germany—that they are outsiders, encroaching in spaces that were not meant for them. Sharon’s narrative, then, challenges this kind of thinking in Germany. It reclaims the black narrative as its own, and portrays it as normal, human. It also echoes Phillipp Khabo Koepsell’s poem, “A Fanfare of the Colonized,” when he writes, “We [black people] can write this history…rewrite this damn story from the bottom to the top… reclaim what is mine and sound a fanfare for the colonized” (213).

As Sandrine Micossé-Aikins and Sharon point out, “black people are repeatedly reminded of, confronted with, and challenged by fantasies of white supremacy right up until the present day” (Micossé-Atkins and Otoo 9). In this way, Sharon’s work plays an important role in challenging this fantasy. It is, after all, what she describes as the literature she would have wanted to read growing up, and is now accessible to millions of black German women who now feel represented and situated firmly in German society. It is also the reason why her main character lacks a name. Sharon wanted every woman to be able to see herself in the main character, to relate to her problems, because they are truly universal and human.

We were all eager to meet Sharon and ask her our questions about her book. The anticipation leading to this moment could be seen in the excitement everyone showed when we learned that we all got to ask a question along with our introductions. Sharon briefed us on how her love for the German language led her to study the language, as well as her decision to move to Berlin from her childhood home in London. Her life’s story until this point resonated with the main character in her novella. Everyone was anxious to hear about how and if Sharon’s characters were informed by real life experiences, even possibly her own. But this led to us to a discussion on imagination and how authors of color are always expected to have recounted their lives in their produced works of literature, almost as if they are not allowed to have an imagination, like their white counter parts. It is the double standard that we, as students of intersectionality, found ourselves upholding and having to challenge.

IMG_8928I found it interesting to point out that using People of Color (POC) to refer to people of the African diaspora is highly contentious in Germany, as it does not carry the same cultural and political history as it does in the United States. Sharon, through her work in activism, finds the term very broad and highly inclusive, making it unable to pinpoint and encompass the specific racial problems facing particular groups included under the umbrella term. For instance, we established that there were different racisms in Germany and that the lived experience of racism for one racial group might not necessarily be true for the other group.

IMG_8926We concluded by picking Sharon’s brain on her thoughts about racism in both London and Berlin. She smiled and said that English people are sometimes too concerned with being polite so that their racism is often passive. She prefers Berlin where everyone is blatant about their racism, because then she is more comfortable with honesty.


Thabiso Ratalane

Thabiso Ratalane is a rising senior from the city of Maseru in the Southern African enclave of Lesotho. She dabbles in French and International Political Economy major divisions at Colorado College. Thabiso is passionate about fashion, linguistics, politics, writing, and social justice for minority groups around the world. Thabiso idolizes Anna Wintour; she finds her strong will, tenacity, efficiency, and passion for what she does admirable, and regards Wintour as a champion for female empowerment. Thabiso’s passion for minority groups and how they navigate social spaces that alienate them made this course and Berlin a perfect fit to spend her first month of the Summer.

Kwaheri, Nzitu!

L to R: Nzitu, Heidi, Jamile da Silva, Tina Ewokolo, and Sharon Dodua Otoo in Berlin, June 2014

L to R: Nzitu, Heidi, Jamile da Silva, Tina Ewokolo, and Sharon Dodua Otoo in Berlin, June 2014

The FemGeniuses family would like to take a moment to honor the life and work of Nzitu Mawhaka (1973-2014). Born in Arusha and raised in Cologne, Nzitu was a photographer and active member of the Initiative of Black People in Germany. Her work includes assisting theatre photographer Mara Eggert at the Schauspielhaus Hannover and acting as a photographer for Superficial – Fragile Terrains in Glass, which showed the latest work of the Finnish designer Anu Penttinen. Nzitu’s most recent position was as a Team Photographer for the “Homestory Deutschland.” Her book Daima: Images of Women of Colour in Germanya collection of selected black and white portraits of Black women, was published in 2013. Nzitu transitioned on August 8 in Berlin.

If you are interested in assisting her family with funeral costs and other expenses, please use the following information:

Phoenix e.V.
Stadtsparkasse Duisburg
IBAN: DE16350500000270007610

BIC (SWIFT): DUISDE33XXX

Reference: Nzitu Mawakha Memorial Fund
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Meeting Sharon Dodua Otoo and Discussing the Witnessed Series

By Ximena Buller Machado

Big Visions

Sharon Dodua Otoo

This morning, like any other, the FemGeniuses got ready for a day of class. Some of us ate breakfast at the apartment while others went to a bakery to get fresh goods. This time, we were going to have a session with “mother, activist, writer, and editor” (in that order) Sharon Dodua Otoo. Before this session, we read excerpts from her book The Little Book of Big Visions: How to Be an Artist and Revolutionize the World (co-edited with Sandrine Micossé-Aikins for the Witnessed series),which is an edited collection of essays written by Black artists in Germany. Otoo and Micossé-Aikins also present their ideals of equality in the form of images and text. This book is for those with an interest in transforming the current art scene in Germany and who want another perspective on contemporary art. I highly recommend people reading this to take a look at Otoo’s work.

Class with Sharon

Class w/ Sharon

We started with our usual introductions, and then it was Sharon’s turn to introduce herself. However, before she did that, she read a passage of her interestingly titled novella, the things i  am thinking while smiling politely, in which she discusses the importance of names and what her surname means to her, her family, and her communities. She then told us that she considers herself, above everything, a mother. This led her to speak about the experiences her children have had at school and how, from a very early age, they learned how to defend themselves against racism. She told us that this makes her really proud, because this shows that her sons know what the problem is and who’s problem it is, meaning that racism is the responsibility of racists and not the victims. She really hopes for other children to be able to defend their selves just as her sons, but she also hopes that eventually society changes and children do not have to go through these experiences. Sharon uses such personal examples in her work in order for her audience to relate to her and become inspired.

Witnessed Notes

Witnessed

She went on to tell us about Witnessed, which she founded. She told us how this project provides a safe space for Black men and women who would like to share their stories. These artists can express themselves in the form of novels, short stories, biographies, and the like. She mentioned how so many Black German stories, books, movies, and more are out there but are unfortunately not being seen or read. Thus, she created Witnessed to allow for unique perspectives from a group of people with multiple identities to be made available to the public. In order for these works to be widely appreciated, she is attempting to distribute her work transnationally, such as in the U.S., U.K. and countries in Africa. For this reason, this is an English-language series (also her first language), but some texts are available in German. By targeting other countries, she hopes people will start discussing these texts and the issues they examine so that they eventually make their way back to Germany to inspire discussion here. She calls this “the back door method,” because she feels that if these issues are talked about in the countries, there will be pressure in Germany from the outside to support anti-racism. Although she finds it hard to distribute these works overseas, she still makes the worthwhile effort. She even told us that she is aiming to publish one book every six months!

Daima

L to R: Beril (reading Daima), Melissa, Casey, and Kadesha

One book that has moved a large audience is Nzitu Mawakha’s Daima. This is a book that contains photos of Black women, and each woman was also asked to write a text expressing their thoughts about what it is like to be a Black woman living in Germany. The diversity of thoughts and experiences is probably why so many Black women reading it may relate to and be inspired by the text. Daima also features questions posed by the women in the pictures, which provides an interesting dynamic between them and the audience. These women are often asked questions concerning their identity and are now given a chance to ask questions to those who usually do the interrogating. Sharon also told us that Daima has garnered the most responses from readers and that she has received many “thank you” messages, as well as accounts of how good this book makes readers feel.

Class with Sharon Outside

L to R: Kadesha, Celine, Heidi, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Stephanie, Melissa, Casey, Beril, Blaise, Ximena, Kaimara, and Nicole

Meeting Sharon was very empowering. Her talk was not only very thought-provoking and motivating, but it also reminded us of the importance of self-expression through art. Writing is such a powerful tool, especially if writers are able to inspire and help others. The Witnessedseries, then, is very significant for both the artists telling these stories and for the audiences reading them. I hope, just like Sharon, that more projects like Witnessed will be created in order to successfully allow for Black German voices to be heard and that they eventually help to affect change in society.

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Ximena IIXimena is an international student at Colorado College who originally hails from Peru. Next year, she will be a sophomore, and is currently considering a major 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.