How Audre Lorde made Black and feminist history in Germany and beyond
Exploring the author's salient legacy
Exploring the author's salient legacy
"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house". This statement by Audre Lorde is still as elegant, radical and relevant today as it was in the late 1970s. When marginalised groups pay heed to Lorde's message and forge their own utensils, they can bring about a lot of positive change. Eventually, they even get to dismantle the master's street signs.
Audre Lorde was an exceptional African-American writer, professor and feminist activist – who would famously refer to herself as 'black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.' Lorde's life and work is well documented in encyclopaedias, books and academic papers.This blog takes a closer look at how Audre Lorde impacted German society, and how she is connected to a substantial number of items in this database of European culture.
Lorde was born and raised in the United States where she also spent the better part of her adult life. She first came to Germany in 1984, at the age of 50. Back then, she was a visiting scholar to the Free University of Berlin, invited by German sociologist Dagmar Schultz. Lorde made a lot of friends, inspired a lot of people – first and foremost, but not exclusively: black women – and kept coming back to the city on a regular basis until 1992. Schultz later on made a documentary on this era: Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years.
It is remarkable to see what the charismatic writer and activist achieved in relatively short time. She only stayed a couple of months, and in 1985 she did not visit at all. To begin with, she coined the term 'Afro-Germans' or ; Afro-Deutsche', which is now a widely known and accepted word for people of Sub-Saharan African descent who are citizens of or live in Germany.
Lorde also inspired the foundation of ADEFRA (Afrodeutsche Frauen = Afro-German Women), the first grassroots activist group of its kind, formed by black feminists and lesbians (Jasmin Eding, Judy Gummich, Elke Jank, Katja Kinder, Katharina Oguntoye, Daniela Tourkazi, Eva von Pirch, and others) in Berlin in 1986. The organisation is active and influential up to the present day.
An early literary landmark that emerged from the ADEFRA sphere was the non-fiction book Farbe bekennen ('Showing your colours'), written by May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye, with Dagmar Schultz taking on the role of the publisher. It is not surprising at this point that Audre Lorde not only inspired the book, but also provided a foreword: 'This the first joint attempt by Afro-German women to share the reality of their lives with white Germans and others'. Of course, this reality was dramatically shaped by sexism, racism, 'otherness' and Germany's colonial past.
During her time in Berlin, Audre Lorde became a mentor to May Ayim and also to other pioneering Afro-German writers and activists, like Helga Emde or Ika Hügel-Marshall. She thus helped foster an entire scene of black/female/queer academics, artists and activists who had little visibility before.
A fascinating aspect of Lorde's own activism was the fact that even though she identified as black and lesbian, she would frequently reach out to white, heterosexual women, as she considered intersectionality an avenue into a better, diverse, and inclusive future.
The influence of Lorde's literary and academic writing in Germany and Europe is hard to measure, but it is safe to say that everyone who is concerned with the history of feminist/black/queer activism and emancipation is likely to mention her name at some point.
Take for instance 'Queer-Feminist Punk – An Anti-Social History' by Vienna-based scholar Katharina Wiedlack. The book, which came out in 2015 and is available for free via Europeana, is full of references to the late, great Audre Lorde.
Let us not get lost in details, though. Let us rather come back to the quote at the beginning, the fight against colonial ideology, and the publicly visible legacy of Audre Lorde and her friends in Berlin.
A rather big day for female Afro-Germans, women of colour in general, and progressive citizens of Berlin came in 2011 when – after a lot of debate and petitioning – a prominent riverside road in Kreuzberg was finally renamed May-Ayim-Ufer, in remembrance of the Ghanaian-German writer and companion of Audre Lorde. Before that, it had been called Gröbenufer for more than 100 years – after Otto Friedrich von der Groeben, a Prussian colonialist and facilitator of the Transatlantic slave trade.
Very recently, in 2021, the district of Kreuzberg, Berlin, decided there should also be a street dedicated to Audre Lorde herself, once again replacing an anachronic name giver of questionable reputation. The Northern part of Manteuffelstraße, which connects two Kreuzberg main streets and used to honour the highly conservative, antidemocratic Prussian politician Otto Theodor von Manteuffel, will soon be adorned by street signs remembering the black, feminist writer.
In 2022, Afro-German feminist thought is more visible than ever (a new generation of writers like Alice Hasters or Sharon Dodua Otoo is actually making a big splash), topics like structural racism and sexism are frequently debated in mainstream media – and new initiatives to dismantle the master's street signs are underway.
While this development is owed to many progressive voices and a collective effort, the impact of Audre Lorde and her work in Berlin can hardly be underestimated.