Audre Lorde, Katharina Oguntoye and May Ayim: Lesbian and Feminist Battles of Black Women in Berlin

Audre Lorde descended for the first time in Berlin-Tegel in the beginning of 1984. According to a friend, one of her first sentences were: “Where are all the Black Germans?” She unsuccessfully waited for an answer. An organized Black community hadn’t been known yet in Germany. So, Lorde went looking for it – by foot on the Berlin streets. “The Berlin Years” started and so did a new era for Lorde. Lorde, who described herself as Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, warrior, and poet was an African Caribbean-American writer and activist. She was born on the 18th. February 1934 to two Trinidadian immigrants of the working-class.

The writers Audre Lorde and May Ayim in Berlin-Schöneberg

A writer from the start

As little as five years old, she already started to write and discovered her talent to become an intellectual and writer. After much consideration she then decided to join the Harlem Writers Guild, a young organization of African American writers. She would later describe it as her “intellectual Orbit”. After the publication of Lordes first collection of essays and poems I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities – the first book that was translated in German – many Black German women became aware of her. It had been one of the main reasons for Lordes visit to Germany. She had become a well-known person in Germany and when she found out that Afro German women showed interest in meeting her, she decided to fly to Berlin – without knowing that she would become a pioneer for the Black female movement in Germany.

A deep connection: Audre Lorde and the afro-German Poet May Ayim. (with permission from: Dagmar Schulz/FFBIZ via Digitales Deutsches Frauenarchiv)

May Ayim: Writer, activist, role model

In the summer of 1984 Lorde started to teach a creative writing course, as a visiting professor at the JFK-Institute at the Freie Universität in Zehlendorf. From that point on she inspired countless afro-German Women. Lorde motivated them to finally express themselves and to put themselves in the forefront.

One of these women was May Ayim. She was born in 1960, grew up in an orphanage to then be adopted by white foster parents named Opitz. She would describe her childhood and teens as depressing. She had been shaped by fear, violence, and the stone-cold racism of a white society. Later she took the name of her biological father and moved to Berlin in the early 80s. In the following years, she became one of the most popular Afro German poets and turned the Germany of the 1990s by storm with her poems and activism – alongside her companions Audre Lorde and Katharina Oguntoye.

Katharina Oguntoye in 2019 in Berlin

Katharina Oguntoye: An east-German black woman, who loves women

Katharina Oguntoye was born 1959 in the woman’s hospital in Zwickau. It was a nice day; she would later write in the book ‘Farbe bekennen’. Her family was also thrilled by her birth. Zwickau, an industrial city, nearing the foothills of the Erzgebirge only resided a short hour-long train ride from Leipzig and would become Oguntoyes first home. At only three weeks old, she moved to Leipzig. There she spent the next seven years of her life. As an east-German Black woman she enjoyed a rather unusual childhood as a Black kid. The 60s and 70s had an active African study scene, though it only consisted of men. Meaning that she was already surrounded by white and Black people. Something that wasn’t usual at the time. Katharina Oguntoye saw the city as a place full of memories and emotions, a place where she “experienced love and learned about love” for the first time. Since she was seven, she had moved quite a lot. First to Nigeria, the country of her father. Then she moved back to Heidelberg, where her sister was born. She also had a brother, who stayed with his father. The Germany Katharina reverted to barely resembled the one she had left behind.

In the year 1982 Katharina moved to West-Berlin, Kreuzberg to be exact. She would redo her A-levels at the Kreuzberger Schule for adult education and studied history. For the first time she experienced a feeling of self-empowerment and self-perception, with and through other women. She went to lesbian bars, had to deal with overwhelming phone sex and partied. And of course, the obligatory crush on her best friend was also a must. Katharina later said in an interview that “she was the last to know '' that she was a lesbian. It became real when she went to a concert with a woman who asked her if she was now “out”. She described her queer motivation to move to Berlin, as “unconscious”. Deep down, however, she knew that she wanted to be part of the lesbian scene. Oguntoye describes 1982 as her “coming out year”. She was 22 years old at the time.

Still a role model today: Katharina Oguntoye

Coming-out in white spaces

For her and many others, Berlin was a place of comfort, a utopia where they could “come out”, as she later said in an interview. This coming out would be lived by wearing purple dungarees, lumberjack shirts and short hair as well as the “labrys” also known as a double-edged ax: a symbol of recognition among lesbians. The city was full of spaces for women by women, who wanted to stand up against the discrimination against (lesbian) women. However, the spaces where the fight for women's liberation took place were full of women who were already part of the social majority: white women. Katharina claims today that racism was still an issue that was either hushed up or brushed aside. This was also her downfall in romantic relationships, as her partners often did not "see" her blackness and therefore did not pay attention to it.

In interviews, Oguntoye likes to joke that she first had to "import" her partner: she met the Canadian author Carolyn Gammon at the feminist book fair in Montréal in the 1980s. In contrast to most white German feminists, her partner had already been involved with anti-racism. The two activists fell in love, moved in together and later had a son together, whom they raised in Görlitzer Park.

“Farbe bekennen” is a standard reference today, but in the 80s it was revolutionary. Katharina Oguntoye (2nd from left at the back) and May Ayim (1st from right) published it. (Dagmar Schulz/FFBIZ via Digitales Deutsches Frauenarchiv)

“Farbe bekennen”: A book about black feminist history in Germany

The moment Oguntoye heard Lorde speak at a Berlin university in 1984, she struggled with surprise and reluctance. She had never met anyone who had asked all white women to leave the room during a lecture. This clear attitude and certainty was transferred to Katharina and gave her courage. Eventually she gained enough confidence to step out of isolation and talk privately about her experiences as an Afro German woman. Share stories about racism, sexism, and homophobia. During this time, Ayim and Oguntoye also got to know each other and developed a sisterly bond.

In 1986, the two founded the Black Women’s Archive together with a white friend and ally, Dagmar Schultz. From then on, the filmmaker became an important part of the archive. Lorde later encouraged the two to write their own book about the experiences of Black women in Germany. An important place for the movement was the Berlin women’s center “Schokofabrik'' in the heart of Kreuzberg at Mariannenstraße 6. Shortly after the standard work “Farbe bekennen – Afrodeutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte ''(Showing our colors – Afro-German women speak out) was published. The publication brought her into contact with Jasmin Eding, another lesbian sister from Bavaria and so the first unofficial meeting of the ADEFRA took place with just 10 women.

Through good and tough times. Audre Lorde and May Ayim in an apartment in Berlin. (Dagmar Schultz/FFBIZ via Digitales Deutsches Frauenarchiv)

The death of two icons

Audre Lorde would succumb to her cancer diagnosis and died 1992 but remained an important connector for Black German women. In her memory they created a diasporic community with emotions, sympathies, and writings.

Ayim suffered from depression and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly before her death. The fear of not being able to write anymore – a passion that kept her alive, was too overwhelming. She died by suicide on the 9. August 1996.

Commemorative plaque for May Ayim at the May-Ayim Ufer in Kreuzberg

ADEFRA and the Black German feminist mobilization

Black self-organizations like the ISD (Initiative of Black Germans), would take on course in the 80s. Yet it was soon established that there also needed to be safe spaces for Black queer women. For many Black German lesbians, Katharina Oguntoye had been a huge role model. In the year 1987 she founded the first ADEFRA-meeting in Utrecht, Netherlands with Jasmin Eding, Katja Kinder, Elke Jank (Ja-El), Eva von Pirch, Daniela Tourkazi and the sisters Christina and Domenica Grotke. ADEFRA is Amharic and means as much as “the woman who shows courage”. It sets the focus on a radical Black feminist policy that follows the goal to fight all forms of discrimination and to unconditionally provide the socialization of their members. The women primarily saw the importance to showcase “that the Black feminist movement has its own experiences, values and objectives that are based on the necessity of survival strategies”. Together, the Black feminist struggle should stand for strength, identity, and Black consciousness in a white society. To this day, queer feminism is at the heart of ADEFRA’s political work, which aims to make the organization an inclusive space and create space for people to explore their own sexuality. The meetings still take place in members’ private premises in the west of Berlin. They are feel-good places with music, shared meals, and similar cultural values. In addition to May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye, many other women have helped to make ADEFRA what it is today. Also, very significant for the movement was Ika Hügel-Marshall, an African American-German lesbian activist and author. Other Black German women who are unthinkable for ADEFRA and the movement today are Peggy Piesche and Maisha-Maureen Auma.

Katharina Oguntoye and the sisters of ADEFRA have paved the way for a new understanding of Black Life in Germany. We can only hope that Ayim, Lorde and other sisters who left too soon will look down on us Black queer women of today and see that it is no longer “inappropriate” to be Black.

Further information

Editor's note: For further information, please refer to the film "Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992" and the Audre Lorde in Berlin online journey.

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Words: Amethyste Benoit

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