But Some of Us Are Brave (english)

Change is coming: The Legacy of Black Female Activists in Germany.

This time last year, the Berlin-based Deutsches Theater had just decided to stop using Blackface in the Thalheimer production of Dea Loher's "Unschuld". This historic event followed weeks of campaigning by outraged critics, concerned theatre-goers as well as other Black, of color and white activist members of the then newly-formed anti-racist initiative Bühnenwatch.

Now, just one year later, a similarly heated debate has broken out over the removal of the N-word from children's literature. Emotions are running high and the terrain feels strangely familiar: angry blog posts, heated public debates, furious Facebook discussions and incensed Tweets. White media commentators speak of "censorship" and "political correctness", but in reality the battle is about power: Who should have the final say about the representation of Black people and people of color in German culture? Until now, white Germans have claimed this right for themselves. Yet slowly but surely, this privilege is slipping through their fingers. For many this just doesn't feel good.

"Without a vision, every social change feels like death"

Their concern is well rehearsed. Childhood books are to be treasured, not revised! Cultural traditions are to be preserved, not criticised! And the word "racism" should only be reserved to describe the most heinous of crimes – those involving Nazis or right-wing extremists. And yet, for increasing numbers of Black Germans and Germans of color, these "truths" are inadequate. The same applies for Black and of color people who live in Germany and do not have German nationality. The everyday lived experience of those of us who are often not recognised at first sight to be German is typically marked by exoticism, contempt or fear – and sometimes all three. The idea that one can tell who is not German simply by assessing the skin colour is ridiculous but pervasive. It allows some people to question others about where they come from, or to congratulate them on their accent-free language skills or to demand to see their identity papers.

Audre Lorde, an African-American lesbian, feminist, poet, activist, scholar and mother who was instrumental in igniting the recent Black German political movement in the 1980s, identified the need for Black people in general and Black women in particular to support each other. It is Lorde who wrote: "Without a vision, every social change feels like death." [1] In order to create a vision of the future in Germany, it is necessary for us to revisit the past and learn from it.

All the Blacks are men, all the women are white ...

In global contexts, Black women have historically been rendered invisible both within (white dominated) feminist movements and within (male dominated) Black power movements. [2] In Germany, this situation has been no different. Despite the fact that Black people have been living on German soil for well over 300 years, most white Germans have astoundingly little knowledge regarding the Black presence and influence in this country. And even among Black communities in Germany, the most well-known examples of Black German self-determination and resistance against racism prior to the mid-1980s are typically male: For example, Anton Wilhelm Amo, a Black man who in 1736 became the first Professor of African descent at a German university; and Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, a Cameroonian-born king and activist who resisted German colonial rule in Cameroon at the beginning of the 20th century and was therefore executed for high treason in 1914.

Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir and Clara Zetkin are well-known and respected figures within the German feminist movement and, for the most part, in mainstream German society. These ladies are both white. However, for their respective contributions to the anti-racism movement and the women's movement in Germany, Black women like Emily Duala Manga Bell (an anti-colonialist activist who survived her husband, named above) and Fasia Jansen (a peace activist and survivor of the Neuengamme concentration camp) also deserve credit and recognition.

The German context is one which has in the past legally denied the existence of Black Germans; one in which countless numbers of Black children were raised with only negative terms to describe them; one in which many of these same children were sterilised due to racist Nazi miscegenation laws; and one where Black individuals have often lived their entire lives with no knowledge of the existence of other people who look just like them. In this context, where cultural representations are dominated by the ideals of white and male, and where typical critical positions to these were either Black male or white female, Black German lesbians and women have faced multiple hurdles. It was within this context that Audre Lorde first visited Berlin in 1984 to lecture at the Free University and to connect with young Black women living there.

"First, we must recognize each other"

A valuable testament of this early phase of the Black (women's) movement is provided in the anthology "Euer Schweigen Schützt Euch Nicht" edited by Peggy Piesche and published in Orlanda Verlag. In this book, activists like Katharina Oguntoye and Katja Kinder discuss the beginnings of a process, which was to result in the publication of "Farbe Bekennen," a unique collection of testimonies of Black German women combined with a historical documentation of Black Germany based on the research of May Ayim. [3] Additionally, the various activities at this time led to the formation of the new Black German organisations the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (now called Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland) and ADEFRA Afro-Deutsche Frauen (now ADEFRA Schwarze Deutsche Frauen und Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland). Prior to this, many of the women had been active in, yet ultimately disappointed by, the German women's movement.

In her introduction to "Farbe bekennen" Lorde writes: "First, we must recognize each other" [4] – no small task in a country where one had been taught that being Black was something shameful, ugly or to be pitied. And due to internalised beliefs regarding skin color and appearance, many Black Germans may not have been seen as being Black at all. A major hurdle therefore was to actively live against the denial and isolation: to approach other Black women in the street, to meet with them socially and to organise with them politically.

Credit is also due to women like Jasmin Eding and Ina Röder-Sissako, who were also active during those times, organising meetings in Munich and Dresden respectfully. These initial get togethers grew to become regional political groups and, parallel to this, annual national meetings or "Bundestreffen" were organised which still continue to take place for one long weekend every summer.

"... but some of us are brave""

There is a picture of a young white German woman participating in the 2012 Sl*twalk Berlin demonstration – it is famous by now. In it, the young woman is carrying a placard with the slogan: "Unveil women's rights to unveil" In the picture she is topless and, except for a rectangle-shaped area across her eyes, her body is painted entirely black. There are other white women in this picture too – in fact two of them have also painted their bodies black. Clearly, the other women demonstrating find the slogan and imagery acceptable, even if they do not wholeheartedly support the political statement. However, this image is problematic for many reasons and in the weeks following the demonstration many protestors articulated their criticism in the form of blog posts, tweets, emails and commentaries at public debates.

In fact, the image described above is a stunning demonstration of white privilege in the feminist movement. It is another attempt by white women to claim the competence to speak for women of color using racist, oppressive and discriminatory tools to do so. In order for Black women and women of color to be able to walk side by side with their white sisters in the women's movement, the specific oppressions we experience need to become visible and taken seriously. The use of Blackface has a specific racist tradition and cannot be reclaimed by white people, no matter how worthy the aim. And the use of the veil as a battleground to assert women's rights is not the business of non-Muslim women. Such behaviour is patronising and perpetuates the ill-informed and islamophobic belief that women of color do not make conscious decisions to wear a hijab, niqab or burqa. We can speak for ourselves.

Much is owed by the recent organisation of Black people in Germany to the courage, hard work and tenacity of Black women and lesbians who were active during the 1980s. Similarly, advances in the current discourse on diversity in Germany are built on the teachings and academic research of Black women like Professor Dr. Maureen Maisha Eggers, Professor Dr. Grada Kilomba, Professor Dr. Fatima El-Tayeb, Peggy Piesche, Nicola Lauré Al-Samarai, Natasha A. Kelly, Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard as well as the professional expertise and activism of Black women like Lara-Sophie Milagro (actress and opera singer), Noah Sow (author, musician, founder and management committee member of Der Braune Mob, media watch organisation), Sandrine Micossé-Aikins (artist and curator) and Sheila Mysorekar (author and journalist). The list is by no means exhaustive, but intended to provide an idea of wealth of resources at Germany's fingertips – if only one will take the time to access them.

True anti-oppressive activism means sharing your power and working in partnership with Black women and women of color: not speaking for us, but promoting our platforms and sharing your platforms with us, in order that we may speak and be heard on our own terms. In order that our names may be suggested for renamed streets, in order that our histories may be studied in school, in order that we may be asked to comment on current affairs. In a recent personal conversation, one Afro-German journalist for "Die Zeit" confided in me that she is quietly optimistic that this is finally happening. She remarked that the number of Black women interviewed for mainstream media outlets during the current debate about racist language in German children's books – although pitifully small in number – was significantly more than the number of contributions during the Blackface debate. And it will get better. Especially if we Black women continue the path of social activism established by those who preceded us.

Change is coming to Germany. It is slow, but we are getting there.




A version of this text (in German) was first published in "Missy Magazine", May 2013.


Notes

[1] Quoted in: Peggy Piesche (Hg.): "Euer Schweigen Schützt Euch Nicht". Audre Lorde und die Schwarze Frauenbewegung in Deutschland. Berlin: Orlanda Verlag 2012. P. 82.

[2] The name of this article is borrowed from the anthology "All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave", edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott and Barbara Smith (New York: Feminist Press 1982) which examines Black Feminism in the United States.

[3] Katharina Oguntoye, May Ayim, May, Dagmar Schultz: Farbe Bekennen. Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte. Berlin: Orlanda Verlag 1986.

[4] Quoted in: Peggy Piesche (Hg.): "Euer Schweigen Schützt Euch Nicht". Audre Lorde und die Schwarze Frauenbewegung in Deutschland. Berlin: Orlanda Verlag 2012. P. 80.