following in may ayim’s footsteps

For […] those that all too often
Fight alone
And die
Who are rarely celebrated
And yet remain unforgotten¹

As anyone who lives in Berlin will know, the winters here are notoriously grey and long, often lasting way into March. This February has been uncharacteristically warm and sunny. And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that as soon as the weather warms up and sun hits the town, Berliners flock to the Spree-Ufer (i.e. riverside spot) – Späti-drink* in hand.

Something I’m not as sure of, is how many people know that February 2019 also marks nine years since a memorial name-changing ceremony saw one particular stretch along the Spree-Ufer formerly named after a German colonialist renamed the May-Ayim-Ufer. This was named after May Ayim, a key figure in the German feminist and anti-racism movements. For the first time in Germany, a street name associated with colonialism was replaced with the name of someone who fought against it. And girl, fight she did.

Where it all began, or why it all began…

May Ayim was an Afro-German poet, activist and scholar. Born in Hamburg in 1960 to a German mother and a Ghanaian father, she was adopted and raised by a white family in Westphalia. She went on to study psychology and education in Regensburg before settling in Berlin in the mid-80s. Much of her poetry and scholarly work is informed by her early childhood experiences. Many of these experiences were linked to her growing up mixed-race in Germany and the everyday racism she encountered and her struggles with identity. Her work was also influenced by the ‘double bind’ of race and gender and feelings of both belonging to and being isolated from, not only her German cultural identity, but her African roots as well. At the same time, her work challenges the white majority German society to confront racial discrimination and its colonial history. As she writes in “afro-deutsch I”:

You’re Afro-German?/ … oh, I see: African and German./ An interesting mixture, huh?/ You know: there are people that still think/ Mulattos won’t get/ as far in life/ as whites […] Do you want to go back some day, hm?/ What? You’ve never been in your Dad’s home country?/ That’s so sad…²

Pause for full disclosure: I’m not black. I’m a white, British-German woman. I have no idea what it feels like to be confronted by racism on a daily basis. But I’ve been given this particular platform to speak. And what better way to use it than to listen, learn from and spread the story of strong, bad-ass women like May Ayim? Us gals can and must stick together, but we also have to recognize that even as women we are not all fighting the same single battle in life. Only then can we hope that what unites us as women is greater than what separates us. Back over to you May.

You are not alone.

1984: Under the heading “Sind wir uns denn so fremd?” (Are we really so removed from one another?) a thousand women, among them May Ayim, gather for the “First joint conference of foreign and German women”. As she later describes, meeting others who faced similar struggles, who knew what it was like to live a life in the margins, to be not just a woman but a black woman, she found herself no longer alone. It was among the many-faceted voices of black academics, authors and activists from all over the world that May found a place from which to speak. This sense of community is an integral aspect of May Ayim’s work. The support she felt gave her the courage to be vocal and her voice brought together and empowered so many others, particularly women of colour, to tell their stories.

What it meant to be black and German

Her thesis “Afro-Deutsche: Ihre Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte auf dem Hintergrund gesellschaftlicher Veränderungen” [Afro-Germans: Their social and cultural history against a background of societal change] was the first scholarly study of Afro-German history. It was encouraged by the US American writer, feminist and activist Audre Lorde, whom May met during Lorde’s visiting professorship at the Free University of Berlin. May published her thesis in the 1986 anthology “Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte” – a collection of cross-generational stories from women on what it meant to them to be black and German. This work was edited by May together with Dagmar Schultz and Katharina Oguntoye. Later translated into English as “Showing our colours: Afro-German women speak out”, the book is widely recognised as the first published use of the term “Afro-German”.

“Showing our colours” was a pivotal moment for the Afro-German movement – women of colour in Germany were able to establish for themselves a common language with which to talk about their shared experiences. The political self-denomination “Afro-German” enabled them to create a collective self-image and empowered them to claim a space for themselves on their own terms. As such, the term itself became an expression of and a vehicle for change, paving the way for the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany, ISD) and ADEFRA e.V. – Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland (Black Women in Germany). May Ayim was among the founding members of both organisations! They are still fighting for the rights and representation of black people and black women in Germany today.

Your legacy will live on, you badass woman of Berlin!

May Ayim would have turned 59 this year. She may no longer be with us and yet her legacy, her voice and dreams live on. The lessons she imparted still ring as true today as they did then! She taught us that having the courage to be true to oneself in the face of adversity, to be inspired by others and supporting others to do the same. Some of us are more fortunate than others, some of us are more likely to be heard. May for one had to fight harder than most of us can imagine. But we can all listen. We can listen to one another, we can see and embrace difference, acknowledge where we each come from and learn from each other’s experiences and struggles to come together and fight for the world we want to see!

Feeling inspired by this badass woman? Shop the May Ayim Collection and wear your sisu socks with pride!

Saskia Wilks, Researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, social justice warrior and a young woman with a beautiful, old soul.

British-German feminist, bookworm and pretty much a walking chickpea. I currently call the wonderful city of Berlin my home – for the time being at least. Wanderlust and a thirst for adventure always keep me exploring and I’ve met some pretty spectacular people along the way. Passionate about women’s rights and love a good boogie!

Connect with me on LinkedIn.

*Spätis are late-night stores that sell drinks, candy and the likes. If you’re ever in Berlin, I’d recommend hitting one up, finding a nice spot outside and raising a glass to May and amazing women everywhere!
¹ May Ayim. Blues in schwarz weiss. Own translation.
² May Ayim. Blues in black and white. Translation by Ilse Müller.