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May Ayim – Afro-German Poet, Educator and Activist · By Lea Heim

‘Choose To Challenge’ is this year’s theme for International Women’s Day. In spirit of this slogan, let me introduce you to May Ayim, an Afro-German poet, educator and activist, who has done ground-breaking work in forming a Black German community and in challenging German history predominantly being told from a white perspective by inscribing Black people into the country’s historical narrative.

May Ayim

Born in 1960 in Hamburg, her childhood in an adoptive family among four white siblings was pervaded by strictness and violence. While travelling to Ghana during her studies of psychology and pedagogy she connected with her father and her ancestry. In 1992 she took on her father’s last name in order to symbolise her self-determined identity.

May Ayim moved to Berlin in 1986, where she met Audre Lorde, who was an important figure to the then-nascent Afro-German movement. It was through Lorde’s initiative that Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz edited the anthology Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (original title Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte) which was published in 1986 and included May Ayim’s diploma thesis and accounts by contemporary Afro-German women.

Dagmar Schultz, Audre Lorde and May Ayim

Audre Lorde and May Ayim

The anthology comprises poetry, essays and critical biographical profiles and provides valuable insights to the construction of race and race relations in Germany as well as to the ways in which feminism, sexuality and blackness intersect. Discovering their shared history and lived experience of suppression and racist discrimination in Germany allowed the women whose stories are featured in the book to connect with each other in new ways. Therefore the process of making this anthology is intertwined with the founding of the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany), which aims to encourage a Black consciousness, fight racism and supports the networking of Black people and their organisations.

Audre Lorde and May Ayim

As shown in the film Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992, Lorde played a decisive part in helping the Black German women to explore and express a sense of self around their Black and German identity and to form a community. While this is by no means to be seen as the beginning of Black history in Germany, it does mark an important moment of self-identification and pushing for visibility of Black Germans, as well as challenging the dominant white society’s self-understanding of what is to be included or excluded from what is perceived as German.

May Ayim was a leading figure in this movement and her academic work around racism and sexism as well as her poetry mark her as an important voice in the formation of the Black German community. Her collection of poetry blues in schwarz weiss was translated to English and you can see a video of her reciting her famous poem Blues in Black and White here.

Suffering immense physical and mental distress, May Ayim took her own life in 1996 but her legacy as the most prominent advocate of the Black German community lives on till this day. Not least through the renaming of the Berliner street Gröbenufer to May-Ayim-Ufer. Otto Friedrich von der Groeben was involved in slave trafficking as an instegator of German colonialism. After a long period of contentions, the renaming of the street happened in 2010 and marks a small step in inscribing the Black community as a self-determined part into Germany’s past and present. A commemorative plaque is pointing towards Germany’s history as a colonial aggressor as well as honouring the people of the anti-colonial resistance.

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