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Rediscovering Audre Lorde

Since the release of Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984-1992 back in 2012, her brand of intersectional feminism has become a must-read. We spoke with filmmaker Dagmar Schulz about the thinker's private side.

Photo: Dagmar Schulz

Audre Lorde – self-dubbed “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” – who lived in Berlin from 1984 until her death in 1992 – has finally toppled Christopher Isherwood (and his nostalgia-inspired Weimar novels) from his throne as the stand-out emblem of Berlin’s English-language expat literature, queer or not. Lorde was so much more: not only a role model for Germany’s African women, but also for intersectional feminism at large, her Collected Poems or Sister Outsider have become must-reads for any young progressive Berliners in the know.

We can thank Dagmar Schulz and her 2012 documentary Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984-1992 for this awakening and local cinemas, like Elisa Rosi’s Lichtblick Kino, which chose to put the film on their regular programme. Over the years, director Dagmar Schultz and documentary co-scripter Ika Hügel-Marshall came frequently to the small Kastanainallee Kino to discuss the film with audiences. Elisa Rosi talks to Dagmar Schultz about keeping Lorde’s legacy alive.

When did you meet Audre Lorde?

I met Audre Lorde for the first time at the UN World Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1980, and invited her to Berlin to teach at the Free University. We’d already published a selection of her and Adrienne Rich’s poems but she herself suggested that Black German women should publish their own work. She wanted Black women to make themselves visible and audible and readable […] so we had this idea of creating a book with the voices of Black German women and started looking around for people that we could involve. Meeting Audre at the conference, I thought it would be great if she could come to Germany and be a catalyst for another kind of consciousness in the movement. When she did come to Germany in 1984 she was a huge influence for Black people and also for white women – and not just in Berlin!

One of her first questions on arriving in Berlin was: ‘Where are the Black Germans?’

How did your working relationship develop?

We were part of the Orlanda Frauenverlag, which changed its name from the older Frauenselbstverlag in 1982, and was always very oriented towards organising events and collaborating with women’s projects, nationally and internationally. Our publishing house was an exception. In the 1980s, our team was already very diverse: we were the only publishing house with Black employees and we published literature about women and dealt with topics such as racism, anti-Semitism, gender violence.

What was Audre Lorde’s input?

Thanks to Audre Lorde, a European-wide network developed, grounded in activist and literary work. The publishing house and the presence of Audre Lorde in Berlin built a platform for women that came to the city to discuss and join a conversation about topics that were still not that widespread or accessible to the public.

But there’s more to Lorde’s attachment to Berlin, isn’t there?

She came to Berlin because she was invited by the University and because we published her work. One of her first questions on arriving in Berlin was: “Where are the Black Germans?” We walked around the city for days looking for Black people. It was a different situation in the early 1980s. But then she kept coming back. At that time she had cancer and went to a women’s doctor who treated her with natural medicine and it had a positive effect. She kept coming back because she couldn’t get those treatments in the States. Her partner, Gloria Joseph, said her well-being improved hugely during her stay in Berlin. Lots of things played a role: the newly found Black community, the metropolitan city without the stress that New York had for her, and the friendships she built here.

Audre on a boat in Krumme Lanke. Photo: Dagmar Schulz

It’s obvious that Audre Lorde could be quite entertaining in front of the camera – like when she was dancing or cooking for you. Clearly, she trusted you.

Some people were annoyed by the camera and audio recording because they were quite noisy at the time. But after the premiere, I got positive feedback. What makes the film special is that Audre is the one who is talking – not a narrator. At the time I had the urge to preserve whatever I was experiencing. Some of the material that didn’t make it into the film is available on a YouTube playlist and on the Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years website. We try to make the material as accessible as possible. We were told by many students in the USA that they were always in awe of her. But, after watching the film, they have a different connection to her. Audre is portrayed also in her private moments, with her weaknesses. This is where you laugh at her, not just with her, but at her. Audre laughs a lot in the film.

In the film Audre says: “All oppressions intersect”. Early on, she defined the now popular term intersectionality.

How did you go about creating a narrative arc from all that material?

At the time, nothing was digital. It was a challenge. The idea was to show Audre Lorde on stage and off – as a real person. She was so often put on a pedestal, making her this kind of icon. Then we thought: we need interviews with people that knew Audre, to learn about her legacy through their voices. Then those interviews had to be integrated into the rest of the material, so we sat down as a team and figured out what we needed. The film is very much a collective effort.

When I introduce the film at Lichtblick, it’s about making the audience aware that they’ll be seeing not only Audre but also a number of fantastic women that had an impact as writers and/or as feminist activists… how did you do that?

In the film, we show the protagonists as young women and then the same people at an older age. You can see an inter-generational dialogue on the screen. The film addresses different topics and we put them in a historical context. We have travelled to South Africa, USA and all over Europe presenting the film. No matter what generation, people’s reactions are often alike: they all say the film really gave them so much energy.

Dancing in a Berlin apartment. Photo: Dagmar Schulz

On its first run in cinemas the documentary was underestimated. How did you get the word out?

Some time after its premiere at the Berlinale in 2012, we launched the website with the Online Journey, and then there was a re-discovery of the film, also on your part. Your programming at Lichtblick has helped its success. Just knowing that the film is regularly on in Berlin makes the film so much more visible than a regular run in cinemas for a few weeks. It’s exciting that there is always an interesting crowd at the Lichtblick screenings, mostly young people that come and talk to us after the film.

How does Audre continue to inspire you?

When the Wall came down and there was a public wave of racism, she took action, spoke up. As we should now, if we’re in a position to do so. In the film Audre says: “All oppressions intersect”. Early on, she defined the now popular term intersectionality. Audre’s books have been reissued. New translations have been published. In Italy, a street in Imola is named after Audre Lorde. The Greens have initiated the same process for Berlin, an Audre Lorde street in the northern part of Manteuffelstraße… we do as much as we can to keep her legacy alive.

  • Lichtblick Kino, Kastanienallee 77, U-Bahn Senefelderplatz

BIO: Born in New York in 1934, poet and writer Audre Lorde moved to Berlin in 1984, aged 50, as guest professor at the Free University. She’d previously taught at New York’s City University, where she fought for a Black studies department. Lorde’s arrival was a massive event for young women of colour. In 1986, Lorde encouraged then Professor Dagmar Schultz to publish Farbe bekennen (Showing Our Colours), which included personal stories from 13 Afro-German women and helped kickstart the ISD (Initiative for Black Germans). In 2012, Schultz released Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992 – about Lorde’s time in the city. Shortly after her death in 1992, Lorde’s poetry collection, Die Quelle unserer Macht (The Source Of Our Power), was published. It was re-released in 2020.