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The American poet who started the Afro-German movement

We spoke to the women who knew Audre Lorde during her Berlin years and are carrying on her legacy.

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We spoke to the women who knew Audre Lorde during her Berlin years and are carrying on her legacy. Photo: K Kendall / Creative commons

A Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist mother – that’s how American poet and activist Audre Lorde, in the spring of 1984, introduced herself to her Berlin students. As a guest professor at the Freie Universität, her first seminar series covered Black women poetry. In Lorde’s audience sat a young history student, Katharina Oguntoye.

“When she came to the FU, we thought ‘Wow!’,” Oguntoye remembers. “We wanted to see her and learn from her.” In a West Germany that scarcely recognised the Black German experience – and where the Black emancipation movement was in its infancy – Lorde’s arrival was a massive event for young women of colour such as Oguntoye. The sense of empowerment it signified gave birth to the “Afro-German” movement.

It was a white woman from West Berlin that first got Lorde to come to the city. Dagmar Schultz, then a professor at FU, made the crucial invitation. “I felt I really needed to change my situation in the white women’s movement, to try and change it in my own work,” explains Schultz, now 79, in a Kleistpark café. The Charlottenburg-born feminist activist remembers being “spellbound” by Lorde, having first met her at 1980’s World Women’s Conference in Copenhagen.

“It was primarily white women, and Audre was very direct with us,” Schultz recalls. “It was the kind of experience where you want to capture every sentence the person says, let it sink into you and stay with you.” Schultz had been an activist in the 1960s US Civil Rights Movement, worked on anti-poverty programmes in Puerto Rico and taught at Black colleges in Mississippi. When she returned to Germany after a decade abroad, she found that people weren’t particularly interested in those experiences. “The women’s movement was faltering,” she recounts. “I thought it would be great to have Audre come to Berlin and have some new input.”

A new voice in West Berlin

Lorde’s first months in Berlin were spent around the university’s campus in Dahlem, where she lived with her partner, the Carribbean author and activist Gloria Joseph, in a bright red semi-detached house. While teaching Black American literature and creative writing, Lorde wanted to bring an understanding of Black-German women’s experience to the predominantly white university. She proposed to Schultz: “How about we find Black Germans here?” At that time, Schultz remembers, Berlin’s Black population was smaller, and people often lived isolated from other POC who might have shared experiences of racism in Germany.

The first problem the pair faced was how to contact Black women – considerably harder, in a pre-internet world. “There were some situations which are unimaginable today,” Schultz says. “Once we went to a restaurant and there was a Caribbean woman working in the kitchen.” The pair invited her to Lorde’s lectures. Schultz explains that when she and Lorde first approached strangers in public, people were shy and often hesitant – but then, as Lorde’s lectures attracted more Black women, the network began to grow.

Since Lorde’s arrival in Berlin, Schultz had been publishing her work at her self-run publishing house Orlanda Verlag. After one year, Schultz recounts, Lorde came to Orlanda with a historic suggestion: “Before you publish something else by me, you should publish something by Afro-German women – talk to them and encourage them to make themselves audible.”

Lorde and Schultz identified two promising young women to work on the first publication telling Afro-German women’s stories – Oguntoye, and Hamburg-born poet May Ayim, a regular at Lorde’s lectures and a future poetic protégée. It was a significant coming-together. “For me,” Lorde later reflected, “‘Afro-German’ means the shining faces of Katharina and May, in animated conversation about their fathers’ homelands, the comparisons, joy, disappointments.”

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Katharina Oguntoye, Audre Lorde and May Ayim (left to right) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt 1988. Photo: Dagmar Schultz

Building the Afro-German community

Oguntoye, 61, laughs when she remembers Lorde approaching the pair with her idea. “It was dreadful.” For Oguntoye and Ayim, both in their early twenties, this was an opportunity to share their experiences – and a gift from an extremely accomplished author and activist. Yet to follow in Lorde’s footsteps at that young age was daunting. “We took some days, and I decided, I have to take this opportunity and do my best.” Oguntoye, who runs the Kreuzberg intercultural association Joliba, recalls Lorde’s encouragement at the project’s beginning: “She said, ‘Introduce yourself to me and May; introduce yourself to each other, and to the world.’”

Farbe Bekennen (Showing Our Colours) was published in 1986. The book includes personal stories from 13 Afro-German women aged 14 to 70. It addresses Germany’s colonial history, experiences in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich and postwar “occupation babies”. Much of its academic content drew from Ayim’s university thesis, the first scholarly project covering Afro-German history.

After two years of close collaboration with Lorde, Oguntoye and Ayim set out to publicise Farbe Bekennen, a vital step for a book seeking to unite often-isolated Afro-Germans. “We wanted people who needed the book to be able to access it,” Oguntoye says. As Lorde stepped back from the limelight, Oguntoye and Ayim became prominent cultural figures – and the book became a classic. “I still meet young people who say, ‘Oh, my mother was part of the women’s movement, and she gave the book to me,’” Oguntoye says. In her foreword to its 2020 re-release, she wrote that “it was the first book of its kind, that showed the Afro-German experience and inspired the beginnings of the movement.”

Another important member of the Afro-German movement – and lifelong friend of Lorde – is author and translator Dr. Marion Kraft. Born in the Ruhrgebiet in 1946, Kraft’s childhood was tormented by the racism of postwar Germany. She discovered Lorde’s work while teaching African-American literature at Ohio State University. “I was familiar with Black American literature but it was all male,” she explains. One of the new texts Kraft discovered was Lorde’s From a Land Where Other People Live. “She was on my mind, from that point.”

Back in Germany, Kraft joined the academic feminist movement. She met Ayim and Schultz at a 1986 conference in Hamburg. “I think I was the only person at the conference who was discussing Black women writers,” she remembers. “Dagmar asked me, ‘Do you happen to know Audre Lorde? Would you like to come to Berlin and interview Audre?’” The pair became friends. Soon enough, Lorde proposed that Kraft translate some poems for her German-language collection, Die Quelle unserer Macht, which was published after Lorde died in 1994 (and re-released in 2020).

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh no, this is impossible, I want to do it but I can’t,’” Kraft laughs. “But if you knew Audre, you knew that if she wanted something, then she got it.”

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Dagmar Schultz and Audre Lorde in Berlin. Photo: Dagmar Schultz

White women listening

As Farbe Bekennen became a powerful tool for discussing feminism in Germany, those close to Lorde valued her personal qualities. “She set things in motion just by having an interested approach,” Oguntoye explains. “She was a very good listener.” Kraft recalls being impressed by Lorde’s humility, warm-heartedness, and, above all, her honesty. Lorde’s forthright openness supported people in challenging themselves.

“She’s had a tremendous influence on the white feminist movement internationally,” Kraft says. “I think this is due to her honesty in showing white feminists the way forward, and recognising that you can’t deal with feminist issues without dealing with racism.” In one of her lectures, Lorde declares: “We all have some power. Even if it doesn’t seem that way.” One particular group that Lorde encouraged to acknowledge their power was white feminist women. “Racism in Germany,” Lorde says at a reading, “must become an issue for white feminists because it is part of your lives – it affects your lives in every way, and the fact that you are not people of colour doesn’t make you safe from the effects of it.”

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In 2012, Dagmar Schultz released Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992, a documentary using recent interviews and archival footage including her own personal recordings: “Audre is always put on a pedestal. I wanted to show the private part, some people think it’s too private, but I think that the virtue of the film is that we see her as human.” Screened monthly at Lichtblick in Prenzlauer Berg, the documentary follows Lorde’s influence in Berlin until her last reading in Schultz’s home, two months before her death from liver cancer aged 58.

“She really made the ignorance around the taboo issue of racism visible,” Oguntoye explains. Farbe Bekennen created community amongst Afro-German women – but it also sought to raise consciousness within the women’s movement about what Lorde called “the intersection of oppressions.” At readings of Farbe Bekennen, white guilt occasionally overwhelmed some audience members as they heard the realities of racism and sexism for Afro-Germans.

“I remember one situation where a white woman was crying and everyone was congregating around her to console her,” Schultz laughs. “Audre was very direct, asking something of people and challenging them.” Lorde demanded white women recognise their role in Germany’s racist society. This demand was strongly felt by Canadian author and poet Carolyn Gammon, Oguntoye’s partner of 30 years. Gammon met Lorde at the 1988 International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal. “Black men were regularly being killed in the streets of Montreal, just like we see today with George Floyd,” Gammon explains. “Through Audre’s work, I had learnt that it was important for me as a white dyke to protest against the shooting of these Black men.”

Gammon remembers how encouraging Lorde was. “I wrote her a poem about how I had learnt from her work,” she says. “When I saw her at the book fair she was skipping down a set of stairs, she was full of energy and guts, she had a real charisma. Katharina introduced us and later she signed my copy of A Burst of Light – in it, she wrote ‘Thank you’.”

Lasting networks

Lorde’s time in Berlin made a lasting impact on anti-racist organisations in Germany. The ISD (Initiative for Black Germans), formed in 1986, was kickstarted by Farbe Bekennen. Oguntoye and Ayim were contacted by Nii Addy, now an international political economics consultant. “Addy was a student and his brother was in school,” Oguntoye says. “They knew lots of people who were isolated and didn’t have contact with other young Black people, but when they heard about the book, it was a catalyst to begin the ISD.” Most recently, ISD has been involved in decolonisation campaigns, including the effort to rename Berlin streets.

In August 1991, the Cross-Cultural Black Women’s Studies Summer Institute took place in Germany, with events in Frankfurt am Main, Bielefeld and Berlin. This was the first international conference about “Black people in German communities”, and was organised mostly by Black women. Lorde, who had previously attended similar events by the Institute’s branches in London and NYC, suggested Kraft establish a German chapter and work as its director. “I thought, ‘Oh now come on, give me a break,’” Kraft laughs. “Long story short, she convinced me.” The institute raised political consciousness of the Afro-German experience. By then, Lorde was too ill to attend – but her persistent, supportive character prevailed. “She wanted a full report!” Kraft says.

It is difficult to overstate Lorde’s influence on the Afro-German movement. The city of Berlin will soon recognise her lasting impact by renaming a Kreuzberg street in her name. With Lorde’s commitment to honesty, and her ability to energise individuals and groups, she has left a legacy – not least among the Berlinerinnen she inspired. Oguntoye believes that, without Lorde, “we wouldn’t have had a community to write in – maybe individually, someone would have tried something, but we wouldn’t have other things to bounce off of.”

Regular screenings of Schultz’s Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992 at Lichtblick Kino insist on the continuation of a dialogue that Lorde began – and her work seems as relevant as ever. Kraft has just finished translating Lorde’s Sister Outsider, a collection of essays on topics including sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and police brutality, “When I was translating,” Kraft says, “I was stunned by how up to date and important Audre’s work is today.”