Audre Lorde’s Berlin: Honoring Black Transnational Feminisms

By NWSA Staff posted 06-03-2024 10:00 AM

Heidi R. Lewis and the Late Erika “Ika” Hügel-Marshall (1947-2022) in Berlin

Dr. Heidi R. Lewis and the Late Erika “Ika” Hügel-Marshall (1947-2022) in Berlin
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis (2021)

“Many years have now passed, and Heidi is still interested in the further development of the Black Diasporic movement in Germany and in transnational exchange. She remains committed to ensuring students broaden their view of Germany with its still too obscure Black history, especially because many in the U.S. who are familiar with the work of Audre Lorde often do not know her impact and the significance of her Berlin years. It is precisely these lessons that Heidi makes possible for her students through direct experiences and encounters. It is a great tribute to Audre, but also to us activists of the Black German movement, that Heidi continues to cross the Atlantic and follow in Audre’s footsteps, ensuring we remain both visible and tangible.”
—Ika Hügel-Marshall, Ria Cheatom, Jasmin Eding, and Judy Gummich
In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table Talk (2021)

It's Juneteenth month! It's Pride month! So, buckle up, because I bet you'll love this ride!

I’ve written and spoken at length about my work in Berlin, which is anchored in the course I’ve been teaching there since 2014. I’ve also written and spoken at length about the ways my work is inspired by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Angela Y. Davis, and especially Audre Lorde, all who were significantly impacted by their time in Berlin. Here, I’ll note my students and I take walking tours at least twice weekly that are focused on German colonialism (led by my dear friend Dr. Josephine Apraku), the Holocaust (led by my friend Adam Schonfeld), the Berlin Wall, graffiti and street art, Queer history (led by my friend Mal Pool), and other critical topics. I point that out, because for the first time this year, we’ll be taking a two-day walking tour focused on Audre Lorde’s time in Berlin. This, however, isn’t the only first worth pointing out. The other is I’ll be conducting the tour—my first ever. For the remainder of this blog, allow me to give you an abbreviated “walk” through the sites we’ll visit and discuss.1

Day One 

Today, we’ll be walking through the borough of Kreuzberg and having a discussion with Katharina Oguntoye at the JOLIBA Interkulturelles Netzwerk e.V.

Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative for Black People in Germany or ISD)

While Black workers, trade unionists, artists and migrants were doing social and political organizing in Germany as early as the 1920s, the ISD is one of the oldest self-actualized organizations by and for Black people in Germany. The ISD aims to represent the interests of Black people in society and state politics. They also address everyday racism, racist violence, police violence, racism in education, as well as residence, citizenship, and asylum legislation through an annual federal meeting, regular networking meetings throughout the year, and Black History Month. Many track the founding of the ISD back to November 2, 1985 when a group of Black women led by Christiana Ampedu, Helga Emde, and Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly invited people to the first federal meeting of Black Germans in Wiesbaden. Others claim the first meetings were held the following year in 1986. Subsequently, local groups were founded in the Rhine-Main area, Cologne-Düsseldorf, and other West German cities. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, groups were also founded in East German cities. Today, the ISD reports having more than 200 active members across groups in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanau, Hanover, Cologne, Leipzig, the Mainz/Wiesbaden/Saarbrücken region, Munich, Stuttgart and Thuringia. Of significance to our tour is the ISD’s years-long partnership with the Berlin Green Party, which aimed to dedicate a street to Black lesbian, feminist, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde. On June 17, 2021, the city council of Berlin-Kreuzberg changed the name of part of Manteuffel Straße with an inauguration planned for June 28 this year.
Audre Lorde Straße
Audre’s time in Berlin begins with Dr. Dagmar Schultz, who met Audre in 1980 at the United Nation’s World Women’s Conference in Copenhagen. At that time, Dagmar was an Assistant Professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute of North American Studies at the Free University and proposed Audre for a semester-long visiting professorship. In 1984, Audre finally came to Berlin to teach courses on Black American literature and a creative writing seminar. Audre spent weeks and months in Berlin each year, often accompanied by her partner Dr. Gloria I. Joseph, until she died at the age of 58 due to cancer-related complications in 1992. During these trips, which she described as some of the most significant in her life, Audre befriended and mentored many Black German women, including the late Ika Hügel-Marshall, Ria Cheatom, the late May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, and Helga Emde. In collaboration with these women and others, Audre coined the term “Afro-German” in 1984, giving rise to the Black German movement. Audre also encouraged many of these women to write and publish the first book published by Black Germans, Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (1986), which was edited by May, Katharina, and Dagmar. Five years later, it was translated to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out.

Frauenzentrum Schokofabrik

Located in an expanded and renovated former chocolate factory, the Schoko is Berlin’s largest women’s center and offers a unique mix of support, leisure, and crafts. The center was founded in the 1980s as a project of the feminist and women’s movements with the aim of promoting and empowering lesbians, women, and girls. So, of course, Audre spent a lot of time here during her visits. Today, the Schoko is a gathering place for women, lesbians, intersex, nonbinary, trans, and agender people of all ages, abilities, origin, and sexual orientation.
Café April
Ika Hügel-Marshall was born on March 13, 1947 to a white Bavarian mother and Black American father who was stationed in Germany for military service. Due to illness, Ika’s father returned to the U.S. before her birth. In 1952, Ika’s mother was forced to send her to the orphanage, where she lived for the rest of her childhood despite promises that it was only temporary. There, she endured mental and physical abuse from the adults and children, which included being held in dark rooms against her will, being shouted at to stop crying for her mother, being force-fed her own vomit, and undergoing an exorcism. While Ika performed well academically, the nuns told her she would be promiscuous, have children out of wedlock, become an alcoholic, and only be suitable for a job in childcare. As a result, Ika claimed she had “no greater desire than to be white,” and she was “riddled with guilt” for being Black.
Later, Ika earned a license in child education and welfare and worked in a Frankfurt children’s home for 12 years. She also completed a degree in social work and pedagogy. While she became active in the women’s rights movement in Frankfurt, she continued to feel isolated due to her blackness. In 1986, when she was 39-years-old, Ika attended Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland (ADEFRA) and ISD meetings, and that was the first time she’d seen a Black face that wasn’t her own. She was empowered by the sense of community and became an activist for Afro-Germans.

Ika and Audre met during one of Audre’s visits to Berlin in 1987. During breakfast at Café April one Sunday morning, Audre encouraged Ika to write a book about her life. In 1998, Ika published her autobiography, Daheim unterwegs: Ein deutsches Leben, which was translated to English three years later as Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany. The book has won the Audre Lorde Literary Award and has been read by Ika at events across Germany, Austria, and the U.S.

After moving to Berlin, Ika met people who offered to help find her father. In 1993, at the age of 46, she finally met him and his family in Chicago. About the visit, she claimed, “Here is my journey’s end…I knew my survival in a white racist society was not for nothing.” Her father died the following year. Nearly 30 years later on April 21, 2022, Ika died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 75. She is survived by her loving partner, Dagmar Schultz, and dear friends, including Ria Cheatom, Jasmin EdingMarion KraftJudy Gummich, and many others.
Kato and ADEFRA (Schlesisches Tor)
Kato, a former event space, hosted many ISD events, and it’s also where Audre met with the Black women who founded ADEFRA, a cultural and political organization for Black women and other women of color. Founded in 1986 by Black feminists and lesbians, ADEFRA (an abbreviation of “Afrodeutsche Frauen” or Afro-German women) is the first grassroots activist group for Afro-German women and the sister organization of the ISD. ADEFRA’s founders include Katharina Oguntoye, Katja Kinder, Elke Jank, Eva von Pirch, Daniela Tourkazi, Judy Gummich, and Jasmin Eding, many who contributed to Farbe bekennen. In the 1980s, ADEFRA also published its own magazine, Afrekete, which was edited by Elke Jank.
ADEFRA held annual national meetings until the mid-1990s. The organization was also headquartered in Munich until this time. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, members worked to unify Black women in East and West Germany, with the group holding its first post-unification national meeting in Munich in December 1990. In 2000, ADEFRA headquarters moved to Berlin, where it is currently based. It is now known as Generation ADEFRA and is led by Katja, Peggy Piesche, and Prof. Dr. Maisha Auma. Described by Piesche as a “Black queer-feminist community,” ADEFRA is open to all Black women, regardless of age or sexual orientation. The group has also included members of other minority groups. Today, ADEFRA holds readings, workshops, conferences, and other events focused on anti-racism, the history of Black Europeans, and other critical topics.   
May Ayim Ufer
Today, we might refer to Audre as a place-based artist, activist, and theorist. She wrote several pieces that testify to this, including “black women find racism rampant in Germany,” which she published with Dr. Joseph, and “This Urn Contains Earth from German Concentration Camps,” which she wrote after visiting the Plötzensee Memorial for Victims of National Socialism. Audre first visited Berlin five years before the fall of the Wall, so she was also impacted by that tremendous manifestation of state-sanctioned oppression, writing “East Berlin 1989” in response. These powerful works and so many others greatly influenced a very young May Ayim.
Born in Hamburg-Altona on May 3, 1960, May was a Black German poet, activist, and educator. The daughter of a white German mother and Ghanaian father, May lived with a white German foster family as a child. Her father wanted her to be raised by his sister, but German law did not give rights to biological fathers and made what they referred to as “illegitimate” children a ward of the state. May grew up in Westphalia, and her childhood was unhappy. She often spoke about her abusive foster parents, something she later explored in her poetry. She later attended teacher training college in Münster and majored in Psychology and Education at the University of Regensburg. There, she wrote a thesis focused on the cultural and social history of Afro-Germans, the first scholarly study of Black German history. A great deal of that work was published in Farbe bekennen. During that time, she also traveled to Ghana to find her biological father, then a professor of Medicine, to develop a relationship with him and her family. After returning to Germany, May was trained as a speech therapist, writing another thesis on ethnocentrism in that field. She settled in Berlin in 1984, lecturing at the Free University and continuing to write poetry and articles exploring identity and the experiences of multi-ethnic people in Germany. As a result of her commitment to uniting Afro-Germans in the fight against racism, May co-founded the ISD and was an active member of ADEFRA.
After working strenuously to prepare for Black History Month in 1996, May suffered a mental and physical breakdown. She was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Auguste Viktoria Hospital that January, and doctors eventually diagnosed her as having multiple sclerosis. They stopped her medication, which had been based on believing she had severe depression, and discharged her that April. Continuing to struggle with depression, May was readmitted in June following a suicide attempt. Discharged again in July, she died by suicide on August 9, 1996. In honor of May’s legacy, Maria Binder directed a 1997 documentary about her life, Hoffnung im Herz (Hope in My Heart: The May Ayim Story). In 2004, the May Ayim Award, the first Black German international literature award, was founded and is now presented annually. The Free University is also home to the May Ayim Archive. Last, but not least, a street formerly named after a German colonialist, was renamed the May Ayim Ufer in 2011.
Day Two
Today, we’ll walk through the borough of Schöneberg, ending with a discussion with Ria Cheatom and Jasmin Eding. 
In 1986, women squatters occupying a reconstructed house founded the BEGiNE, a café, cultural center, and living space for women and children. Since then, BEGiNE has offered a cross-disciplinary cultural program with a transnational focus, as well as self-help groups and psycho-social support. The BEGiNE is attended by women of different social and ethnic backgrounds and ages. Today, they continue to host critical programming along with publishing a newsletter and YouTube channel. Orlanda Press, which published Farbe bekennen, organized readings and parties in the BEGiNE, and Audre was part of that. In 1988, she also rented an apartment in this building.
Born in 1941 in Berlin, Dr. Dagmar Schultz is a sociologist, filmmaker, publisher, and professor. After studying at the Free University (FU), she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1965, later earning a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1972. The following year, she returned to Germany and taught at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at FU. After co-producing Hope in My Heart: The May Ayim Story, Dagmar was awarded the Margherita von Brentano Award, the most-endowed German award for gender studies and women’s projects, in 2011. She later invested her prize on the Audre Lorde Archive at the Free University and Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, from 1984 to 1992, a documentary she produced and directed that was also co-authored by Ika Hügel-Marshall, Ria Cheatom, and Aletta von Vietinghoff. In the 1970s, Dagmar co-founded Orlanda Women’s Press, serving as its Co-Editor until 2001. But this wasn’t her first time committing to feminist publishing. She and others established a publishing house focused on feminist literature and the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Berlin, the first of its kind in Germany.
During the 1980s, Audre spent countless hours at Orlanda, planning reading tours and the publication of her books in German, such as Black Feminism by her and Dr. Joseph. When Orlanda moved here in 1990, Dagmar and Ika, who was also a member of the publishing team, also moved here, where Dagmar still lives to this day. Audre also lived here with them during her visits in 1991 and 1992. In 1992, Audre gave a private reading here, which was followed by Orlanda publishing a bilingual edition of 42 of her poems entitled Die Quelle unserer Macht (The Source of Our Power).
Alter St. Matthäus Kirchhof
Audre was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, which inspired her book The Cancer Journals. Six years later, the cancer had metastasized in her liver, and on November 17, 1992, she transitioned in St. Croix, where she had been living with Dr. Joseph. One year later, Ika, Ria, Jasmin, Dagmar, and others organized a celebration of life memorial in Audre’s honor at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, with approximately 400 people in attendance who knew, loved, and/or who were influenced by her.
But that’s not exactly why we’re here. We’re here to visit Ika’s and May Ayim’s graves. We’re also here to spend time with Ria Cheatom and Jasmin Eding. Along with their friend Judy Gummich, Ika, Ria, and Jasmin wrote the “Foreword” to In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table Talk, a book I co-authored with Dana Maria Asbury and Jazlyn Tate Andrews. I remain honored that they took the time to share their incredibly beautiful, powerful, and generous words about me and my work. I am even more honored to have shared space with them every year for the past decade. When I visited Berlin in November 2021 to launch the book, they were not able to attend because of their vulnerability to COVID-19. So instead, we came here to visit the gravesites of May, Mike Reichel, and Fidelis Grotke, as we always do, and to have smokes and coffee at Café Finovo, where I gave them love, hugs, and signed copies of the book.2 This is the last place I saw Ika.
I wish I’d known that would be our final goodbye.

The President's blogs are meant, in part, to generate excitement about our upcoming conference. This one is congruent with the presidential session honoring Audre Lorde’s 90th birthday, the 45th anniversary of her publishing Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, and the 40th anniversary of her first trip to Berlin. The session will feature Generation ADEFRA leaders Katja Kinder (an ADEFRA co-founder), Peggy Piesche, and Prof. Dr. Maisha Auma.
1 Special thanks to Dr. Dagmar Schultz for identifying and publishing about the sites that were of importance to Audre and sharing pictures and videos critical to those sites on her website, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years. Follow @AudresFootsteps and @FemGeniuses on Facebook, Instagram, and X to see photographs and short videos of the tour and other course sessions throughout this month.
2 Reichel and Grotke were leading members of the Black community, co-pioneering the ISD and Black History Month in Berlin.