Black Women's Writing Revisited

Sisterly (Inter)Actions: Audre Lorde and the Development of Afro-German Women's Communities.

by Katharina Gerund, University of Bremen, Germany

1      Audre Lorde first came to Germany in 1984 as a guest professor at the Free University of Berlin, where she taught a poetry workshop, a course on Black American women poets as well as a seminar entitled "The Poet as Outsider." Dagmar Schultz, who was teaching at the Free University at that time, had met the self-proclaimed "Black, Lesbian, Mother, Warrior, Poet"[1]As Marion Kraft states in her preface to Die Quelle unserer Macht, Audre Lorde usually introduced herself with the words "I am a Black, Lesbian, Mother, Warrior, Poet" to her international audiences (9). at the 1980 World Conference on Women in Copenhagen, Denmark and had immediately invited Lorde to teach in Berlin (2000: 7). It took four years until Lorde finally arrived in Germany but during these years Schultz did not remain inactive in her efforts to introduce Lorde to German audiences. In 1981, she attended the annual conference of the National Women's Studies Association entitled "Women Respond to Racism" and listened to Lorde's as well as Adrienne Rich's keynote lectures and this experience finally led to the publication of Macht und Sinnlichkeit[2]Macht und Sinnlichkeit was published in 1983 by sub rosa Verlag, Berlin and was not only the first German language publication of some of Lorde's writings but also, as Fatima El-Tayeb states, "the first German language publication on the US debate on racism within the feminist movement" (74). - a selection/collection of Rich's and Lorde's work in German (Schultz 1986: 6).[3]Alexis de Veaux's account of these events differs slightly from Schultz's description. Lorde's biographer claims that Lorde and Schultz first met at the 1981 NWSA convention. Schultz was highly impressed and deeply moved; she wrote a letter to Lorde in which she invited her to teach at the Free University and asked her for permission to translate some of her works into German. Lorde did not answer this letter but a second one was replied to in time and the author accepted the invitation and agreed to have some of her works published in German (265-66). Veaux also notes that financial considerations played a role in Lorde's and the University's decision about her guest professorship (327) - a fact that Schultz does not mention. Schultz describes her experience of and reaction to listening to these two lectures in the following words:

I listened to their speeches with a renewed feeling of acuteness and own responsibility and decided to edit a book that would possibly stimulate discussions about racism and anti-Semitism more intensely among women. The problem of white racism in the USA, which is mentioned in some of these texts, might initially appear distant to German Women readers. However, if we turn towards our own field of experiences with anti-Seminitism and the increasing xenophobia in our country we will not be able to reject the feeling of being appealed. (1986: 10, my translation)

This personal account is indicative of some crucial aspects that have shaped Audre Lorde's reception in Germany. First, her works as well as the way they have been published and marketed in Germany explicitly address a female audience. In fact, as we will see, gender solidarity along with black solidarity has been crucial to Lorde's interactions with Germans and her influence is greatest on feminist and Afro-German discourses, particularly at the intersection of these two where Afro-German women's communities stand. Also, it is decisive that Lorde was first introduced to German audiences together with a white woman author grouped by their identities as outspoken lesbian women writers marginalized by their respective ethnic affiliation. Lorde's work and activism demonstrate that she can - though she certainly not always does - easily cross the racial boundary potentially separating her from white audiences by addressing women in general and promoting sisterhood 'across the color line,' which none the less acknowledges and appreciates differences among women. Additionally, Lorde entered German (feminist) discourses about racism through her work as well as her activism, and proved Schultz right in her initial impression that the "warrior poet" had something to say to German women. A close and detailed examination of her influence on and reception in Germany requires excavating the different discourses that were shaped by and dealt with her work and activism and building an archive - in Foucault's sense - as a necessary basis for further analysis. The scope of this article allows merely for a cursory and eclectic overview of the first findings in this regard and some initial analytical approaches.[4]Audre Lorde's work and activism in Germany will constitute a central chapter of my dissertation and this article presents the current state of my research, namely gathering material and building an archive. An in-depth and detailed analysis of the material will be provided by my thesis and the first thoughts on the topic, which I present in this paper, are to be understood as work in progress.

2      Lorde herself generally defines a very broad audience for her work, when she states: "My audience is every single person who can use the work I do" (Kraft 1986: 152). However, Lorde also points out that women and above all black women are of particular importance for her and that she "[thinks] of [her] responsibility in terms of women because there are many voices for men" (Tate 104). Though Lorde sought to empower herself by speaking out and breaking silences, she always expected people and particularly women not only to listen to but also to answer her call.[5]For her, this might also entail proving her wrong. She states: "I really feel if what I have to say is wrong, then there will be some woman who will stand up and say Audre Lorde was in error. But my words will be there, something for her to bounce off, something to incite thought, activity" (Evans 263). This proposition also underlines the fact that women were her primary concern and audience. She did not address women as a passive audience but always sought the dialogue with her 'sisters' and tried to encourage them to raise their voices, which also bears witness to the fact that her art and social activism are inextricably intertwined. She decidedly speaks out against any notion of "art for art's sake." Her writings are not only strongly tied to her own experiences but also to her activist goals and visions. Believing in the power of language and the empowering potential of speaking out, she definitely wanted women to respond to her ideas and she had a "need to hear their reaction to her work" (J. Hall ix). Lorde was highly interested in meeting women of the African Diaspora and she claims that when she came to Berlin in 1984, it was decidedly "one of [her] aims […] to meet Black German women" (1991: 67). Meeting these women did not only "[serve] as a catalyst for events that would radically change Afro-German history" and the development of Afro-German women's communities (El-Tayeb 74), but also made a strong impression on Audre Lorde herself. As she explains in her journal which has been published as "A Burst of Light," she enjoyed her stay in Berlin,[6]As Alexis de Veaux writes, the trip to Germany was also important for Lorde, who had been diagnosed with a liver tumor, on a very personal basis, since it helped her "to allay her depression," in which she feared to slide at that time (340). was excited by meeting black German women and especially happy that her classes attracted a growing number of Black women. Lorde decisively mentions the pleasure she gained from working with Afro-German women and observing their development of self-awareness, collective identity, and group membership. This process of developing Afro-German women's communities had just begun in 1984 and, of course, took much longer than Lorde's first three-month visit to Berlin, but the connection between the writer-activist and Germany, (Afro-)German women, as well as other Afro-Europeans had already been well established. Her trip through Europe, meeting Afro-European, and especially Afro-German women was central to Lorde's appraisal and development of her own work and thinking. Her journal entry on June 10, 1984, when she was still in Berlin, reads: "For the first time I really feel that my writing has a substance and stature that will survive me. I have done good work" (61). Her connections with and interest in Afro-German women in general, personal friendships as well as the biological cancer treatment which she underwent in Berlin kept Lorde coming back to Germany every year until her death in 1992 and set up the framework for dialogues and mutual exchanges.

3      Germany and Afro-German women remained a vital issue for Lorde and became part of her writing, activism, and thinking. Some of her poetry deals more or less explicitly with her personal experiences in and impressions of Germany, e.g. "This Urn Contains Earth from German Concentration Camps," or the situation of Blacks in Germany, e.g. "Berlin is Hard on Colored Girls." In her poem "East Berlin," which is collected in the posthumously published book The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, the voice explicitly states that "[i]t feels dangerous now to be Black in Berlin" and mentions an "Afro-German woman stomped to death / by skinheads in Alexanderplatz" (50). The poem demonstrates not only the author's familiarity with the political and social developments in Germany, which experienced a growth of violent racist excesses after its reunification, but also her special concern with Afro-German women and their situation. Beyond her reflections on these issues in her poetry, she documented her experiences in Germany in "A Burst of Light" and several other lectures and publications and also actively got involved with German discourses and activism on racism and feminism. Two examples particularly attest to this involvement: First, Lorde immediately noticed the isolation in which most Afro-German women lived in the early 1980s and, in consequence, actively encouraged, supported, and mentored their growing communities. It was particularly important for Afro-German women who were not only isolated but hardly noticed in a country which repressed its colonial past and - at best - ignored the existence of a Black population. Audre Lorde was at that time older than most of the Afro-German women who became active in building a community and due to her political and activist experience Lorde could take on the role as mentor and guide. Second, while spending her last summer in Germany in 1992, Lorde together with her partner Gloria Joseph wrote a protest letter, which was published in several German newspapers, to Chancellor Helmut Kohl in response to the pogrom in Rostock. They explicitly question the meaning of these developments in Germany for the international community of "people of color" and point towards the damage that this incident might have inflicted on the public image of Germany (Schultz 1994: 172). Her concern for people of African descent in Germany (and the world) and her anger about this racist act proved to be more important to her in this situation than the fact that she had to continue her struggle against cancer (of which she died the same year).

4      Lorde tried not to allow her illness to interfere with her political activism, and this attitude certainly contributed to the respect and appreciation with which (Afro-German) women viewed her and her work as well as her crucial mentor position for Afro-German (women's) communities. However, just as the voice of her above-mentioned poem, Lorde herself did no longer feel safe in Germany. In 1990, she wrote about a poetry reading in Dresden, where she also spoke out against racism: "For the first time in six years I am afraid as I read my poetry in Germany" (1991: 71). This shows her sensitivity to the political and social situation and attests once more to the fact that she was influenced by the political and social conditions and changes which she met in Germany. In her contribution to the 1992 edition of Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte, Lorde explains her concern about these developments but also her vision of a "global feminism" and a changed German nation at the center of Europe, in which Afro-Germans play a central role:

Geographically and politically, Germany stands at the center of Europe. Reunified, it will once again represent a powerful force in European affairs. Historically, this force has not always been a peaceful one. A new Germany's potential power, and their relative part in influencing its direction, are part of the destiny of African-Germans, as the political positions of the United States are part of the destiny of African-Americans (235).[7]This translation is taken from Lorde 1991: 70.

In this paragraph, she also draws a parallel between Afro-Americans and Afro-Germans indicating that there are issues to which both groups can relate and by which they are connected. Recognizing such global connections constitutes, for Lorde, the necessary prerequisite for the global feminism she envisions and she decidedly calls for American and Afro-American women alike to realize that "[they] are not alone in [their] world situation" (1991: 71). Lorde herself developed "deep bonds with Afro-German women and with other women's communities in Germany" and encouraged the transatlantic dialogue between women in general and women of African descent in particular (Hall xv). Her own connections with Afro-European women certainly played a crucial role for "the globalization of her consciousness of women of color" and contributed to her continuing role as an advocate for gender and black solidarity across national boundaries (Veaux 340). With regard to Afro-German women, their history, and situation, Lorde states that clearly "[their] war is the same" and positions them within an "international community of people of color" (1991: 68; 69).

5      By several strategies, Lorde's writing and activism reached out to German and Afro-German women and influenced German discourses on a variety of issues such as feminism, identity, ethnicity, sexuality, and racism. In order to exercise this influence, her cultural work had to cross language, cultural, national, and racial divides. Lorde's crossing of the Atlantic and actual presence in Germany certainly fostered this process and, according to testimonies by contemporary witnesses, meeting her personally constituted a significant and often fascinating event. Her students at the Free University were inspired to question their identity and their approach to poetry because Lorde strongly encouraged them to move beyond close readings and structural analyses and to take the emotional potential of the works as well as their own reactions towards the poems into account. Dagmar Schultz states that she personally learned a lot from Audre Lorde and further describes that thousands of people throughout Europe were fascinated by Lorde's lectures and readings through her charisma as well as her poetry and political thinking (2000: 10; 8). For some aspects of Lorde's impact on German culture and society, her actual presence in the country was fundamental because it allowed for a direct and relatively unmediated dialogue and added weight to her messages and concerns. This is particularly true for her role in the development of Afro-German women's communities and their sense of self and a collective identity. Schultz, in this context, speaks about the importance of Lorde's presence rather than her work or her mediated images (2000: 8) and Stefanie Kron highlights Lorde's active involvement by crediting her as a major initiator of this movement (114). Though Lorde's lectures, readings, and personal meetings with her German audience were a vital part of her work, the publication of her writings in German was necessary for addressing a larger German public. However, examining the publication history also shows the intended primary audience of her works and allows for speculations about the discourses she in fact influenced most. Of course, as Marion Kraft states in her preface to Die Quelle unserer Macht, translating her writings culturally and linguistically is not an easy task (1994:12). Renate Stendhal would certainly agree with this notion and Macht und Sinnlichkeit also includes her "Anmerkungen der Übersetzerin" in order to sensitize the German readership for the problematics of translation.[8]Stendhal primarily discusses the terms power and anger, for which German equivalents are particularly hard to find. In her notes, she also thanks Lorde for her anger and her impatience with which she pursued her educational work informing white female 'ignoramuses' about racism (13). These processes of linguistic as well as cultural translation are difficult and there are several means by which the German publishers of Lorde's work tried to enhance its accessibility to a German audience and pave the way for a more general reception of Lorde's work in Germany. However, as West-Berlin author Traude Bührmann states:

Female authors like Audre Lorde […] are, in fact, nominally known to many; however, it seems they are hardly ever read. That is they are virtually not sold at all over here. (qtd. in Morrien 10, my translation)

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