Beyond Shorelines: Audre Lorde’s Queered Belonging

*This post is part of our online forum on the Life and Work of Audre Lorde 

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, and Adrienne Rich in 1980 (Wikimedia).

Audre Lorde welcomed the opportunity to travel beyond the shorelines of New York City and journeyed to Europe, where she taught three literature courses at the Free University in Berlin. Her April 1984 arrival in Berlin also entailed meeting Black Germans. Upon reflecting on this Black German community, Lorde asked “Who are they, the German women of the diaspora? Where do our paths intersect as women of Color—beyond the details of our particular oppressions, although certainly not outside the reference of those details. And where do our paths diverge? Most important, what can we learn from our connected differences that will be useful to us both, Afro-German and Afro-American?”

Forging connected differences, Lorde became a critical figure for members in the newly emerging Black German movement across Germany; she also helped Black diasporic communities throughout the world. Lorde’s initial stint in the divided Cold War city resulted in a sustained relationship with Berlin and its diverse diasporic inhabitants that lasted from 1984 to her death in 1992. 

Lorde’s relationships with and orientations to many women across the globe were represented in both Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (1995) and Dagmar Schultz’s Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984-1992 (2012). These documentaries exemplify how Lorde relied on multiple sites for affective attachments, in which she “love[d] in doorways coming and going, in the hours between dawns, looking inward and outward.” From Adrienne Rich to Jewelle Gomez and from Dagmar Schultz to May Ayim, these women shared how they cultivated profound ties to Lorde in many scenes in the films. In both of these films, but especially in the latter one, viewers bear witness to her relationships with Black Germans in Berlin. Berlin became an exciting and beautiful place for her that sustained her, whether it was through the course of her alternative non-Western cancer treatments or her connections with others across the Black diaspora, including African American opera singer Annabelle Bernard. Lorde, along with other individuals of African descent such as South African artist and poet Vusi Mchunu, became diasporic resources for Black Germans, encouraging them to create, mobilize, and demand recognition in and beyond Germany. While the city was a playground for Lorde, it was not without racism and division. Yet, the films capture beautifully how Lorde consciously pursued a “queered diasporic belonging,” in which she forged relationships to diverse peoples and places across time and space. 

In Nadia Ellis’s Territories of the Soul, she elaborates that diasporic belonging is queer because it allows diasporic subjects to find ways of being that are not imposed, and it enables them to extend beyond European empires, the nation, heteronormativity, conventional spaces, and traditional genealogy. These connections rely on a desire to belong elsewhere. Ellis also writes, “…diasporic belonging is forged out of intense affect and eccentric forms of intimacy.” In this way, Lorde’s queered diasporic belonging was an affective and creative mode in which she reimagined filial relationships as well as other cultural and political practices. This was particularly important since it helped Black Germans disrupt the fixity of paternity, descent, and blood as the only determining characteristics of identity and kinship in the national polity. 

Lorde’s queered diasporic belonging informed her poetics and politics, in which she created new possibilities that challenged static notions and normative perspectives. While Lorde was unabashedly queer, these queered practices were not about same-sex desire and affinity alone. Expounding on her idea of the erotic, Lorde’s forms of queered diasporic belonging in and beyond Europe offered ways to creatively curate and build community, shattering borders in the process. She also provided new practices of belonging through her poetry, prose, and presentations that pushed the limits of both the past and the present, conjuring different spacetimes.

Indeed, Black Germans also engaged in queered diasporic belonging with their organizations (Initiative Black Germans (ISD) and Afro-German Women (ADEFRA)), publications, events, and actions. With their coalitional politics, they privileged connected differences and non-normative ideas of Germanness and the diaspora. As what I call “quotidian intellectuals,” Black Germans used vernacular cultural forms to establish new aesthetics and artistic forms, while also producing and disseminating knowledge that stressed the persistence of racism and the afterlives of colonialism in German society; their intellectualism led to new epistemologies and was tied to their internationalism.

Queered diasporic belonging became central to how Black Germans (re)claimed spaces for themselves and other minorities and remained constitutive elements of their community building. But their orientations to one another were also not only fraught with tensions and frustrations based on their ties to others in the Black German community and their position in the global, but also owning to the federal government’s insistence on being progressive and tolerant (i.e. not racist) and its inability to institute anti-racist legislation or change the German citizenship law. For some Black Germans, these frustrations also signaled their desire to both flee and stay in Germany. For others, it represented their ability to embody contradictions and to blur the lines of the local and the global in Germany. And for many, it resulted in pushing for concrete changes at all levels in Germany through their mobilization.

Moreover, Black Germans’ affinities and attachments to Lorde (as well as to others in the diaspora) reveal their potential to transcend the shorelines near and far. The Black German community affords us a new vision of belonging and the dynamism of the diaspora that can be complex, fraught, and joyful. Together, these examples of queered diasporic belonging help us “breed futures” for new generations in Germany and elsewhere.

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Tiffany Florvil

Tiffany Florvil is a historian of the modern and late modern period in Europe, especially social movements, gender and sexuality, emotions, and the African diaspora. She is the author of 'Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement.' Follow her on Twitter @tnflorvil.

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