Seeing May Ayim through Her Friends’ Eyes
Black German poet and activist May Ayim would have turned sixty-two years old on May 3. She was born in Hamburg, Germany to a white German mother who was a dancer and a Ghanaian father who was a medical student. Ayim never had a chance to have a happy family life with her biological parents. Instead, she lived with a white German foster family (Pflegefamilie) in Münster, suffering from depression and anxiety and longing to be white. It has sadly been over twenty-five years since her death in 1996. Yet Ayim’s legacy remains strong.
Her words continue to inspire and tell us so much about the past as well as our current moment. She was unabashed in her critique of German and Western systems of racism. Indeed, Ayim knew that Germany’s racecraft in the colonies shaped cultural, intellectual, political, and racial dynamics in the metropole. She discussed and wrote on the role of German (and European) officials in enacting violence and genocide in the colonies, metropoles, and across Central and Eastern Europe. For her, the contours of racism could be seen from Windhoek, Namibia to Warsaw, Poland and from Rostock to Berlin, Germany. Ayim was attentive to intersectionality as a political and personal praxis long before Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coinage of the term in 1989. Engaged in anti-Apartheid, anti-racist, feminist, and migrant activism in Germany, she engendered spaces for herself and many other minoritized communities. She, along with other Black German activist-intellectuals and artists, established the modern Black German movement in 1980s, marking a new stage of diasporic and intellectual activism in the German nation. Her role in the movement led to meaningful friendships.
Near and far, Ayim’s relationships with her friends and peers grounded her, and she also played an important role in their lives. Ayim cultivated racial kinships with so many across the diaspora, including with June Jordan and Sonia Sanchez. Indeed, those multidirectional influences were affective, generative, and essential. Her connections with Black German compatriots such as Ika Hügel-Marshall, David Nii Addy, and Abenaa Adomako reveal the significance of racial kinships in a European society that made (and still makes) it difficult for minoritized communities to survive and thrive.1 These individuals, like Ayim, were involved in the Black German movement, which also led to new forms of Black German worldmaking. Black Germans’ worldmaking was reflected in their ability to build different communities and instigate cultural and political change while also challenging racist hierarchies and domination. In so doing, they laid bare that racism and racialization remained pressing problems in Germany. As scholar Paul Gilroy wrote, “[Race] is also the highly charged matter of political ontology, located at the epicenter of our volatile environment bounded by nationalism and civilizationism.” Black Germans knew this “volatile environment” well. It was an atmosphere in which the respective postwar governments of East and West Germany generated and normalized the myth that racism ended after the Third Reich. In so doing, these countries repositioned themselves accordingly—one aligning with the United States to combat communism and the other forging communist, anti-racist solidarity with other marginalized communities across the globe.
It is no wonder that Ayim’s racial kinships with her fellow Black Germans were significant: they could now feel validated and understood in ways that were not based on the white German majority. They could free themselves from the imposition of the labels of nonGermanness, nonhumanness, and nonbeingness, being their full unencumbered Black selves and embracing what theorist Kevin Quashie refers to as “Black aliveness.” Though Black Germans knew that race was a floating signifier, they endured its material implications in their daily lives. Yet their lives were not merely about publicizing race and combating racism alone. Black Germans also focused on living openly in the world on their terms. As Quashie notes, “Imagine a black world: The invocation of a black world is the operating assumption of black texts, a world where blackness exists in the tussle of being, in reverie and terribleness, in exception and in ordinariness. The black world is not one where the racial logics of harming predilections of antiblackness are inverted but one where blackness is totality, where every human question and possibility is of people who are black.” And May’s friends were able to do just that.
To her Black German friends, Ayim was a vibrant and dedicated woman. For instance, Hügel-Marshall, of German and African American ancestry, couldn’t recall when she initially met Ayim, but she remembered her as “a young dynamic woman.” She initially felt sympathy and a connection to Ayim. Hügel-Marshall was close with Ayim both professionally and personally. As a press manager at Orlanda feminist press, she organized Ayim’s national and international talks. Hügel-Marshall believed that Ayim showed “exceptional courage with and through her poems and essays.”2
She witnessed her courage firsthand, as they attended book fairs and other literary events together. Ayim spent much time with Ika and her partner Dagmar Schultz, and their personal and professional lives were very enmeshed. They remained connected even after Ayim’s death; Hügel-Marshall, along with her partner, keep her memory and legacy alive with diverse cultural productions such as films and edited volumes and by tending to her gravesite.
Ayim’s presence was a lifeline for so many, including her close friend David Nii Addy. For Addy, Ayim was spontaneous and soulful, and possessed an unbridled optimism. Being in her presence was beneficial and delightful. During Addy’s over ten-year-old friendship with her, they became Ghanaian German siblings since they both had parents from Ghana and Germany; they were also political comrades in struggles against discrimination in and beyond Germany. It is from Addy’s apartment in Berlin that the idea for the Initiative of Black Germans (now Initiative of Black People in Germany, ISD), a Black German cultural and political organization by and for people of African descent, developed. Their travels, activities, and letters were critical in his life. Though their political and intellectual paths shifted in the mid-1990s, Ayim still remained a compelling force for transformation in society.
For Adomako, Ayim, who “was a very lovely friend, a neighbor in the neighborhood, a companion and compass,” grounded her.3 After studying in London, Adomako first met Ayim with fellow Black German activist-intellectual Katharina Oguntoye in 1985 in Berlin. She and Ayim organized numerous Black German events and spoke to and collaborated with many African communities in Berlin; they saw their diasporic solidarities as concrete forms of survival and resistance. Both women also cultivated relationships with representatives from the international Black feminist movement. Adomako shared so much with her, including introducing her to her grandmother and contributing to Farbe bekennen (Showing our Colors), a pathbreaking Black German feminist volume that was published in 1986. Adomako learned, grew, and worked alongside Ayim, witnessing her remarkable abilities in the activist trenches.
Hügel-Marshall, Addy, and Adomako all saw how her educational training and work as a speech therapist was meaningful, allowing her to build further connections and develop more creative outlets. They marveled at her ability to deal with challenges head on. Her audacity gave Black German and other Black diasporic communities hope and direction. Despite her exceptional talents and her prominence, Ayim’s internal struggles and ambivalent relationship with her family remained vexing.
Seeing Ayim through her friends’ eyes vivifies her and reminds us of her complexity. Ayim was happy and depressed, optimistic and pessimistic, confident and insecure, and courageous and fearful. But most importantly, Ayim embodied “blackness is totality.” And that totality made her an icon in life and in death.
- Sadly, Ika Hügel-Marshall died on April 21, 2022, and this blog is dedicated to her and Ayim’s memories. ↩
- Ika Hügel-Marshall, “Seite an Seite,” in May Ayim: Radikale Dichterin, sanfte Rebellin, Ika Hügel-Marshall, Nivedita Prasad, and Dagmar Schultz, eds., in cooperation with Regina M. Banda Stein (Münster: Unrast, 2021), 134 and 135. ↩
- Abenaa Agyeiwaa Adomako, “Wenn ich an May denke,” in May Ayim: Radikale Dichterin, sanfte Rebellin, Ika Hügel-Marshall, Nivedita Prasad, and Dagmar Schultz, eds., in cooperation with Regina M. Banda Stein (Münster: Unrast, 2021), 72. ↩