Writing on the Legacy of May Ayim

May Ayim historic marker, Berlin, Germany (Wikimedia Commons)

In her suicide note on August 9, 1996, Black German activist-intellectual May Ayim sadly wrote, “I have lived and experienced more than many people who are twice as old [as me].”1 This sentence details just how much Ayim had accomplished and endured in her thirty-six short years of life. As her friend and fellow co-founder of the Black German organization Initiative of Black Germans (Initiative Schwarze Deutsche) or ISD, David Nii Addy noted, “Her personal courage, her creativity and her energy were impressive, but her recurring doubts, exhaustion, and anxiety accompanied her until the end. . .”2 She created a trailblazing path for herself and others in the Black German community through her human rights advocacy work, diasporic networks, and radical artistic expression.  Ayim’s confrontation with gendered and class oppression and anti-Black discrimination in and beyond Germany wore on her emotionally and physically. Her depression, heartbreak from a lover, and a medical diagnosis of multiple sclerosis also profoundly impacted her.

Yet, even with these prodigious experiences, why does Ayim –who was one of the most well-known Black German poets and activists in twentieth-century German and African diaspora history – still have no biography or monograph that explores her extraordinary life? Why isn’t Ayim’s name considered more frequently alongside other Black internationalists such as Claudia Jones, Amy Jacques Garvey, or Eslanda Robeson? Why hasn’t she been discussed as a contemporary of other late postwar West German intellectuals or groups such as the Berlin History Workshop (Geschichtswerkstatt) or BHW? Who was Ayim, and what did she accomplish beyond the Black German movement? What was the interiority of her life, in which she felt, wrote, and experienced a complex set of emotions? These questions aminate my own interest in Ayim and frame my research on her, but I am also interested in other questions: How do I render her legacy legible for audiences less familiar with her? How do I craft a compelling narrative that gives her story justice? These questions, and so many more, simultaneously guide and trouble me, especially as I, a Caribbean American scholar based in the United States, write the first, but hopefully not the last, study on the political life and intellectual corpus of Ayim. Indeed, it is a pursuit I do not take lightly.

So why May Ayim? Just as there was Something about Mary (the 1998 film), there was something about May. I am drawn to Ayim for multiple reasons. First, she was one of the driving forces who made the Black German movement of the 1980s and 1990s possible in a critical moment of heightened ethnonationalism, neofascism, and conservativism. Ayim, along with Abenaa Adomako, Katharina Oguntoye, Michael Reichel, and Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly were what I call “quotidian intellectuals.” These Black Germans and others imparted different kinds of knowledge through multiple creative mediums that relied on everyday aesthetics and that recognized how the everyday could be intellectual. Ayim employed vernacular forms such as spoken word poetry and diasporic symbols to signal why material, cultural, and geographic contexts matter. She thematized the everyday, especially racism and colonialism, in her prose and poetry. In many ways her cultural and political work illustrate theorist Michel de Certeau’s idea of “practices of the everyday life.” For me, Ayim also represents the importance of the Black quotidian in the German context, a theme I will illuminate further in the biography.

Second, in addition to the Black German movement, she remained active in human rights, migrant, feminist, and anti-racist groups committed to fighting against discrimination and securing equality for all. Through her activism and advocacy, she focused on the impact of overlapping forms of oppression on minoritized communities in and beyond the borders of the German nation. She was a member of the International League of Human Rights, the Association of German Writers, the Intercultural Women’s Center S.U.S.I, and the Antiracist Initiative, to name just a few. Ayim was also active in the Berlin chapter of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (Anti-Apartheid Bewegung) or AAB and worked with South African activist Luyanda Mpahlwa. She co-founded additional groups, including Literature Women (LiteraturFrauen e.V.) or LIT, which was a society for the promotion of women’s literature. In fact, Ayim was committed to many causes that remained dear to her even in her last months. Aside from my book, Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of Transnational Movement (2020) and a few others, her activism outside the Black German movement is rarely analyzed in a substantive and comprehensive way.3

Finally, May Ayim bonded with activists and artists such as Trinidadian Canadian Dionne Brand, Grenadian Merle Collins, and African American Paule Marshall. Connecting with individuals near and far across the diaspora shaped and sustained Ayim’s work, and these relationships also reveal new ways to understand racial intimacy and radical kinship. Moving beyond blood relations, both concepts force us to be more attentive to the intimate, complicating what the practices and politics of kinship can look like. This is what a more comprehensive study on Ayim can unveil, but also why it is so important.

Ayim died in 1996, a year before my first arrival in Germany and although we never met, to me she feels like diasporic kin – a sister, a cousin, or an aunt. Moreover, I didn’t learn about Ayim during my time as an exchange student in Hamburg from 1999 to 2000. Hamburg was also the city where she was born in 1960. I discovered more about Ayim only after my return to the United States, and this really sparked my initial interest in her and other Black German activist-intellectuals. At university, I read many things about Black Germans by scholars such as Fatima El-Tayeb, Marilyn Sephocle, Tina Campt, and Michelle M. Wright. I also read Farbe bekennen, an edited volume based on her thesis that she co-edited with Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz in 1986. Her intellectual prowess in Farbe bekennen is profound, but it wasn’t until I conducted dissertation in 2011 and 2012 in Berlin that I learned so much more about the outlines of her thinking, knowing, and feeling.

In a very strange yet amazing turn of events in 2011, I and Ria Cheatom, a prominent feminist activist in the Black German movement, moved over twenty boxes of Ayim’s belongings from Regina Stein’s basement; Stein was active in the Black German women’s organization Afro-German Women (Afrodeutsche Frauen) or ADEFRA. We moved those boxes to Ria’s basement, and eventually they were moved to the Free University of Berlin (FU) archives. The May Ayim Collection, in conjunction with the Audre Lorde Collection, is housed there. Sitting at Ria’s table in her apartment, I looked at those ego documents and other sources and witnessed Ayim’s intelligence and broader global engagement firsthand. Those intimate moments in homes, subsequent research trips to archives, and finishing my book continued to reveal how she was such an inspiring intellectual, scholar, activist, and friend.

Fast forward almost ten years later. It wasn’t until 2021 that I felt compelled to write her biography. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and global Black Lives Matter protests, I realized that Ayim was connected to those global protests through her legacy of political activism and racial solidarity; she was one of the most prolific advocates for antiracist change. Those movements, especially in Europe, also convinced me of the importance of centering Black European women as political protagonists in the past and present. Moreover, Berlin BLM activists also acknowledged their debt to Ayim and others in the global African diaspora.

Lastly, Ayim deserves a biography because her narrative signals why and how all Black lives in Germany matter then, now, and in the future. And I do feel up to this considerable task? Sometimes I think yes, and other times I think no, not really. Lack of confidence, anxiety, and fear of not being able to complete enough research and do Ayim justice plague me. But I remain committed to writing her biography because as my diasporic kin, I want to illustrate that her Black life has always mattered and why it remains so important to understanding the histories of Germany and the African diaspora, kinship, as well as the Black quotidian in the here and now. I want to show the world how this gentle rebel (sanfte Rebellin) was courageous, borderless, and brazen.

  1. Ika Hügel-Marshall, Nivedita Prasad und Dagmar Schultz, “Einleitung: May Ayim. Radikale Dichterin, sanfte Rebellin,” 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), 15.
  2. David Nii Addy, “Ein Stück des Weges gemeinsam,” in May Ayim, 67.
  3. See Hügel-Marshall, Prasad, Schultz, May Ayim: Radikale Dichterin, sanfte Rebellin, Natasha Kelly, ed. Sisters and Souls: Inspirationen durch May Ayim (Berlin: Orlanda, 2015), and Kelly, ed. Sisters and Souls 2: Inspirationen durch May Ayim (Berlin: Orlanda, 2021).
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Tiffany Florvil

Tiffany N. Florvil is an Associate Professor of 20th-century European Women’s and Gender History at the University of New Mexico. She has published pieces in the Journal of Civil and Human Rights and The German Quarterly. Florvil has also coedited the volume, Rethinking Black German Studies: Approaches, Interventions and Histories (2018), as well as published chapters in Gendering Post-1945 German History (2019) and To Turn this Whole World Over (2019). She published her manuscript, Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement (2020), with the University of Illinois Press, and it offers the first full-length study of the history of the Black German movement of the 1980s to the 2000s. She is also an editor of the “Imagining Black Europe” book series at Peter Lang Press. Follow her on Twitter @tnflorvil.

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