May Ayim (1960-1996)
May Ayim was a poet, educator and Afro-German activist. Together with Audre Lorde in the 1980s she was one of the founders of the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD); Initiative of Black People in Germany.
She was born Sylvia Andler in 1960 in Hamburg to a German mother and a Ghanaian father. She was adopted by a white German family and raised in Westphalia as May Opitz. She trained as a teacher in Münster and later at the University of Regensburg, where she completed her PhD dissertation ‘Afro-Deutsche. Ihre Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte auf dem Hintergrund gesellschaftlicher Veränderungen’ (‘Afro-Germans: Their Cultural and Social History against a Background of Social Change’) in 1986.
She moved to Berlin in 1984, where she taught at the Freie Universität (Free University). She was one of the editors and authors of the groundbreaking non-fiction book Farbe bekennen (1986), which was translated into English in 1992 as Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out.
May Ayim’s poems move between powerful political protest and subtle reflection on the complexities of her mixed heritage. Her works incorporate black American blues techniques and Adinkra symbols.
In ‘entfernte verbindungen’; ‘distant connections’ Ayim reflects on her parents’ hands. Although she is ‘abseits’; ‘apart’ and outside the (white) mainstream narrative, she is nonetheless ‘daheim unterwegs’, ‘at home on the move’ between continents. Her horizons are ‘lebendig’ (living, lively).
Another key poem is ‘blues in schwarz weiß’; ‘blues in black and white’ which takes German reunification in 1990 as a starting point in order to deliver an astonishing counterblast to white European racism which excludes two thirds of the world from its narrative.
She battled with depression and committed suicide in 1996 in Berlin, Kreuzberg.
In 2009, as a result of a community initiative, the Gröbenufer in Kreuzberg was renamed the May-Ayim-Ufer.
May Ayim’s publications include:
Farbe bekennen (1986 [under the name May Opitz]; new edition 2020); Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1992)
Entfernte Verbindungen (1993); distant connections
blues in schwarz weiß (1995); blues in black and white
Grenzenlos und unverschämt (1997), Borderless and Shameless
‘Das Jahr 1990: Heimat und Einheit aus afro-deutscher Perspektive’ (1997); ‘The Year 1990: An Afro-German Perspective on Homeland and Unity’; in Grenzenlos und unverschämt (1997)
nachtgesang (1997); night song
Weitergehen. Gedichte (2013); Keep Going. Poems
Poems by May Ayim available online:
Borderless and Shameless – a A Poem Against German (Fake) Unity
deutschland im herbst (1992); Germany in Autumn
‘blues in schwarz weiß’ (1995); blues in black and white
May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz (eds.), Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, trans. by Anne V. Adams, foreword by Audre Lorde (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992)
Further Reading in English
Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck (eds.), Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachussetts Press, 2015)
Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1998)
Fatima El-Tayeb, European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
Tiffany N. Florvil, Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020)
Ela Gezen, ‘May Ayim and the Blues’, Monatshefte 108:2 (2016), 247-58
Karein Kirsten Goertz, ‘Showing Her Colors: An Afro-German Writes the Blues in Black and White’, Callaloo 26:2 (2003), 306-319
Sara Lennox, ‘Claiming Blackness in Germany’, in The Meaning of Culture: German Studies in the 21st Century, ed. by Martin Kagel and Laura Tate Kagel (Hannover: Wehrhahn, 2009), 177-92
Jennifer Michaels, ‘“Fühlst du dich als Deutsche oder als Afrikanerin?” May Ayim’s Search for an Afro-German Identity’, German Life and Letters 59:4 (2006), 500-14
Jennifer Michaels, ‘The Impact of Audre Lorde’s Politics and Poetics on Afro-German Women Writers‘, German Studies Review 29:1 (2006), 21-40
Michelle M. Wright, ‘Others-from-Within from Without: Afro-German Subject Formation and the Challenge of a Counter-Discourse’, Callaloo 26:2 (2003), 296-305
Further Reading in German
Ika Hügel-Marshall, Chris Lange and May Ayim (eds.), Entfernte Verbindungen: Rassismus, Antisemitismus, Klassenunterdrückung (Berlin: Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1993; new edition 2020)
Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz und Dagmar Schultz (eds.), Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1986)
Dirk Naguschewski, ‘Afro-Deutsches. Zu Gedichten von May Ayim’, Deutsch-Afrikanisches Jahrbuch für Interkulturelles Denken, ed. by Leo Kreutzer and David Simo (Hannover: Rennovah, 2004), pp. 135-43
Peggy Piesche (ed.), Euer Schweigen schützt euch nicht. Audre Lorde und die schwarze Frauenbewegung in Deutschland (Berlin: Orlanda Frauenverlag, 2013)
Web Links in English
Tiffany Florvil, ‘Remembering Afro-German Intellectual May Ayim’, Black Perspectives, blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), 6 September 2017
May Ayim biography, Ohio State University, 2015
Wikipedia page for Showing our Colors
Google doodle for May Ayim, 27 February 2018
The Black Central European Studies Network (BCESN), founded in 2014, is an international network of historians who argue that black people have always been a part of Central European history.
Web Links in German
Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD), initiative of black people in Germany
Each One Teach One (EOTO) - Afro-German Archive in Berlin
Orlanda Frauenverlag, publisher of May Ayim’s works