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Berlin celebrates Black US activist and LGBTQ+ icon

Julie Gregson
July 7, 2024

Berlin has renamed part of a street for Audre Lorde. The other half still honors an anti-democratic Prussian statesman. Lorde inspired the Black German movement, which has recently lobbied against German colonialism.

Andre Lorde and Manteuffel street signs
Half of the street is named after Audre Lorde, the other remains named after Otto Theodor von Manteuffel, a conservative Prussian-era politicianImage: Jürgen Held/IMAGO

"Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, mother, warrior, poet" — that is how LGBTQ+ icon Audre Lorde described herself. Born to Caribbean immigrants in New York City in 1934, she was a prizewinning author of passionate poetry and essays about age, race, class and sex.

Lorde, who died from cancer in 1992, was a regular visitor to Berlin in the last eight years of her life. It was there that she kickstarted the Afro-German and Black German women's movement.

The Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) and ADEFRA (Association of Black Women in Germany) emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to fight racism, promote political and cultural visibility — and change the assumption that it wasn't possible to be both Black and German.

Now, Berlin has officially renamed a street in its multicultural district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg after the renowned writer, some 10 years after the first seeds of the idea were sown.

Street renaming is not uncommon in Germany with its turbulent political history. Most recently, the ISD led a campaign to remove racist street names or those commemorating Germany's colonial figures.

The creation of the Audre-Lorde-Strasse was spearheaded by LGBTQ+and anti-racism activists, as well as the Green Party. It is intended to reflect the diversity of society in public space. Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, which is governed by the Greens, resolved nearly a decade ago to name streets after women until parity was achieved.

Black and white photo of Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde frequently traveled to Berlin and inspired German activistsImage: IMAGO/GRANGER Historical Picture Archive

Compromise, complaints, and culture clash

The renaming was, however, dogged by compromise and complaints. Mirroring the divided state of German politics, half of the original street remains named after Otto Theodor von Manteuffel, who was a conservative premier in what was then Prussia and who led that state in an era that saw the rollback of many democratic reforms.

The street's split naming meant apartment blocks had to be renumbered in the new stretch.

Lorde first came to the city in 1984 to take up a guest professorship at West Berlin's Free University (FU Berlin). Back then, Katharina Oguntoye, now a writer, historian and activist, attended Lorde's seminar on Black women's poetry. Offering such a subject was a novelty at the time.

It was a watershed moment for Oguntoye, who found Lorde "very charismatic."

"She was a superhero," Oguntoye told DW. "She could really connect with people and inspire people through that. That was one of her big talents — everywhere she went in the world."

At the time, said Oguntoye, the theme of racism was still extremely taboo in Germany. "People talked about the Holocaust and about xenophobia, but it was quite different when it came to racism."

'No hierarchy of oppressions'

Lorde came to Berlin at the invitation of Dagmar Schultz, an FU Berlin lecturer at the time. Schultz credits Lorde as being the unacknowledged source of the idea of intersectionality.

This concept revealed that people can be subject to multiple and overlapping types of discrimination and marginalization. For example, society treats a Black lesbian differently to a Black heterosexual woman, who, in turn, experiences discrimination differently to a white heterosexual woman.

"There is no hierarchy of oppressions," Lorde wrote in 1983, simultaneously warning against fighting against some forms of discrimination and injustice but not others. She called on white German feminists to shine a light on racism — for their own sake, too.

Schultz, a white German who had been involved in the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, published an anthology that included Lorde's essays — the work that prompted Katharina Oguntoye to visit the seminar at the predominantly white university.

Dagmar Schultz with her late partner Afro-German activist Ika Hügel-Marshall in front of a poster advertising Schultz's film on Audre Lorde
Dagmar Schultz (left) and her late partner Ika Hügel-Marshall (right) co-produced a film about Audre Lorde Image: privat

The Black German experience

With Lorde's mentoring and encouragement, Oguntoye and the late poet May Ayim — both in their twenties at the time — went on to write the groundbreaking anthology "Farbe bekennen," which was later published in English as "Showing Our Colors. Afro-German Women Speak Out."

It was the first book to use a Black perspective to biographically and academically trace Afro-German history from the Prussian Empire to post-WWII.

The work, which was published by Schultz, refuted the idea that Black Germans somehow don't belong and challenged their marginalization.

In her childhood, Oguntoye experienced life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Born under communist rule in the German Democratic Republic, she later moved briefly to Nigeria and then to the Federal Republic of Germany.  

"I used to say in my anti-racism work: 'Hello, I'm doubly German.' People were shocked as they thought Black people couldn't be Germans. I think that's a myth stuck in German heads that Germans are white, blond and blue-eyed."

Oguntoye went on to cofound the ISD and ADEFRA, as well as the Berlin-based association Joliba, an intercultural network offering help to Black and Afro-German families.

What's it like to be Black and queer in Germany?

Solidarity and coalitions against racism

The exhibit "Audre Lorde — The Berlin Years" is being held to accompany the street renaming. It features photos by Dagmar Schultz. She has also created a documentary, archives, and an online journey through Berlin marking places where Lorde lived, worked and played.

At the opening, Marion Kraft, a scholar and a translator of Lorde and Black American writer Amanda Gorman, recited Lorde's last poem, "East Berlin, December 1989."

The work is about the rise in racism after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Amid the rise of the far-right in Germany and across Europe, the event underscored the continued need for solidarity and coalitions against racism.

Kraft said people need to ask themselves what they could do personally to change things in society.

"I can't do that without Black women, Sinti and Roma, Jewish women, Palestinian women. All of those who are at the edges of society in various ways. We need to talk about privileges."

Schultz, now in her early 80s, remembers Lorde best for her spirit of struggle, her positive attitude towards her own life despite long illness, towards difference and towards change.

"She posed the question: What do you want to do with your life? She said: Remember you all have some power even if it's very little, try to define your power and try to use it because otherwise it will go to waste or it will be used against you."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg and Kyra Levine

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