On Saturday, I went to see Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years in London, part of Fringe! East London Gay Film Festival.
Towards the end of the film, we see a letter Audre and her partner Prof. Gloria I. Joseph sent to Chancellor Kohl, putting voice to their outrage, grief and concern following the anti-immigrant riots in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. For a long time now I have been trying to write about being a woman of color in contemporary Europe, which, for me at least, can’t be done without writing about what happened in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Over a period of several days in August 1992, a mob of hundreds of neo-Nazi youths attacked an apartment complex housing primarily Vietnamese and Romanian asylum seekers, while thousands of neighbors in the area observed the attack in support. A year before, German skinheads attacked Vietnamese and Mozambican workers in Hoyerswerda, also to a supportive (applauding) neighborhood audience. Post-reunification in 1989, attacks against foreign guest workers, immigrants, and people of color escalated in Germany, in towns like Mölln, Solingen, Hünxe.
What would Audre Lorde think now, I wonder. How would Audre Lorde understand what Rostock-Lichtenhagen and Solingen have to do with, for example, the massacre in Norway last July and Anders Behring Breivik’s sympathies and involvement with counter-jihad groups across Europe and the United States? How would Audre Lorde understand the links between Stephen Lawrence, Rodney King, Zied Benna and Bouna Traoré, Mark Duggan, Travyon Martin, and how these cases (and the riots that followed, in America, France and England) don’t merely represent isolated and extraordinary instances of bigotry, but illuminate the entire inherited system of racialized and gendered capitalism, from slavery to colonialism and imperialism, that continues to structure our lives, not least through the criminal justice system and the police force, when such force remains disproportionately exercised upon certain (raced/classed/gendered) bodies? How would Audre Lorde understand the case of Nafissatou Diallo against Dominique Strauss-Kahn—what the disturbing tone of much of the mass media coverage surrounding the case, reveals to us about the intersections between race, class and rape culture—which bodies the state, our culture, deems rapeable, or believable? About what it means to be a poor or foreign woman of color, and to pit one’s word against the cosmopolitan white and wealthy? What would Audre Lorde think about the escalating wave of racist and anti-immigrant attacks in Greece (all over Europe, really), coinciding with the draconian austerity measures and asset-stripping that will mean debt slavery to the EU and the IMF? Or the news that nearly one-third of French citizens agree with the ideas of far-right Front National? What would Audre Lorde have to say about the present systematic dismantling of women’s reproductive rights in the United States, and in particular how it impacts poor women and women of color, further impeding access to birth control and safe birth control technologies—and about how the issue of reproductive rights must also confront the history of racist and genocidal violence (for example, in the form of coercive sterilization of Black and Native American women) that has defined a long struggle for autonomy over women’s bodies?
Audre Lorde, “My Words Will Be There”:
I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror, of the lives we are living. Social protest is to say that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, as we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will, within that feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, we can love deeply, we can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change.
So the question of social protest and art is inseparable for me. I can’t say it is an either/or proposition . Art for art’s sake doesn’t really exist for me, but then it never did. What I saw was wrong, and I had to speak up. I loved poetry and I loved words. But what was beautiful ahd to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.
The heart of the film is Lorde’s deep enthusiasm and commitment to fostering international solidarity, dialogue and exchange between all women, in particular women of color, women of the African Diaspora and queer women. Sara Ahmed, there in London to introduce the film, spoke movingly to us in the audience about how Audre knew that “we achieve solidarity by not assuming solidarity.” Audre’s openness, enduring curiosity and fierce encouragement brings her to Germany, not with the aim of exporting a kind of American Feminism to Europe, but with the hope of diversifying the landscape of feminism everywhere. Audre knew we needed, still need, a transnational approach to what is a transnational issue—that only in being unafraid to confront, name and honor all the differences as well as the commonalities between women’s experiences globally, by incorporating our various roles in the racist, colonialist and imperialist histories that have brought us to the many places we are today, will solidarity, and the social change it works towards, be possible. There is a scene, featured partially in the trailer, in which Audre demands that white feminists globally know and live anti-racism as a feminist issue, not outside or subordinated to more “universal” (i.e., white, middle- and upper-class) feminist struggles: “Because [racism] is part of your lives, it affects your lives in every way, and the fact that you are not people of color does not make you safe from the effects of it.” In another scene in the film, a young black man asks Audre whether she feels that her attention to the black women’s movement has diverted energy from the black liberation struggle overall. Answer: she doesn’t. But similar accusations are often levelled against feminists or people of color involved in activist movements; that their “minority” concerns and identity politics distract from the larger emancipatory project, as if we’re not already living in historically racialized and gendered political economies.
From Audre Lorde’s “Difference and Survival: An Address to Hunter College”
Last week I asked a number of you if you felt different in any way and each one of you said very quickly and in a similar tone, ‘Oh no, of course not, I don’t consider myself different form anybody else.’ I think it is not by accident that each of you heard my question as ‘Are you better than…’
…It is within our differences that we are both most powerful and most vulnerable, and some of the most difficult tasks of our lives are the claiming of differences and learning to use those differences for bridges rather than as barriers between us.
In a profit economy which needs groups of outsiders as surplus people, we are programmed to respond to difference in one of three ways: to ignore it by denying the testament of our own senses, ‘Oh, I never noticed.’ Or, if that is not possible, then we try to neutralize it in one of two ways. If the difference has been defined for us in our introductory courses as good, meaningful, useful in preserving the status quo, in perpetuating the myth of sameness, then we try to copy it. If the difference is defined as bad, that is revolutionary or threatening, then we try to destroy it. But we have few patterns for relating across difference as equal. And unclaimed, our differences are used against us in the service of separation and confusion, for we view them only in opposition to each other, dominant/subordinate, good/bad, superior/inferior. And of course, so long as the existence of human difference means one must be inferior, the recognition of those differences will be fraught with guilt and danger…
And certainly there are very real differences between us, of race, sex, age, sexuality, class, vision. But it is not the differences between us that tear us apart, destroying the commonalities we share. Rather, it is our refusal to examine the distortions which arise from their misnaming, and from the illegitimate usage of those differences which can be made when we do not claim them nor define them for ourselves…
Make no mistake; you will be paid well not to feel, not to scrutinize the function of your differences and their meaning, until it will be too late to feel at all. You will be paid in insularity, in poisonous creature comforts, false securities, in the spurious belief that the midnight knock will always be upon somebody else’s door. But there is no separate survival.
In Audre Lorde’s introduction to the English edition of the essay collection Showing our Colors: Afro German Women on the Trail of Their History (Audre’s support and encouragement to the young women she met in Germany was instrumental in the publishing of the book), she writes:
The essence of a truly global feminism is the recognition of connection. Women in Micronesia bear babies who have no bones because of our history of nuclear testing inthe South Pacific. In 1964 the CIA fingered Nelson Mandela for the South African police, resulting in his twenty-seven-year imprisonment. With the connivance of such senators as Jesse Helms, the United States sends millions in aid to the South African-backed UNITA forces in Angola, but less than 2 percent of US. aid goes to all the countries of the Caribbean. Women farm workers in Jamaica are some of the lowest paid in the world. Yet at the beginning of 1990, while aid to eastern europe ballooned, aid to Jamaica was cut by 80 percent.
The lesson that Audre both imparts, and learns, to and from the women in Berlin and elsewhere, is still: how to know our histories as intertwined and mutually informed, how to refuse false divisions and hierarchies, how to think and feel differences creatively and connectively, how to not be divided from each other by our internalized fears or shame. How to claim a space and a name, when both space and names are objects of contention and pain. It cannot be underscored enough, the significance of what it meant, at the time, to call yourself Afro-German, Afro-deutsch, where previously the only other options of address current in the language were insults, if not outright silence. The significance of writing yourself into the world, speaking yourself into a language that before had no word for you, and would sooner maintain your absence, be the instrument of your erasure. Many of the young women Audre met in Germany became writers and artists themselves. One of these women, May Ayim, appears often in the film. Ayim was a writer, speech therapist, educator and organizer, who was also one of the first coeditors of Showing our Colors. Ayim, who took her life in 1996, wrote in 1990 (her words remain vital as ever today):
I wholeheartedly support a call for solidarity, but not one that leaves unmentioned the fact that the least attractive and lowest-paying jobs are taken by migrant labours from European and non-European countries. Where is the call for solidarity with those people who, in the face of the German-German appropriation and competition, are the first in jeopardy of losing employment opportunities or housing, positions and apprenticeships?
There are no widespread solidarity events for asylum seekers with catch slogans and reduced admission prices. On the contrary, new legal measures have drastically reduced the right of residence, particularly for people from mostly impoverished non-European countries. Moreover, until the end of 1990, white citizens and politicians—East and West German—watched the increasing racist violence on the streets with the greatest degree of passivity. I found the ‘receptiveness’ and ‘hospitality’ toward white GDR citizens duplicitous considering the constant warnings to our so-called foreign fellow citizens that the ‘boat’ is full […]
In 1990, I found this silence and resistance surrounding racism, even among ‘progressive’ leftists and feminist women, frightening and shocking, and yet I was hardly surprised. To be sure, discussions on the topic of a ‘multicultural Federal Republic’ have occurred more frequently since the mid-190s. Only in exceptional cases, however, have these discussions changed lives and political connections in such a way that an uninterrupted, equitable collaboration with immigrants and Black Germans would become an indisputable given and the analysis of racism a permanent undertaking…
The blatant violence on the streets is in step with the words of leading politicians and is part of their practical implementation. But I am convinced that we—and by that I mean all the people in the country who will not tolerate racism and anti-Semitism—have the will and the capacity to form alliances.
Survival is a radical project in a world where you’re not meant to survive, Ahmed also said in her introduction—and survival is unmistakably Audre’s project, especially given that in Berlin she was also exploring alternative medicine and naturopathy in response to her cancer. Germany was an important “site of healing” for Audre; her partner Gloria Joseph insists that her time in Berlin literally added years to Audre’s life; the naturopath Audre visits says that he knew she was highly unusual given the fact that she had outlived her terminal diagnosis already by several years when they had first met. Survival and healing: these are total, multiply holistic endeavors, integrated, drawing on the social, the historical, the psychic, the biological. Audre shows us how our anger, outrage, struggle, resistance and commitment can also be immeasurably life-giving and life-expanding, that there is deep joy, humor, eroticism and ethics in the work of surviving willfully as a “black lesbian feminist mother poet warrior.”
Ahmed proudly called Lorde a “feminist killjoy,” saying that Audre shows us that “the life of a killjoy can still be a life full of joy.” So much of the film—which is a joyful film—is made up of shots of Audre and other women: dancing, eating, walking, carrying flowers, talking, laughing, teasing each other. A scene with Audre siting at a table, carefully slicing cooked beets, feeding slices to the women around her, as she describes how her mother used to do the same, and how her mother would have to slap their hands to keep them from the beets. Laughing as she imitates the slap to her own hand. Audre, deep in her cancer, making bracelets to keep her hands busy and pass the time, speaking about the deep comfort and pleasure in making the intricate movements necessary to weave the threads into bracelets. Gloria affectionately teasing a pouting Audre, in between bouts of laughter, “Before you met me, who did you allow to laugh at you?” A scene in which Audre humorously describes her own distorted view of herself, the distortion discovered only through the process of being filmed. Laughing, Gloria asks, What did you think you looked like? Audre replies, mock-puffing her chest out a bit, that she thought she was Tall, and Black. Gloria bursts into laughter and says, And you found out you’re short and light!
In scenes like this, you could see, feel, the deep enmeshment of what we think of as personal, and what we think of as political. What does feminist and queer, lesbian, life and work look like? Feel like? Laugh like? Dance like? What are its everyday affective textures, its home movies and photographs, its conversations and meals and music? What we’re bearing witness to in the film is the fragile creation (stronger for of its fragility) of a transnational commons, a community—and the dailiness of that making, its sweetness, frustration, conflicts, joys. Feeding each other, dancing with each other, loving each other, living for and with each other. Audre’s hand holding a piece of beet, bitten off from where she has already eaten from it, to the camera, the woman behind the camera. But the audience is also the woman behind the camera. We’re also the woman Audre is feeding, dancing with, laughing with.
That this period of Audre’s life is relatively less known and therefore less discussed makes the film that much more important in the work of collective (trans)cultural memory. In An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures, Ann Cvetkovich writes:
My approach to genre has been inclusive because the resulting range of texts and artifacts enables attention to how publics are formed in and through cultural archives. Cultural artificats become the archive of something more ephemeral: culture as a ‘way of life,’ to borrow from Raymond Williams, or a counterpublic, to invoke recent work on the public sphere. My materials emerge out of cultural spaces—including activist groups, women’s music festivals, sex toy stores, and performance events—that are built around sex, feelings, and trauma. These publics are hard to archive because they are lived experiences, and the cultural traces that they leave are frequently inadequate to the task of documentation. Even finding names for this other meaning of culture as a ‘way of life’—subcultures, publics, counterpublics—is difficult. Their lack of a conventional archive so often makes them seem not to exist, and this book tries to redress that problem by ranging across a wide variety of genres and materials in order to make not just texts but whole cultures visible. In using the term public culture, I keep as open as possible the definition of what constitutes a public in order to remain alert to forms of affective life that have not solidified into institutions, organizations, or identities. Like Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, I would like to ‘support forms of affective, erotic and personal living that are public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity’ because ‘queer is as difficult to entextualize as culture.’
When Audre describes her initial shock at discovering the “truth” of her own appearance, after having seen herself “objectively” on film, the moment is at once comic and vulnerable. It’s not an easy thing, the passage into visibility, documentation, self-revelation. Putting yourself in writing; letting yourself be filmed. Putting yourself out there. I’ve always had conflicted feelings about silence, speech and writing; about the valorizing of literacy, visibility, expressivity, and exposure; about the limits of language to contain experience, particularly experiences of trauma or grief. It’s not easy to speak, to trust language, when you’ve internalized the notion that to speak is also to speak before the law, to have your word disbelieved or turned against you, to incriminate yourself and those you love, when you’ve been subjected to the instrument of power that language represents. In naming both her discomfort and her conviction, her fear and her pride, Audre opens up the possibilities of a politics of radical vulnerability, so that we may come to realize that our only protection and strength will come from going directly into the place of our greatest risk. “I was going to die,” she writes in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, “if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?
And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”
In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, of some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.
And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.
Coda for May Ayim: