Conference Paper May Ayim

To audiences of American poets and poet-critics, the name May Ayim {I AM} (May Opitz) may not be familiar. Yet, Ayim is an important figure as a poet, essayist, and activist in Afro-German studies. Why do American poets and poet-critics need to read Ayim, or know of her work? Ayim is important to the larger spectrum of African Diaspora studies. Her poetry and essays provide a documentation of Afro-German experience, thereby shedding light on the unique and distinct qualities of that experience as compared to other places of Diaspora. As Tina Campt writes, "To some, particularly an American audience, 'Afro-German' is a concept which, on the surface, appears almost self-explanatory as a form of hyphenated identification directly related to the term Afro-American." Yet, as Campt argues, the "hyphenated identity" is not at all self-explanatory. The idea of a cohesive unified "Afro-German" experience is absent until the 1980s when the term "Afro-German" became popularized; and even then, it should be pointed out that the experiences of Afro-Germans were not monolithic. Ayim's work contests the entrenched racial belief in German society that to be of African descent equates to being an outsider, or a foreigner; the racial assumption in German society, both pre and post-unification, was that one of African heritage must have been somehow by default born outside of Germany. Ayim's writings confront this racial stereotype head on.

Ayim's collection of poems, The Blues in Black and White, recalls the African-American tradition of the blues as a redemptive, transformative, and transcendent art form. As Karen Goertz describes the collection, it “traces the process of marginalization along color lines, with German unification as one of its more recent manifestations. To explain the age-old dynamic between black and white, she [Ayim] references the African American tradition of the blues: during the celebration of German unity, some rejoiced in white, while others mourned on its fringes in black—together they danced to the rhythm of the blues. The blues were born out of the experiences of oppression, but, as Angela Davis points out, blues also offers the key to transcending the racial and gender imbalance of power…Excluded from the rejoicing in white, May Ayim turns toward her Ghanaian heritage and transforms the derogatory label of difference, as defined by Germans, into a rich source of meaning.” Ayim's appropriation of the blues, however, merits a deeper look.

One of the literary models that Ayim holds is Audre Lorde. We can see what Lorde meant to Ayim in the poem, "soul sister," where Ayim praises Lorde's influence upon Afro-German women, calling her "a sister and friend and comrade in struggle." In "soul sister," Ayim writes, "1984 black german women/together with AUDRE LORDE conceived the term/afro-german/for we had many names/that were not our own/for we knew no names/by which we wanted to be called/racism remains/the pale face of a sickness/that privately and publicly eats away at us/today." From 1984 to 1992, what is often referred to as Audre Lorde’s “Berlin Years,” where Lorde visited and taught, Lorde became instrumental in ushering in several empowering movements for Afro-Germans. In 1980, at the United Nations World Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, Audre Lorde, met Dagmar Schultz in a discussion session following one of Lorde’s readings. Schultz, highly impressed by the way Lorde addressed concerns of African German women, as well as challenged the views of white German women, in time, extended an invitation to Lorde to teach at the Free University of Berlin. Four years later, Lorde accepted and began teaching literature and creative writing at the Free University of Berlin, which initiated much of Lorde’s involvement in the feminist, lesbian and gay rights, and African German movements during the years that would follow. As Dagmar Schultz recalls, “One of Audre’s first questions on arriving in Berlin in 1984 was ‘Where are the Black Germans?’….Audre continually challenged white German women to examine their relations to and with Black women, migrant women, and Jewish women.” During Lorde’s Berlin years, she gave readings throughout in the Federal German Republic, in East Berlin, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Dresden. A remarkable outgrowth of Lorde’s involvement in these movements was the 1986 collection of writings by African German women writers, many of whom had attended Lorde’s classes or who had become students of Lorde; the collection, in its English translation, Showing Our Colors. Afro-German Women Writers Speak Out (published in 1986 in German and translated into English in 1992), gave voice to the rising concerns of exclusion. Among the young writers showcased in the collection were writers such Katharina Oguntoye, Ika Hugel-Marshall, and May Ayim.

In a way analogous to Lorde, Ayim uses poetry as a form of healing from personal and political trauma. Memories of trauma are often disjointed, disconnected, may skip parts of the event, may pick and choose and select other parts of the event to remember. As C. Steele writes, "This is why poetry allows us to witness as survivors...poetry like trauma, takes images, feelings, rhythms, sounds, and the physical sensations of the body as evidence" (3).

As is evidenced in her poems and essays collected in Blues in Black and White, for Ayim, the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany exacerbated the sense of “otherness” she felt as an African-German. It did not signal for her and others of African descent, for immigrants, or other ethnic minorities, a feeling of inclusiveness and it did not necessarily afford itself as a cause to celebrate; instead, the reunification of Germany for Ayim, and others, ushered in a further sense of isolation, exclusion, and social alienation, as well as a certain degree of apprehension and fear. For Ayim, German reunification, is presented in her writings as a secondary cultural wound and a social trauma, a wound that often combines itself with an original, primary wound of familial loss and familial abandonment. Born in 1960 to a white German mother who gave her up at eighteen months of age to a foster family; her father, at the time a medical student in Ghana, wanted to bring Ayim to Ghana so that she could be raised by his sister. However, due to German laws, her father, an outsider and immigrant, held no legal parental rights to take her back to Ghana. The foster family that Ayim grew up in seems to have been, by Ayim's accounts, a psychologically hostile environment, one that only reinforced in Ayim feelings of marginalization and separation. At the age of 19, Ayim left her foster family’s home; she studied, but she also traveled, visiting Israel, Egypt, Kenya, and Ghana. In 1986, her thesis at the University of Regensburg, “Afro-Germans: Their Cultural and Social History in the Background of Societal Change” later became part of the background to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. Ayim, tragically, committed suicide in August 9, 1996, at the very young age of 36, when she leaped to her own death off a building in Berlin, following a period of hospitalization for exhaustion and possibly also for psychotic breaks or psychotic episodes. There are, sadly, intimations of her suicidal impulse in the poem, "nightsong," in the veiled mystery of the line that opens the poem, "i no longer wait/for the better times" that meets the close of the poem with the lines, "i love you/ i wait no longer." Although the poem is about Ayim's inability to shake lose a relationship she held with a man who had another woman, a poem about Ayim's heartbreak in a love triangle, nonetheless, the emotional timbre of the poem feels very much like the poetry of a confessional poet like an Anne Sexton or a Sylvia Plath.

In between her birth to a white German mother who left her abandoned, white German foster parents who seemed to exhibit strands of harshness and disapproval, the strained childhood visits by her father (a man she perhaps longed to connect with but whose own distance from her made such connection insufficient, if not somewhat impossible), and her attempts as an adult woman to visit her father and his family in Africa, there is the grappling on the part of the poet to probe the relationship between the nation of Germany as a father/land and the language of German as a mother/tongue. Finding both the father/land and the mother/tongue to be artificial constructions, she attempts to create self-agency through the act of writing autobiographically (in some sense, writing confessionally) in her poems and essays. In one sense, The Blues in Black and White may be read as autobiographical text, even confessional text. The symbolical rejection of Germany as the father/land and the German language as an inadequate mother-tongue (inadequate in the sense that the German language does not bring her to the oral culture of Africa), leads Ayim to search for an alternative form of language. The inherent need to replace the mother-tongue with a new language, I argue, leads Ayim to the African American cultural language, or cultural sublimation, of the blues. As Carmen Kynard argues, "The blues is an articulation of the reciprocal relationship that occurs between the political, economic, and social struggles of African American masses and a unique cultural expressivity." Ayim's appropriation of the blues cannot fully enter into certain blues dimensions, such as the relationship of the blues to slave narratives, to blues motifs of flight or escape, the retelling of the landscape of the American south, the call-and-response form, or the tension inherent between poverty and the middle class that finds its way in the dividing line of the history of African American blues between the low art of the country blues and the so-called high art of white theft of blues forms found in the middle class formation of swing bands--features of the blues that make the blues distinctive to the history and the experience of African Americans. A feature of African American blues is that often the blues acted as documentaries, both memorializing and mythologizing at the same time, key historical moments, particularly historical moments in the American South.

As Ayana Smith writes, "Destructive historical events are often accorded a mythic status, as in musical accounts of devastating floods and boll weevil infestation." Think here of Ma Rainey's 'Bo-Weevil Blues' of 1923. While African American blues, often (not always), acted in ways that treated the historicity of the collective experience of Diaspora, Ayim's use of the blues may not share exactly in all these functions attributable to the African American experience with the blues as musical, storytelling, and art form; nonetheless, Ayim does share in some of these. The blues for Ayim is a way of self-mythologizing her autobiographical acts in her poems; the blues also does function for her as a form of documentary, both personal documentary of her childhood and a larger cultural documentary of the racial isolation she and others experienced in post-unification in Germany. The blues for Ayim starts out in her poetry as a personal lyric, then gradually builds and progresses outward away from the lyrical self, reaching to create and construct a collective identity for Afro-Germans. Significantly, Ayim borrows the African American tradition of the blues to allow herself as an Afro-German poet the freedom to create the psychological and emotional 'space' of dualism. Ayim's blues creates a dialectic tension that calls out and calls attention to the racial hierarchical systems in German culture. Anne Adams, a translator of Ayim's poems notes, "What is different, however, about the Afro-Germans' situation in time and place is that, unlike African-Americans and Britons (and other, particularly post-colonial, black Diaspora communities), there was virtually no consciousness, hence, no articulation of their experience in German public fora before the 1980s. There was no recognition by Germans of African descent that they were a constituent minority of the German population. Before the 1980s there was no 'Afro-German.'" Thus, for Ayim, her adaptation of the blues is a necessary act in the sense of forging a consciousness that connects Afro-Germans to African-Americans, and hence to the larger Diaspora spectrum, in spite of the differences in their history; furthermore, the blues is for Ayim a necessary means of creating a cultural voice that stands outside of German culture as a means of critiquing German culture. While Audre Lorde may have used the master's tools to dismantle the master's house from within, Ayim borrowed the tools to build a house where none had previously existed.

If we look specifically at Ayim's poems, "afro-german I" and "afro-german II," we find a dialectical tension as the autobiographical subject of the poems (presumably May) is questioned by a white German interlocutor. The white German, upon meeting May, is uncertain what to do with the hyphenation in May's identity--"You're Afro-German?/...oh, I see: African and German." (emphasis mine). The white German applies a binary framework of comparison seeing "white German" and "blackness" in terms of a mistaken epistemological difference--"An interesting mixture, huh?" The outgrowth of the white German's binary logic is the reinforcement of a racial hierarchical ordering based on skin color and pigmentation--"You know: there are people that still think/Mulattos won't get/as far in life/as whites." As the conversation continues, that is really more like an interrogation, the white German asserts and reinforces a hegemonic stance of racial belonging, while ascribing an absence of homeland to the Afro-German. Although the Afro-German subject in the poem was born in Germany, the white German interlocutor, performs an act of erasure against the Afro-German. Home is assumed to be somewhere else for the Afro-German--"D'you want to go back home some day, hm?/What? You've never been in your Dad's home/ country?/That's so sad...Listen, if you ask me: /A person's origin, see, really leaves quite a /Mark,/Take me, I'm from Westphalia,/and I feel/that's where I belong..." Not only does the white German seek to erase and silence the Afro-German subject, but the white German also wants to re-position the Afro-German subject as a surrogate colonizer, or a missionary by proxy, to finish the work of the German Enlightenment--"you can help your people in Africa, see:/ That's/What you're predestined to do,/I'm sure they'll listen to you,/while people like us--/there's such a difference in cultural levels..." In "afro-german II," the white German returns to further assert a binary logic by comparing the Afro-German subject to an immigrant, to the Turks, only to go on to perform a second act of separation by asserting more difference within feminist and womanist movements, separating white feminists from Afro-German feminists. In the process of reinforcing difference, the white German falls back upon a rhetoric of naturalism--"Anyway, I feel/that blacks have kept a sort of natural/outlook on life." The white German's defining of race as a form of biological naturalism further enforces the German Enlightenment and racial hierarchies. Again noting Karein Goertz, "White Germans often assume that Afro-Germans are not really compatible with being German. Thus, although Afro-Germans are native Germans by birth, language, socialization, and citizenship, they are often treated as outsiders in a society that defines itself primarily as white" (307). As Goertz attests, "It is, in fact, an ironic paradox that Afro-Germans are identified as foreigners when all of their personal references and actual experiences are German" (308). Ayim's two poems, "afro-german I" and "afro-german II' in its effort to expose racial hierarchies resonates with Audre Lorde in her famous and oft quoted essay, "There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions," where Lorde writes: "I was born Black and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a livable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain 'wrong.' From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression. I have learned that sexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one sex over all others and thereby its right to dominance) and heterosexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving over all others and thereby its right to dominance) both arise from the same source as racism - a belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby its right to dominance. I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of my other part of my identity. I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence."

One way that Ayim contests racial hierarchies is by incorporating in her poetry and essays the use of an alternative linguistic structure, one that will move her as poet beyond the German language and beyond the German culture. This is why we find Adinkra symbols and the trickster figure of Afrekete; for example, in a poem by the title, "Afrekete," Ayim uses dream imagery to indicate both place and transcendence beyond place, where Afrekete can be both a trickster and a goddess, one that weaves time together. By using these symbols to disrupt her texts, the symbols become a means of creating a "double coding," or "double binding," and this act of constructing a double coded language is also reminiscent of the blues. One figure we often find in the blues is that of the African trickster. Both the trickster figure as well as Adrinka symbols signify alterity, or what is in philosophical terms otherness. The use of Adrinka symbols and Afrekete supplies a primacy of oral culture over written word. The fact that Ayim must write herself into German culture through autobiographical poems, but that she does so by interrupting the written aspect of the poems with references and allusions to the primacy of oral culture in African traditions, itself becomes an act of double binding. As Ayana Smith writes, "In [the blues] the singer-poet connects the character traits and the mediatory function of Esu, the original trickster who stands for all of the subsequent diasporic manifestations. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in The Signifyign Monkey of the trickster Esu, or Eshu, or also known as Elegba or Elegbara, it becomes the "master of style and of stylus, the phallic god of generation and fecundity....A partial list of [Eshu's] qualities might include individuality, satire,...irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance,...disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure" (6). Each of these traits and characteristics associated with Esu or Elegba signify the instability of semiotic meaning as produced through dislocated texts. While Ayim replaces Esu with Afrekete, she uses the trickster figure as a means of calling attention to both alterity and liminality; but, she also adds a feminine dimension to the trickster, for in some African legends, Afrekete is the mother of Esu. Thereby, Ayim's allusions to Afrekete becomes a subtle and crafty way of disrupting the "phallic" imagination of Esu; and because the phallic is often associated with the word, with written production of texts, with language itself, by turning to a prior trickster figure, one with feminine energy, Afrekete, Ayim is able to place the motherly, the feminine, womanist, and oral culture over and above that of the German Enlightenment preoccupation of written languages being associated with reason and culture. Afrekete becomes an act of overthrowing the racial hierarchies produced out of the German Enlightenment. Ayim's questioning of racial hierarchies is also evident in her contribution to Showing Our Colors, where Ayim's research examines the relationship of Africans and Germans from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, thereby revealing a long history that negatively moves toward colonization of Africa.

Ayim's use of Afrekete also places her in the company of Audre Lorde and signals Ayim's use of Lorde as both a spiritual mother, a spiritual sister, and a literary model. At the close, in the final scene, of her mytho-spiritual autobiography, Zami, Lorde gives a list of women that she feels belong in her personal circle of matriarchy; women that hold personal significance for Lorde. As she moves through this list, Lorde begins a transcendent act of moving from the names of actual people to the names of elements of nature, and eventually culminating in the act of creating a spiritual and sexual unification, one existing between her matriarchal circle and MawuLisa and Afrekete--"Ma-Liz, DeLois, Louise Briscoe, Aunt Anni, Linda, and Genevieve; MawuLisa, thunder, sky, sun, the great mother of us all; and Afrekete, her youngest daughter, the mischievous linguist, trickster, best-beloved, whom we must all become (255). Some critics have commented that Afrekete may function in Lorde's writings as a bisexual figure, a bisexual personification of the moon (female) and the sun (masculine). As critic C. Steele reads the final scene of Zami, "the figure's syncretic function, as s/he brings together all the mothers-personal, historical, and mythological--in Lorde's narrative. Afrekete, thus, is part recuperation of cultural myth and part invention. Both cross-gendered and bisexual, Afrekete is both mother and master, nurturing, philosophical; s/he shows that the values of "female" mothering and "male" competence with language and meaning are equally necessary in order to survive on these borders between cultures" ("Mothering" 113).

Whereas for Lorde, the figure of a mother, both a literal biological mother, and a spiritual, mythical, symbolic, metaphorical mother, held positive connotations of fullness and presence, for Ayim the concept of a mother is fraught with negative connotations of absence. For Ayim, the mother is a primal wound, the meta-wound, the archetypal wound, that cannot be healed, and that remains open and gaping. For Ayim, the mother is the original, primal source for alterity and liminality as conditional states of being. For Ayim, the mother is also the original, primal source for searching and longing, a symbol of rejection and banishment. Consider the poem, "mama," where Ayim says questioningly, "tell me mama/what was it like for you then/when you picked me up/one and a half years of age/tell me were you/happy about me/tell me and what was it like with me on the street/white mother black child/was it terrible/and beautiful/always being in the center." In the poem, "darkness," Ayim imagines the mother figure as one who cannot stay, one who is just beyond the reach of the child--"the mother disappeared/in the darkness of time." The mother is intimately tied to language, as the linguistic sign of the mother is broken, and semiotic meaning between the word "mama" and its source as a rich supply of nurturing is disrupted, as the poem ends with "the first word/was just a word/MAMA." The fact that the word for mother is "just a word" signifies a semiotic disruption--the absence of the signified, the mother, instills absence in the sign, the word, and postpones linguistic meaning. Thus, for Ayim, unlike for Lorde, the mother is not a source of richness, or renewal; the mother is the primeval site for the birth of the blues.

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Created with images by gideon_wright - "Drowning in Autumn Blues"

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