Legacies Afro-German Women are Still Upholding the Legacy of May Ayim
There have always been people suffering from anti-Blackness. And May Ayim highlights the continuity of the Black experience—not only her own, but those before her as well.
In 1986, Afro-German author and poet May Opitz—better known as May Ayim—co-edited the anthology, Showing Our Colours:Afro-German Women Speak Out . The book carries the stories of Afro-German women and their volatile, often violent experiences with anti-Blackness, belonging, and sexism in the European nation. Showing Our Colours remains a seminal offering in works that claim the existence and legitimacy of Black history within Europe, and also examines Germany’s specific role in the nineteenth century colonization of Africa—including the genocide in Namibia, which saw over one hundred thousand of the Herero, Nama, and San people killed by the German regime from 1904 until 1908.
Those who survived the genocide were locked in concentration camps, a precursor to those that would be utilized in the Holocaust. Showing Our Colours is as much about claiming space as it is about holding Germany accountable to its imperial history and its effects on the contemporary realities of Black immigrants living in the country. The book also outlines political shifts through the ages that saw terms like Moor, Negro, and African morph into racial epithets that would later be used by pseudoscientists to justify anti-Black racism, fascism, and medical bias.
Ayim died by suicide in 1996, and in her life and death, I see a testament to the resilience of Black women, and an indictment of insidious white supremacy that makes Black life a fragile negotiation between visibility and erasure. Since her death, Ayim’s work has been revisited most often by young Afro-Germans searching for the language and tools to explore their Blackness and womanhood alongside a European history that interrupted their ancestry and systematically destabilizes their present. For Afro-Germans, and especially the youth who have lived through global Black Lives Matter conversations, who witnessed police brutality on both a national and global scale, it is not enough to be simply German. It’s in this space that Ayim’s work is finding new eyes.
I spoke with Marny Garcia Mommertz, a Black-German researcher born in Oldenburg, Lower Saxony, about how the late author’s work has been something of a map, detailing similar experiences of othering, and a reminder that her contemporary reality is not simply of her own making, but part of a larger structural legacy of oppression.
Tarisai Ngangura: Do you remember when the first time was that you came across May Ayim’s work?
Marny Garcia Mommertz: So I had just turned nineteen, and I was doing volunteer work in Peru. In preparing for my trip, I had started going to a lot of seminars where we spoke about racism. While in Peru, I started reading about colonialism and somehow I came across this PDF file while scrolling online. I remember I read it on my phone, and it just took my breath away because I was really not prepared for it. At first, I saw the English translation which I read and found interesting, but when I found the German version, it just really took my breath away.
TN: Was it Black Atlantic ?
MGM: Yes, it was the online collection.
TN: Talk me through your feelings after that discovery.
MGM: I was so surprised that someone had found the words to describe what I had felt. She wrote about what I had been feeling for a long time which was like this quest of figuring out who I am and also trying to understand what my Blackness means in the German context.
TN: So her work wasn’t something you came across in school or during your classes?
MGM: No, Tari, not in a million years. They don’t talk about Blackness in schools at all. When you try and talk about racism, it’s just so tricky because people will say it ended after the second World War. That’s one thing about May Ayim that also stands out because she found a way to talk about racism using the German language and conveying anti-Blackness within these constraints. She found a way to talk about racism using the German language and conveying anti-Blackness within these constraints.
TN: Did her work help you form a more global understanding of what it means to exist as a Black woman?
MGM: Not directly, but I would say there’s different phases to the relationship I have developed with May Ayim and her work. So the first time I read it, I felt like this was someone who was feeling the same way I did, and it was kind of like a starting point for me. It was such a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one because up until that point the only other Black Germans I knew weren’t really keen to talk about racism or how it felt to be Black. Last year, I re-read her poems after not reading them for a while, and I realized I didn’t feel the way I had felt at the beginning. It doesn’t feel the same anymore.
TN: What changed for you?
MGM: What changed was when I read them now, I still feel relief, but more so that I am no longer on this search and no longer in this pain. Because a lot of her poems, even though some of them are very empowering, a lot of them are about finding her place in the world and the pain of that. And so, when I read it now, I just feel such a relief that I found what I was looking for. And that I’ve met Black people who love me and who took the time to explain things to me, to talk to me, and also that I had the energy to figure things out in terms of what my Blackness means not only in Germany but beyond that.
So my relationship moved from seeing May Ayim as someone I could completely identify with to someone whose incredible work is now a starting point for me and Black people who are curious about other Black perspectives in Germany.
TN: Going off what you said about the pain in her poems, when I listen to her interviews and go into her writing, it’s clear that she was lonely and she felt that she had to leave Germany to find a community of artists who looked like her, who shared her politics, and who she could learn from. Did you also feel like you had to leave Germany to find your community?
MGM: Yes. I mean I left when I was nineteen, and I just came back this year, and the reason I left was because I didn’t think there was anyone who understood a tiny bit what I was going through. It was this constant rejection, this constant othering, and the constant questioning of my identity that really led me to just go away. That led me to studying in the Netherlands—which was where I actually found Black people from all over the world who I could identify with. It’s not that I didn’t have Black people around me, they were just far and not a part of my daily life which is why I had to leave.
Adama Traoré TN: There was a march in France marking the anniversary of the death of . There were Black Lives Matter marches in Germany. People have been mourning the death of the activist Oluwatoyin Salau. With all these things happening which intersect with race, gender, and police violence, how do you think May Ayim’s work fits into these contemporary moments?
MGM: Okay, so when I look at how her work influenced my path, it opened my eyes to the kind of society we are living in right now in Germany. So often here, anti-Blackness is portrayed as a new phenomenon, but her work actually shows that after the Second World War and in the eighties and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have always been people suffering from anti-Blackness. And I think she highlights the continuity of the Black experience—not only her own, but those before her as well. On a more personal note, I still find comfort in her poetry when I read it.
She highlights the continuity of the Black experience—not only her own, but those before her as well.
TN: When I think about her, I spend a lot of time thinking about her final days, because as profound as her work is, there is something so heart wrenching about her death. I think about all the what ifs—like what if she was still here, what if she’d had a constant and supportive community, what if she had received the help she needed a bit earlier. All these questions, you know?
MGM: When I read her poetry, I know exactly what you’re saying. But at the same time, I know there were other Black people around her who she at least had a working relationship with. And sometimes, I wonder how close she was to them because her work feels so raw and different.
TN: I think I also really focus on just how different all three of our realities were. We all write and fight for Blackness and full Black autonomy, but we were also raised in such different environments that impacted how we see our Blackness.
MGM: Yeah. I mean, for me, reading her work for the first time was soul crushing, and it’s that isolation that I could relate to. My upbringing was a bit different because I had my siblings, aunts, and my grandmother, and even though I didn’t see them often, they were there. Whereas she only met her grandparents in Ghana when she was already an adult.
But this pain is something I carry with me and it has shaped my life, where I live, the languages that I speak, and the friends that I have today. Never in a million years would I have found this in school where they don’t talk about Black Holocaust victims and spend about ten minutes talking about the colonies. Reading her work really helped me understand German society.