Showing Her Colors: An Afro-German Writes the Blues in Black and White

Showing Her Colors: An Afro-German Writes the Blues in Black and White

Volume 26, Number 2, Spring 2003
pages 306-319
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2003.0045

Karein Kirsten Goertz, Lecturer of Germanic Language and Literature
University of Michigan

This essay undertakes a detailed analysis of May Ayim’s Blues in Schwarz Weiss and examines her development of what she terms Ayim’s “hybrid language”—an expressive poetic style in which African and German elements are not mutually exclusive but rather two interwoven strands that Ayim brings together to articulate the texture of her identity as a Black German. Goertz contends that Ayim’s use of complex forms of irony and displacement constitutes a sophisticated practice of “defamiliarization” that represents an important new signifying practice in German literary expression.

I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or a chisel to remind you of your me-ness as I discover you in myself.
Audre Lorde

That bird is wise, look. Its beak, back turned, picks for the present what is best from ancient eyes, then steps forward, on ahead to meet the future, undeterred.

Through her poetry, essays and political activism. May Ayim sought to dissolve the socially and politically constructed borders that continued to exist after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. To her, the post-unification “new German solidarity” with its nationalistic rhetoric of Heimat (homeland), Volk (the people) and Vaterland (fatherland) signaled a redrawing of the line between those who were considered part of the German collective and those who were not; the previous ideological and geopolitical faultline between Fast and West was being replaced by a division along ethnic lines. Afro-Germans and other ethnic minorities living in Germany recognized that “the new ‘We’ in ‘this our country’ did and does not make room for everyone.” Rather than feeling summoned by this newly constructed collective identity, they understood it to be a place of confinement or delimitation and exclusion: “ein eingrenzender und ausgrenzender Ort” (Ayim, “Das Jahr” 214). Ayim’s spatial description of the pronoun signals that the repercussions of its limited parameters are real and practical, as well as psychological. Unable to identify with the new definition of the first-person possessive pronoun, she invariably finds herself cast into its second-person negative.

The title poem of Ayim’s first poetry volume, Blues in Schwarz Weiß (Blues in Black and White), published in 1995, 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 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 experience of oppression, but, as Angela Davis points out, blues also offers the key to transcending the racial and gender imbalance…

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