In 1989, while on a walk with my daughter I became aware of a poster:
BLACK HISTORY MONTH, which had several productions on display.
These events – seminars, film presentations and in addition, parties – were produced and directed by the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche, ISD Berlin e.V. (Initiative of Black Germans Berlin e.V.).
I was familiar with the term Black History Month, because some African Americans, musicians and members of the Berlin stationed American Armed Forces, belonged to my circle of friends and people I knew. Being in contact with these people, was very important to me, since my father had served as a soldier in post-war Germany.
I was born in Munich in 1953. Many years later, my German mother told me that my father had offered to marry her and take us with him to the U.S.A. But because she had been afraid of possible “race problems” she separated from him. Together they brought me to my grandparents in the deepest province of Bavaria, where a human being with dark skin color was rarely seen before, let alone a child.
Therefore, I grew up under societal circumstances, which no one could ever imagine anymore: People uninhibitedly placed themselves in front of the fence of my grandparents’ house hoping to catch a glimpse of me. There were even some who, when they found me alone in the garden, intruded upon my privacy and groped me, touched my hair, even licked me to find out whether my brown skin really tasted like chocolate or if my color rubbed off. However, everyone had to see the “negro child” at least once.
Without being able to name all the problems, I met with rejection, racism and isolation at an early age. Isolation, because at some point my grandmother began to remove me from those nosy stares, until I entered kindergarten together with four cousins of the same age. There, a clerical and a secular nursery school teacher tried to protect me from the many intrusive attacks. But on market day, again and again some nosy voyeurs gathered at the fence of the playground.
On my first day in school, some parents demanded their daughters not be seated next to me – even better, they should not have any contact with me at all. The teacher, a nun, solved this problem by seating us by our height and because I was the second smallest, I then sat in the first row. This way, she could always observe me. With this solution, most of the parents were then satisfied.
The “prominence” of my grandmother, as she was well known and the most popular midwife in the entire area, helped to keep the hostility limited.
But during breaks at school, I often had to experience what the children and respectively their parents thought about me. I was sworn at as a black devil, Negro bastard, tar child etc. and I was spit at and kicked. Only the girl sitting next to me and a girl whose parents also did not have an easy position being newcomers in that community, played with me.
Until the end of school, I remained an outsider. And in addition, I always had teachers, secular and clerical, who overtly rejected me, but also gave me preferential treatment. I was only rarely treated equally. While some were indulged in the cliché of Black being stupid and lazy, others thought there were indeed very intelligent “N”s who, under the “right” guidance could be directed to achieve very good performances.
Because I received praise and affection from all sides when I gave my best performance, I developed into a go-getter. My first grades were the second best of the class – all A’s, only in needlework I received a B.
My diploma from middle school was the fourth best, but this only happened, because the teacher who taught chemistry and physics in a mixed class, claimed that girls would be failures in these subjects, who were not able to think logically. In addition, I lacked being fast in type writing, because I never had enough time to practice due to the work I had to do among the family. But the result of 1.9 (B) was satisfying to me anyway, because I had accomplished it on my own, despite the difficulties. My grandmother had expected a better result. One of her sayings to encourage me was, “If you want to accomplish the same as the best, you have to make double the effort!”
When I reached puberty, the animosity against me became extremely worse. If someone saw me talking to a boy, mostly the mothers ran to my grandmother claiming I was trying to seduce their sons. They were afraid I could foist a child on one of them.
Because I was completely innocent in terms of the facts of life, I did not understand what they were talking about. My grandmother, although a midwife, warned me of an early pregnancy and described sexuality to me in the ugliest colors. I never told her about the attempted attacks of grownup men, from which I had already managed to escape with a lot of effort, through scratching, biting and kicking.
But these attacks did not pass me without leaving marks. Again and again I had asthma attacks. Having the knowledge of today, I strongly believe these attacks were brought on by fear and panic.
I was a bit older than 16 when a farmer’s wife accused me of having an eye on her son and she would rather kill me than allow this. Only when she mentioned his name, I understood who she was talking about – he had been with me on the daily bus to middle school and mostly he had grinned at me rather stupidly. We had never exchanged a word with one another, but when a photo was taken at school, he pushed his way next to me which at that time, I had felt very uncomfortable about.
I did not want to have anything to do with these people anymore, therefore I made a plan to escape. But at first, I was lacking the courage to do so.
Then I was provided with the opportunity to begin an apprenticeship at a hairdresser in the district town. I was happy, although it was not the profession I actually wanted to learn. I wanted to become an electrician.
Yet, at the beginning I thought the end was in sight. Afterwards, many women refused to have their hair washed by me. Then, one day, a customer was convinced after a long back and forth, to have her thin and not cared for hair washed by me. No sooner had I come close to her head with the showerhead, she hit me with her elbow in my ribs and yelled, “The Negro burns my head with that hot water and does not even notice it. She does not feel the heat. In Africa where she belongs, it is always hot!”
The boss apologized to the customer, controlled the water tap adjustment and without altering it washed the customer’s hair shrugging her shoulders. She sent me to the kitchen in the back though, to clean.
During the same evening, she put some money in my hand and told me she was going to dismiss me, because she had to demonstrate consideration for her customers.
After my grandmother again did not have any understanding of my problems and thought it was all my fault, I only saw one possibility – waiting and then run away at the right moment. For sure to Munich.
There at the train station, I met other runaways who took me under their wings, after I told them about my plight. We lived in demolition houses and basements. When I ran out of money after a few days, I made an attempt to go begging like the others did. But I was too shy for that.
One day, a woman spoke to us asking if one of us would be able to do cleaning work. I applied for it. She took me with her to her house, explained to me what I had to do and promised to pay decently. I cleaned carefully, as I had learned from my grandmother and she gave me money. From then on, we met twice a week and after one month she offered me living quarters in her house, in the basement. She made some advertisement for me among her friends and people she knew. I knew other cleaners earned more money, but for me it was enough for the moment. After the ladies noticed that I also knew very well how to handle their children, I additionally began baby sitting. I was off the street.
The permanent fear of being caught by the police and sent home was almost over. I lived without an identity card and working papers.
During this time, I met other Black people of various backgrounds for the first time.
Meanwhile, I lived with my African Italian friend and a musician from Senegal and his family – shortly after my 18th birthday, I got in contact with my mother and grandmother via letter to finally receive my identity card.
Although there may be an additional thing or two to reveal about this time, I would like to return to the beginning of my story.
I was 35 years old when I discovered the above mentioned poster. And somehow I was very enthusiastic about it right away. After I was able to leave my autistic daughter with a friend over the weekend, I went to one of the seminar presentations. Just seeing that there were a lot of people with a similar background, was an impressive experience. Although most of them were much younger than me, on that day I learned something for my future life. I heard that terms, which had been created by the majority society for people like me, “N.”, bastard, bimbo, choco etc., must not be accepted by me, because there were terms, which described people like me better and more precisely: AFRICAN GERMAN or BLACK GERMANS. From then on, I reprimanded with pride anyone, who dared to use one of those old racist terms.
Up to that time, I mainly had dealt with African American history. Now I also learned something about the history of African countries. Because that was so informative and exciting to me, I did not miss any of the upcoming seminars. During the breaks, I had conversations with a lot of participants, but also with the organizers.
I heard a lot about the work of the association and during the BHM (Black History Month), I became a member of the ISD e.V. and offered my support. At that time, I still believed that my 6 years of experience as a member of the parents association “Hilfe für das autistische Kind”, Landesverband Berlin e.V. (“Help for the autistic child”, district Berlin) would be of benefit.
Every week I visited the provided meetings. Because I continuously remained involved, a student of business management, who took care of the financial aspects of the organization, approached me at one of these meetings asking if I were interested in working with her. Soon I noticed that some of the work had not been touched for a long time. I felt sorry for the young woman, because she had done all the bookwork for the BHM by herself, she was lacking support and energy to catch up with the ongoing work of the association.
We worked very well together and after several meetings in the office, we managed to get the finances in order after a month.
But there was more accumulated work.
The mailbox was already pouring out mails. Here I found opened and unopened letters waiting to be dealt with. I typed the answers on my typewriter, because up until then, I had not been in contact with a computer.
When my daughter began to react to my many absences, I took some of the letters home to answer them. But anyway, I rode my bike two or three times a week from Steglitz (a district in the southern part of Berlin) to Kreuzberg (a district in the center of Berlin) to leave accomplished work and take more home.
Then the last mail was finally answered. But there was another filled box: afro look.
When I asked two members of the board, who was responsible for this “amount of work”, I received the answer, “Nobody at the moment, because there is no editorial staff anymore.” No one opposed when I asked if I could take this part of the files home to look through them. So I loaded up my bicycle basket and went home. I read every article, every essay and short story, every lyric, poetry and also comic which was there. I put in a folder what was most interesting in my opinion. Afterwards, I telephoned a member of the chair and told him that I had finished reading and found several materials which definitely should be published. I was invited to the next meeting of the board of directors to state my case under the topic “miscellaneous”. I asked the student to accompany me, because I needed some support for my request. At the meeting, I explained what I had discovered and how impressed I was by this material. At the end I was told, if you want to do something, then go ahead. I received some telephone numbers from former editorial staff members, who I should contact – maybe someone would offer some help. But only one woman demonstrated interest in a new edition of the magazine. A young man was also found, but he said from the beginning, that he would only work on the layout. That meant we were three new women to manage this project of whom one had experience. Luckily, the student accompanied us.
And then I sat in front of a computer for the first time. The student of business management with whom I had already worked on the finances and mails, patiently introduced me to the handling of the computer, because every text I read and stored before, had to be typed in order to be worked with any further adjustments. So I entered the digital era. And that was difficult enough, because this old piece of equipment liked very much to break down, when I had already typed in a lot of text and had forgotten to save it in between.
When finally after weeks, I had recorded most of the articles etc., we met to discuss plans for further actions. Now it was time to proofread, choose photos and comics etc. After a period of almost two years, we created a double edition.
Soon the first problems emerged: the designer could not and refused to work with the old computer. Fortunately, he had a colleague who agreed to provide us with the equipment of his advertisement agency for completion of the layout – only during the nights though, after his team had finished work.
For me that meant:
- in the morning, take care of my daughter and then make
money for a living,
- in the afternoon, proofreading, take care of my daughter,
- in the evening, take care of my child and put her to sleep,
- then hop on the bike and continue working on the magazine.
Today I know that at the time, I was ruining my strength. But I had never learned to take care of myself. To have free time was unthinkable, because I wanted to demonstrate to myself and others what could be accomplished if one just makes the full effort. The declared goal of the afro look founders was: four editions in one year!
Then I let them convince me to campaign for a member of the board – a major mistake of mine – because I was duly elected. Now it was true, I was a member of the board as representative of the editorial staff, but there were several more tasks in store for me: preparing the meetings, making preparations for the BHM and working on the mail for the ISD.
At a coordination meeting of ISD Bund (the statewide organization) in Hamburg, I applied for a new computer and a printer so that the work on afro look would finally become easier. With the help of this higher organization and some private credits, we bought the new equipment which should in no way stand in the office.
Aside from this event, I met with the comic artist, whose work I was already familiar with. When she heard my name she looked at me in astonishment and said, “I had imagined you completely different – somehow louder and more aggressive. Some had described you pretty unfavorably.” She even revealed who had portrayed me so disrespectfully – a team-mate of the Berlin chairs.
But at least we received the promised money for the new equipment. Without further ado, I cleared a small room in my apartment and fit it with furniture, which I had received as a gift from my colleague. From then on, I saved a lot of strenuous rides with the bicycle to Kreuzberg. The editorial staff meetings were also organized at my house.
The designer was totally taken with the new equipment.
At first, everything went extremely well, but after a few weeks, began what I had experienced while working in the office. Only the student was dependable. The others came and left as they liked. It was not possible to make reliable plans.
But there was all the other work, which I had landed myself with being a member of the board. What hurt me most though, was the fact that the gossip factory was boiling. It was insinuated that I would seize everything, that I was aggressive and difficult to work with. Sure, I was demanding, but I did not expect anyone to work more than I did.
Vera, an African German fellow combatant from Mainz, who I only knew from telephone calls regarding afro look, became my counselor. She knew the scene longer than myself. After she had patiently listened to my problems, she gave me some wise advise, “Don’t expect too much from the young people. If you want to have something done, do it yourself.”
Then my body refused its service. First my vocal chords became inflamed and shortly afterwards, I had my first slipped disc. My physician suggested I should slow down.
At the next board meeting, I resigned my position, not only because of my health condition, but also because I could not imagine any further cooperation with these men for several reasons.
I now focused on the magazine and a new project, which I had put off for quite some time: a calendar for the community – a work containing historical data of public figures from different areas, for instance politics, science and others.
For the upcoming BHM, Vera announced her visit. Although at the time she was severely ill, she carried books and many other materials with her, which she wanted to offer for sale. And because I had managed, despite all odds to publish another edition for this event, she added the magazine to her range. With every physical effort, her pacemaker began to tick. These noises frightened me. But this strong woman did not let this stop her. Without knowing, both of us had worked independently of one another on the same idea, the “Black Calendar”. Because during her visit we had decided to combine her and my data in one work, in 1995, the first “Black Calendar with data of Black Public Figures from Politics, Art, Literature and Culture” was published. She died the same year at the early age of 49. Until today, I am grateful to her for her engagement and friendship.
In memory of her, I extended the calendar continuously and added historical data and facts regarding inventions including registration numbers and discoveries. The calendar grew every year and was published for the last time in 2005.
In December 1999, I stopped working on afro look. My health, but also the difficult financial situation and the lack of collaboration made ongoing publishing impossible.
Through my volunteer engagement, I strongly came up against limiting factors. The desired appreciation of my engagement and work was to the greatest possible extent, not expressed.
And I just wanted to be part of a community, wanted to provide this community with my engagement and creativity for the benefit of it. Just to be part of it!
During this time, I was painting and drawing – sometimes more, sometimes less intensively. Somehow, I gained energy from my art work. At my 30 exhibitions, visitors spoke about an “energetic expression”, “impressive shapes”, etc. For me, my art work is a channel through which I can express my feelings – good ones, but also negative ones.
Tiffany Florvil, a history student from the U.S.A., who wanted to write her PhD regarding African German history, contacted me two years ago, because she discovered while here in Berlin, that I was working on the magazine with overall responsibility. As a result of her research in the U.S.A., Ms. Florvil found a document which stated that a fellow editor had registered the patent for afro look in her name and hence had established herself as the editor-in-chief of afro look.
Now, in 2014, Katharina Oguntoye organizes her last “Black Basar”. She also lacks the energy to continue and people, who could take over this work intensive task, seem not to exist. At this point, I would like to thank her for an invaluable commitment. She is co-founder of ADEFRA and ISD, co-author of “Farbe bekennen” (“Confessing Your Color”) and author of “Eine afro-deutsche Geschichte” (An African German Story”), founder and director of “Joliba e.V.”, etc. With great respect I thank her for her years of great personal engagement.
We elder women contributed our engagement and strength against all odds, hoping that one day the younger generation would assume responsibility for the baton. This seems not to be the case and it is disappointing.
Oh yes, in 1995, when the ISD in North-Rhine/Westphalia had a entire female board, the editorial staff of afro look, became honorary members.
In 1998, I was presented with the first time BHM award “For outstanding achievements in the Black Community in the field of Publications”. I accepted the award. But it can not replace the missing respect and acknowledgment, which I regretfully endured.
This award was the idea of May Ayim. With three lines of one of her poems (from “Blues in black and white”) I would like to end, without anger, but with disappointment:
community! / comme si comme ça / community!
Submitted by Fountainhead® Tanz Théâtre with the permission of Ricky Reiser.
Originally published in the XXIX. 2014 Black International Cinema Berlin, May 7. – 11., festival brochure, produced and directed by Fountainhead® Tanz Théâtre, under the production and direction of Prof. Donald Muldrow Griffith.
Original text in German.
Translated to English and edited by Angela Kramer, Prof. Donald Muldrow Griffith, Marion Kramer
« I may not make it if I try, but I damn sure won´t if I don´t… »
Oscar Brown Jr.
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