As part of the genre-defying Poetry and Lyrics Festival, Poet in the City Producers, a group of talented 16-25 year olds, known as the “Poet in the City Producers” put together a memorable event in honour of German poet May Ayim. This event, hosted by Olumide Popoola, brought together talented musicians and poets to celebrate the life, words and legacy of a relatively unknown poet.
Olumide Popoola introduces May Ayim as a figure who has gone unnoticed outside of Germany, despite the enormous impact she had as a pioneer of the Afro-German movement. Hoping for more recognition of Ayim and her work, Popoola delves into the huge influence and impact she had on her own writing. Popoola describes the pivotal moment she had as a teenager while she was on the bus back home after buying a copy of “Blues in Black and White” she found in a bookstore. The emotional impact of reading Ayim’s poetry in book form was so strong that she cried for the whole bus journey back. The words were intensely relevant to her own life. Like Ayim, Popoola strives to understand her mixed-race identity in post-colonial Germany.
Ayim’s short life began on this very overt struggle of dual identities when she was adopted by a white family. They tried to raise her as a poster black child who neglected her heritage and ethnicity. Instead, she became a founding member of Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD) – “The Initiative of Black People in Germany” – with Audre Lorde and became a leading voice on black diasporic identities. Lorde was a mentor to Ayim and they both helped foster a sense of community by organising ISD events so that Black Germans could connect with each other and with their roots. Indeed, Ayim’s poetry frequently explores the nature of heritage, identity and community.
Popoola’s anecdotes bring life to both Ayim and Lorde’s work. She describes a moment her friend remembered while attending one of Lorde’s talks. In a time when black women didn’t have a sense of togetherness or a sense of community – when they would barely make eye contact with each other let alone openly discuss their experiences with each other – Lorde did the unthinkable. She asked all the white women to leave the room. In the space of a few minutes, the black women that remained in the room started to see each other and recognise each other.
Ultimately, Ayim and Popoola strive to be “borderless and brazen” in who they are. As a poet who would consistently highlight colonialism’s long-standing legacy in Germany, it seems only fitting that the Berlin street named after the German colonialist “Gröbenufer” was renamed “May-Ayim-Ufer” in 2009 in her honour. Hopefully, her legacy will grow in society as the appetite for learning about the minority experience grows.
by Anisha Doshi.