T. N. Florvil: Mobilizing Black Germany

Mobilizing Black Germany. Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement

Florvil, Tiffany Nicole
Black Internationalism
283 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Susanna Jorek, Leipzig University

Tiffany Florvil’s book discusses the modern Black German movement and the collective mobilization of the 1980s and 1990s, providing insights into the beginning of modern Afro-German activism, community-building, and conceptualizations of Blackness and the exploration of the Black experience in Germany. Although most Black Germans are not part, as Florvil calls attention to, of what Paul Gilroy calls “the Black Atlantic” (1993) 1 – since they do not have the collective experience of the middle passage in their family history – Florvil shows how their efforts are embedded in the global Black diaspora, which has become a point of reference and an identifier for many Black German activists.

Starting from the early 1980s, when the Black German experience was described as being isolated without any wider communal support or resource, Florvil introduces the Black American feminist Audre Lorde, who influenced both the Black American feminist movement as well the Black German community. In chapter one, she discusses her first encounters with May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye and presents the relations and impact Lorde had beyond what is already known. Drawing from Lorde’s intellectual and personal archive, Florvil demonstrates that Lorde was eager to understand Black German women, encouraging Oguntoye, Ayim, and others to explore their individual and collective experiences through writing and poetry 2. Although this has been discussed before, Florvil argues that Lorde’s legacies were continued by Ayim and others – from the founding of the ISD (Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland) (chapter 2) to the close relations of members of the ADEFRA (Afrodeutsche Frauen) (chapter 3), in which topics of feminism, Blackness, and sexuality were explored at length. In chapters 4 and 5, Florvil introduces the intellectual activism and transnational entanglements of the movement (chapter 4) and how knowledge of Black and African diasporic culture, history, and achievements inside and outside Germany were collectively shared and disseminated through the establishment of Black History Month in the early 1990s (chapter 5). This engagement, the book argues, and the passionate involvement of Black women and their discussions about their experience of increasing racism after German reunification, as well as a new evaluation and self-conceptualization of Black Germanness, increasingly established and mainstreamed discourse about race and racism in Germany. Presenting the activists as “quotidian intellectuals” through their poetry, activism, and knowledge dissemination of the Black diaspora in Germany, the movement has become influential in and sympathetic towards any topics concerning social justice and race. Chapter 6 briefly discusses the current Black activists in Germany and their engagement in the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.

Florvil’s book offers a cultural history of Black activism in Germany and embeds the movement in a wider transnational context of Africa and the Black Atlantic. Although the main points of this cultural history have been discussed before (e.g. by Campt [1993] and Wright [2003] 3), Florvil more extensively introduces and analyses the Black German movement of the 1980s and 1990s, revealing its wider impact and diasporic entanglements. Informed by Black African and other Black diasporic movements, mainly in the US and the UK, the book argues that the Black German quotidian intellectuals not only were influenced by Black Atlantic discourse and movements but also, at the same time, influenced it. That is to say, through Ayim’s transnational activism (p. 123) and the resulting relationships. For example, Ayim had a connection with the British-Caribbean dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose song “Reggae Fi May Ayim” (1998) was a eulogy to Ayim after her early death in 1996 (p. 126). The book also offers insights into intimate relations and entanglements of other rising movements, such as the queer and feminist movement in the discussions undertaken within the ADEFRA.

From the biographical introduction to Lorde to “Black German Women’s Intellectual Activism and Transnational Crossings” (p. 104), Florvil provides in-depth insight into and analysis of the similarities and uniqueness of Black German experience, placing it in the wider intellectual discussion of the Black diaspora. For her, Black Germans
offer a compelling case study that represents overlapping diasporic, affective, spatial, and temporal contexts that are and are not completely reflected in the old or new diaspora paradigms. For many in the movement, their lives began in the post-World War II spacetime and not the Middle Passage, which anchored them to different Black subjectivities. Given their multiple backgrounds, they already exemplify the diversity of the diaspora. Black Germans’ existence and activism also shattered the myth of a (post)racial Germany, especially after the Holocaust. (p. 37)

The strengths of the book are Florvil’s depictions of the early years and motives of the individual women involved, like Katharina Oguntoye, May Ayim, and Ika Hügel-Marshall. She examines different sources, interviews, articles, poems, and eyewitness accounts and draws a picture of the motives and emergence of the early movement, which she then places in a wider discussion on the Black diaspora. In addition, the book provides a biographical description of Ayim (pp. 113–129) and her intellectual impact on anti-racist movements in Germany and beyond.

Notwithstanding the insightful material and explanations, due to Florvil’s examination of different strands and entanglements of the emerging movement and attempt to uncover the interrelatedness between individuals and movements across the globe, sometimes the analysis appears to be wide but not deep. The vast number of actors across the globe that Florvil mentions in relation to the emerging Black German movement sometimes leads to a listing of names and events without a more thorough analysis. This is the case when Florvil goes through different correspondence between Lorde and Afro-German women to highlight the close relationships between the correspondents (p. 42ff.). Although she quotes from personal letters, Florvil only analyses them against the backdrop of the relationship with Lorde, despite the assumption that the letters also contain other interesting information concerning the movement or individual lives. In chapter 5, which examines Black History Month, although Florvil names different events and topics (pp. 130–156), the quantity of actors and events mentioned in the book is overwhelming, and it is not always clear why certain comparisons were made and certain events and movements were mentioned.

Having said that, the book is an elaborated and timely study of the modern Black German movement and provides insight into the modern Afro-German movement for both new and old scholars alike.

1 Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity, in: idem: The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness, London 1993.
2 Together they produced the volume: May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.): Farbe bekennen. Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte, Berlin 1986.
3 Tina Campt: Afro-German Cultural Identity and the Politics of Positionality: Contests and Contexts in the Formation of a German Ethnic Identity, in: New German Critique, 58 (1993), pp. 109–126; Michelle Wright, Others-from-within from Without: Afro-German Subject Formation and the Challenge of a Counter-Discourse, in: Callaloo 26 (2003) 2, pp. 296–305.

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