Global Feminisms

May Ayim’s Cosmopolitanism from Below in Europe

This article is part of a series on Global Feminisms. Articles in this series explore how feminists have acted beyond the nation. How have global events, ideas and tactics impacted feminism, and vice versa? How have feminists worked across difference – for example, of race, nation, politics – more and less successfully? Read an introduction to the series here.

“Black women’s anger should be white women’s outrage too, for we are all being dumbed down and manipulated with lies, half-truths and myths.” –May Ayim

May Ayim. Photograph from the Freie Universität Berlin, reproduced with permission of the author.

May Ayim was a radical activist-intellectual who helped to usher in a Black German civil rights movement the 1980s and 1990s, changing cultural politics and racial debates. Her writing addressed issues such as kinship, diasporic lineages, health, and war. Whether it was her spoken-word performances, essays, or edited volumes, Ayim’s work advanced new questions and promoted new kinds of knowledge that unsettled white German society. Through her intellectual, cultural, and political work, she made the Black community and its struggles in Germany visible. Yet her work beyond the Black German movement proved just as significant. From Belgium to London, I argue, that Ayim’s internationalism entailed overthrowing white supremacy in its many forms. Her internationalism involved a practice of cosmopolitanism from below or what Paul Gilroy referred to in his After Empire as a “vulgar or demotic” cosmopolitanism. For Gilroy, vulgar cosmopolitanism “finds civic and ethical value in the process of exposure to otherness. It glorifies in the ordinary virtues and ironies—listening, looking, discretion, friendship—that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding.” Ayim forged these kinds of  affective connections, building relationships to other communities of women across the globe.  Those connections informed her cosmopolitanism that privileged the importance of everyday encounters and exemplified her mentor Caribbean American poet Audre Lorde’s idea of celebrating differences rather than ignoring them, which Lorde called “connected differences”.

Audre Lorde and May Ayim in Berlin [wikicommons]

Through her cosmopolitanism from below, Ayim pursued cultural diplomacy, moving beyond the status quo, and using collaboration and creativity as political tools in Europe. She also recognized how pervasive racial hierarchies and discrimination remained after the Second World War, European fascisms, and decolonization. She theorized on racism, colonialism, and ethnocentrism and confronted the entire continent’s racist past and present – during the 1980s and 1990s, moments heightened by (neo)fascist agitation. She worked in and beyond nation-states to denounce international governments’ as well as individuals’ normalization of inequality and racial hierarchies and to counter white supremacy’s hold.

Ayim knew that multicultural collaborations fostered meaningful change in Europe, and her work with the Pan European Women’s Network for Intercultural Action and Exchange or AKWAABA reflected her praxis of cosmopolitanism from below. This cosmopolitanism was predicated on elevating the voices of Black women and other minoritized communities as well as securing their human rights in Europe while also bringing greater visibility to Black diasporic communities in Germany. Ayim’s involvement with AKWAABA facilitated a new form of Black internationalism that corresponded with more pronounced Global South feminist activism and the hardening of European borders known as Fortress Europe.

Founded in 1990 at a meeting in Chantilly, France, AKWAABA was “an informal network led by Black women working and creating in the arts, who [were] based in Europe.” The organization sought to ensure that “cultural, economic and social equity for Black and ethnic minority women by lobbying for the development of equal access to employment, training and public funding in the arts, media and cultural sector. . .” and that “work in the cultural sector by and with Black and ethnic minority women is accorded greater visibility.” Moreover, this non-profit organization saw utility in advancing cultural diplomacy and equity through arts and media programming, and this bottom-up focus led to more critical attention on the conditions of minoritized women across European countries. A feminist ethos also pervaded the organization. In their objectives, members acknowledged that Black women and Women of Color were not a monolith and encouraged plural and overlapping identities. As Ayim’s archives at the Freie Universität Berlin attest, members of AKWAABA viewed their mandate as a critical step to guarantee that the diverse cultures and experiences of Black women and Women of Color were “equitably represented” and to value “certain manifestations of Black creativity” in Europe.

AKWAABA material in the personal collection of the author and reproduced with permission of the author

The 1990 Chantilly meeting owed to the work of the World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC was a community of churches based in Geneva, Switzerland. The WCC was an ecumenical movement that focused on Christian unity and sought justice and peace. Twenty years earlier in 1970, the WCC created their Program to Combat Racism (PCR) to address racism on a global scale, but the organization’s antiracist mandate manifested itself in more concrete ways in the 1980s and 1990s. The WCC also established a subprogram, Women Under Racism (WUR), in the 1980s. Under the leadership of African American Jean Sindab, WUR supported Black European women’s internationalism and mobilization. The PCR and WUR held a meeting from May 27-29, 1990, in Paris and Chantilly, from which AKWAABA was born. As historian Pamela Ohene-Nyako has written, the 1990 Chantilly meeting “convened 75 women from 14 countries and from diverse minority groups, occupations, socioeconomic backgrounds and beliefs.” At this meeting, participants emphasized the significance of intersectional collective and collaborative work, framed economic concerns such as the “contestation of the single market as a priority,” and made claims for basic human rights. Ayim did not attend this early meeting, but her Black German compatriot Helga Emde was present. Emde gave a speech “on the oppressions and struggles of Black women in Germany.” Later Ayim became involved with AKWAABA; she participated in organizational events and served as an “Executive Board Member with Responsibility for Membership Development.”

In AKWAABA, Black women’s (and Women of Color’s) worldmaking was in action. Political scientist Adom Getachew defined worldmaking in her Worldmaking After Empire  as “the project of overcoming international hierarchy and constituting a postimperial world.” She extended the concept, originally attributed to philosopher Nelson Goodman in 1978, to the political thought and action of Black diasporic male anti-colonial intellectuals and leaders, such as W.E.B Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, and Eric Williams, and how they fashioned new postcolonial states’ sovereignty and reconstructed the international world order. Therefore, AKWAABA women’s worldmaking sought to delegitimize white male hegemonic structures of art and culture that denied women opportunities and limited their reach. In the process, they redefined Black women and Women of Color as artists and intellectuals and reimagined the Western/European art world with women at its core. In addition, these women’s efforts reflected the impact of neoliberal policies on the minoritized communities in Europe that they represented. Undeniably, these women’s art and other cultural productions also provide a rich terrain for shifting epistemologies – ways of knowing – and ways of circulating knowledge.

AKWAABA was internationalist, from its language, members, vision, and routes, Ayim and other members worked in and through the nation-state to combat all forms of discrimination. This internationalism was facilitated by a cosmopolitanism from below because members used their grassroots networks to facilitate change. To this end, the organization held countless conferences and workshops that centered minoritized women in Europe. Members of AKWAABA sought membership within the European Women’s Lobby and attempted to secure funding from the Council of Europe, the European Commission, and other entities. In a 1994 position paper, AKWAABA members outlined their strategy for action, which included ensuring “that issues related to women working and creating in the arts” would be placed on the agendas of global and transnational bodies including the United Nations, Nordic Council, and Equal Opportunities Committee of the European Community. They noted that “We focus here on Black women in Europe in the context of the rise of fascism and the erosion of rights for women of colour. Our main concern as Black women is that within the process of harmonization of legislation and policy across Europe… As Black women we must begin to consider what it means to talk about and take action to increase the participation of women in decision making.” Members felt the EU did not benefit Black women, and they attempted to integrate themselves into mainstream European debates and institutions while also focusing on Black women’s condition of invisibility and marginalization. For them, art and culture became concrete mediums to incite continental change. But this change could not occur overnight and required consistent organization of workshops to promote Black women’s wide-ranging creativity.

They did just that with their organization of the “African Women in Europe” conference in October 1992. After the signing of the Maastricht Treaty early in February 1992, which provided the foundation for the European Union, AKWAABA hosted a conference in London, and women from the Netherlands, Germany, South African, Nigeria, Italy, Tanzania, Sudan, Scotland, Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Kenya, and France gathered to communicate their ideas and strategies. The emphasis on building new multicultural networks was important as Black women, Women of Color, and migrant women workers experienced an increasingly hostile European climate. To control European borders, various European Union countries, including Germany, coordinated efforts to implement draconian immigration and asylum legislation surveilled and detained immigrants and propagated negative attitudes toward Europeans of Color. European-wide policies and discourses helped to demarcate difference and foster inequality not unlike what we see happening in contemporary Europe. The “African Women in Europe” conference affirmed the necessity of a dynamic civil society, enabling Black women to play a central role in combating racism, sexism, and class oppression across the continent. 

Garnering many international invitations as a poet, Ayim continued to represent AKWAABA and to centralize art and culture as tools of resistance. She participated in the 1994 “Beyond the Boundaries” conference in Brussels, Belgium, sponsored by the Institute of Cultural Affairs another non-profit organization. There she gave a poetry reading and participated in a roundtable and panels on “Artistic Planning for Cultural Equity,” “European Funding Opportunities” and “Effective Team Building for Cultural Equity.” During a “Regional Festival Planning Meeting,” Ayim worked with artists from the Netherlands and France to determine the next steps for future events that centered minoritized women. AKWAABA’s programming, events, and publications saw Black women and Women of Color as important political protagonists in the European Union. As political protagonists, they openly spoke out about the prevalence of racism, sexism, and other isms. Yet their efforts were much more than challenging racism. They also promoted solidarity among other minoritized women and focused on spaces outside of white European concepts of art and culture, generating new possibilities for Black humanities to thrive. But Ayim’s European-wide art and activism was never detached from the struggles of her Black compatriots within Germany. She willingly forged connections with grassroots activists and artists and recognized how non-state actors worked within and across states to advance women’s equality and representation. Ayim believed this collaborative work was politically and culturally necessary owing to the continued escalation of neofascist and racist violence.

AKWAABA materials in the personal collection of the author and reproduced with permission of the author.

To conclude, Ayim’s work outside of Germany exemplified cosmopolitanism from below. This assisted her grassroots activism in civil society across European cities, and she built networks that show us the dynamic contours of cosmopolitanism from below across the continent of Europe. Her internationalism and cosmopolitanism also served as her tools of cultural diplomacy as she worked within and beyond the state and international European bodies. Ayim’s diplomacy rendered Black women’s art and literature political, and critical in the fight against overlapping forms of discrimination.

Ayim’s practice of internationalism pushes us to recognize that political activism from all directions and coalitions are necessary to combat all forms of discrimination. Working across our differences, can lead us to a world where everyone’s human dignity matters. In essence, these are lessons that Ayim’s narrative reveal about the potential of Black women’s cultural and political work in the past and what we must do in a present beset by illiberalism, intolerance, and white supremacy.

The Image of Tiffany N. Florvil above was taken by Annette Hornischer/American Academy in Berlin.

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