Audre Lorde’s incisive, often-angry, but always brilliant writings and speeches defined and inspired the American feminist, lesbian, African-American, and women of color movements of the 70s and 80s. Her contributions as an American social justice and literary icon have overshadowed an entire rich chapter in her life that has been called “The Berlin Years” (1984 to her death in 1992). Feminist publisher and university professor, Dagmar Schultz, arranged to both publish the German translations of Audre’s works, and to organize an invitation from the Free University of Berlin for Lorde to come and teach there as a visiting professor in 1984.
The film explores the importance of Lorde’s legacy, as she encouraged Afro-Germans–who at that time had no name or space for themselves–to make themselves visible within a culture that until then had kept them isolated and silent. It chronicles Lorde’s empowerment of Afro-german women to write and to publish, as she challenged white women to acknowledge the significance of their white privilege.
Audre not only catalyzed an entire social movement, but in the eyes of most Afro-Germans at the time, she inspired them to reach out to each other, dialogue together, share the pain of their experiences, and in so doing to claim their own empowerment as allies to each other and as equals within German society.
Over the decade that Audre spent a part of each year in Germany her influence extended out throughout Europe and touched many other communities of color. She formed alliances with international feminists and became a cornerstone of the emerging international human rights movement, and an important voice of support for South African women in their struggles against apartheid.
The relationship between Audre and Germany did not go only one way. After having been diagnosed and treated for a deadly form of cancer that left her American doctors without much hope for her survival, Audre sought out homeopathic and other naturopathic treatment in Germany where these forms of healing were widely available and viewed with respect by the health community. As a result Audre lived eight years longer than had been predicted, and was able to continue working, writing, teaching and speaking long beyond what had been expected.
Fortunately, during much of this decade, Dagmar photographed, taped, and video-recorded Audre, without any plan whatsoever about what to do with this trove of material. Now, 20 years after Audre Lorde’s death, never-before-seen archival video- and audio recordings reveal a significant part of the private Audre Lorde as well as her agenda – to awake the Afro-German movement.
NOTE DI REGIA:
How did I come to make a film on Audre Lorde?
I myself lived in the United States and in Puerto Rico from 1963 to 1973 and was active in the civil rights movement, in the anti-Vietnam movement and in the women’s and lesbian movement. Thus I had plenty of opportunity to confront myself with my role as a German and as a white European. After my return to Berlin it became more and more clear to me to what extent the absence of Black and Jewish women in the women’s movement determined the identity and the politics of that movement.
In 1980, I met Audre Lorde for the first time at the UN World Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in a discussion following her reading. I was spellbound and very much impressed with the openness with which Audre Lorde addressed us white women. She told us about the importance of her work as a poet, about racism and differences among women, about women in Europe, the USA and South Africa, and stressed the need for a vision of the future to guide our political practice. On that evening it became clear to me: Audre Lorde must come to Germany for German women to hear her, her voice speaking to white women in an era when the movement had begun to show reactionary tendencies. In the spring of 1984 she agreed to come to Berlin for a semester to teach literature and creative writing. One of her first questions on arriving in Berlin was, “Where are the Black Germans?” Thus began a political movement- and awareness-building journey that lasted until the end of her life. During that process she initiated work on the book Showing Our Colors. Afro-german Women Speak Out, which Orlanda Frauenverlag published in 1986.
For me this process meant learning, discovering and forming friendships and alliances with Black Germans. Audre returned to Berlin in 1986 and until 1992, the year of her death, spent annually weeks and months in this city. During the last two years she stayed with me and my partner Ika Hügel- Marshall, and we visited her and her partner Gloria Joseph in St. Croix. A friendship developed: we worked on the publication of her books, I translated for her on reading tours, and Orlanda published four more books with Lorde’s work including a bilingual volume of 42 poems she herself selected from her work during her last summer. (Her novel ZAMI. A new spelling of my name is being republished by Unrast Verlag in March 2012.)
Audre Lorde had a profound influence on the development of Orlanda Frauenverlag. We accomplished our goal to become a working team composed of Black and white women and in Audre’s sense enlarged our vision and made possible our constructive dealing with differences in daily life. Another aspect of our friendship had to do with her cancer illness: I introduced her to alternative medicine and naturopaths. For me this meant a very special confrontation with illness and death—an experience which certainly helped me in dealing with my own cancer illness years later. As Audre said: “We meet cancer like we meet every other crisis—out of a composite of who we are.” One sign of her friendship was her challenging me, both as a person and a friend. Being with her taught me that, as a white woman, I could not just assume the existence of trust on the part of a Black woman, but that I had to build it up and be ready to reaffirm it.
Fortunately, during much of the decade this film covers, I photographed, audio- and video-recorded Audre with her consent, but without any plan whatsoever about what to do with this trove of material. In the ten plus years it has taken me to bring this film to fruition, it was clear to me that I definitely wanted to make this material available to as many people as possible. Together with Ika Hügel-Marshall and Ria Cheatom I developed a script which was skillfully edited by Aletta von Vietinghoff. Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years brings to light a little known chapter of Audre Lorde’s life which was and is extremely important to her and to Black and feminist white communities in Germany and in Europe.