‘Your mother was out there cheering, dancing and bringing down the wall,’ my dad would often say, whenever I asked him about the day the Berlin Wall came down in our home city. When I asked him where he was, he would shrug and say, ‘I stayed at home and watched the whole thing unfold on the evening news, but your mother drove down there and celebrated.’
The Berlin Wall is still very present in my city – even in the minds of those who did not experience it in its full flesh; they see its skeleton every day on their commutes around the city – at Bernauerstrasse, Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz. Or they have heard of it through hushed conversations on public transport: ‘Now we are in East Berlin. For years after the wall came down I would only travel from West Berlin to East Berlin and back in a taxi,’ I overheard an elderly man say to his friend once. Or they know of it through conversations with former international students who studied in East Berlin. Humboldt University’s International Summer School for Economics and Management (ISSEM) in Havana is one of only a few university exchange programmes in the world to include Cuba – all due to the university being in the former GDR.
Then there is the familiar archive footage – images of masses chanting, ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (‘we are the people’) and hammering away joyfully at the wall.
A few months ago, I was doing some research for a poem I was going to perform for a showcase at the Barbican Centre in London, my current home. I went through a lot of that ‘fall of the wall’ archive material, and to my surprise did not see any people of colour depicted in the celebrations. I thought to myself, surely there must have been some Turkish-Germans, Afro-Germans or Vietnamese-Germans present; but I saw none in the mainstream media images online. I thought about the story my German father had told about my black Kenyan mother. She passed away when I was eight, so there was no way I could ask her myself about her experience of that November night in 1989. So I decided to look for clues in literature and came across the poems, essays and interviews by the Ghanaian-German writer and poet, May Ayim. In her 1990 essay entitled ‘Home/land and Unity from an Afro-German Perspective’ she wrote:
‘like other black Germans and immigrants, I knew that even a German passport did not guarantee an invitation to the East-West festivities.We sensed that along with the imminent intra-German union a growing closing-off from outside would ensue – an outside that would include us. Our participation in the celebration was not invited.’
This ‘closing off’ is clearly enforced by the lack of representation of black Germans like my mother in the mainstream media’s depictions of the festivities. In her poem entitled ‘Borderless and Brazen’, Ayim writes:
i will be African
even if you want me to be german
and i will be german
even if my blackness does not suit you
This poem’smessage still resonates strongly today, particularly with ‘hyphenated’ citizens like me, and emphasises what the fall of the wall should have signified: the destruction of borders and the opaque possibilities of what a German can be and is. Unfortunately, this was not the case. After the fall of the wall, incidences of racist attacks increased, the most well-known case being that of Amadeu Antonio, who was attacked by a group of neo-Nazis and died of his injuries, leaving behind a pregnant wife. As the American writer and activist Audre Lorde observes in her poem ‘East Berlin’, ‘It feels dangerous now to be Black in Berlin’.
I found a lot of answers in the literature of Ayim, especially in her essays and interviews. I ended up writing a poem that spoke about my mother, who was hopeful and full of joy as she helped destroy the wall, as, like Ayim says in her essay ‘1990’, she knew that regardless of East-West, skin colour, religious belief or sexual orientation …
‘One thing is certain: The global and national structures of dependence as well as the power relations within our personal relationships are unsettling and destructive, but not static. We can bring about change!’
By Esther Heller
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Esther Heller is German-Kenyan, born in Berlin. She has presented her work in Berlin and London. She has been the artist-in-residence at the British Council Germany and a member of the Barbican Young Poets 2018/2019.