In our research as we discovered more about May Ayim, we have uncovered a whole subtopic of German history and culture that we had never before been taught. Afro-German history is not something we had thought of as “separate” from German history itself, but its significance rings true as an important component of not only Berlin’s immigrant culture, but also the ideas of nationality, identity, and a sense of self and belonging. In choosing May Ayim as our focus for this project, we were inspired by the idea of a strong female leader in Germany and someone who paved the way in her own field. We also found it fascinating to have the opportunity to learn more about German history through the eyes of a minority, since much of our knowledge up until this point had been characterized by past German government regimes, especially those leading figures who were in opposition to minorities, like Adolf Hitler. We realized that although Ayim herself was born in Germany, she was treated as an outsider, as a “half-German,” because of her black heritage.   Immigrants in Germany are still oftentimes treated as “less” than their counterparts born in the country, which led us to want to explore this further and speak with an immigrant firsthand.

During our stay this month at the Hotel Rotdorn, we came to know most of the staff, all of whom have been nothing but kind to us. We had the opportunity to interview one of the hotel’s employees, Fatima Yildirm, an immigrant from Turkey, to gain firsthand knowledge of one person’s experiences as an “outsider” in Germany and to expand on our knowledge of life as an immigrant in this country. She does not speak English, so Carmen Taleghani-Nikazm graciously helped us to mediate and translate the interview.

Throughout the course of the interview, it became clear that Fatima is still here in Germany only for purposes of working and earning money to send her children to college. Although she has lived here for twenty-eight years, she still described Turkey as her homeland. She shared with us her plans to return “home” to Turkey after her retirement, indicating that she feels more of a sense of belonging there. When Fatima was in high school, she moved to Germany and felt that she was treated as an outsider due foremost to the language barrier. She had to learn German and is now fluent, but felt that she did not have extensive social interaction and learned a profession to make a living, instead of focusing on superfluously fitting into society. She found that there was little motivation for her parents’ generation to fit in, due to their status as guest workers in the country, and because of this attitude, Germans treated them the same way – as temporary. Fatima also shared with us that although her daughter grew up in Germany, she has dual citizenship in Germany and Turkey, and has decided to further her education in Turkey. Her daughter always felt she was treated differently because of the negative stereotypes centered on the Turkish in Germany. This goes to show that the problems May and other foreigners have faced are still prevalent in Germany today.

Speaking with Fatima helped us to reinforce the ideas that our research regarding May Ayim had already uncovered. Immigrants in Germany are not always treated the same as “Aryan” or pure Germans. Fatima was quick to point out that it depends on the country from which you came from, as some immigrants have less trouble than others. Afro-Germans and Turkish-Germans alike, along with many other minorities, face discrimination in this country and have many difficulties that go otherwise unknown, hidden beneath the social fabric woven by modern day European society. Nationality, identity, and a sense of self and belonging played a large role in shaping May Ayim’s life, and those same sentiments echo clearly in Fatima’s recollection of her life here and what she has experienced.



May-Ayim-Ufer, a street in Kreuzberg named after the author and activist


Our time learning and researching, in and about Berlin and Germany as a whole, is quickly coming to a close. With it comes the opportunity to reflect on the similarities and differences between where we grew up and where we have spent the last four weeks. We both have unique reactions and insights into our experiences in Berlin and our respective hometowns, and in the following paragraphs we each describe our own views and knowledge.




Cincinnati, Ohio and Berlin, Germany are both alike and different in a variety of cultural and societal aspects. I grew up in a small suburb of the city, which could be compared to the neighborhood area where we have been staying. Cincinnati is much smaller than Berlin, but it is proud of its German heritage, so I am excited to go back and explore this history further and possibly discover more similarities or differences. Growing up in the Midwest has definitely been one of the biggest influences on my life, and it is why I am attending Ohio State today. For three years, when I was in grade school, my family relocated to Denver, Colorado, which is much different than both Cincinnati and Berlin, but also provides me a context in which to compare these cities.

One of the most overlooked but important similarities between Cincinnati and Berlin is the weather. We have experienced colder weather than anticipated this month, and the forecasts are not always accurate, which made for some interesting days. However, I was not prepared for the month of May in Berlin to feel like October in Ohio. Berlin is also much more of a global city than Cincinnati. I have gotten the sense that the people who live here are from all over Europe and all over the world. While this might be true in Cincinnati as well, it is not as pronounced, and many people are multi-generational Cincinnatians who have never lived anywhere else.

The city pride in each place is evident, which made me feel at home while in Germany. People from Berlin and those who have chosen to live here seem proud of their home and happy to be here; the same goes for Cincinnati. Although many on the outside never understand why Cincinnati is such a great place to call home, Cincinnati natives know that there is something special there that makes it what it is. Berlin’s “wow” factor is much more evident, and outsiders have an easier time determining why it is such a great place, which certainly plays into its large immigrant population and tourist presence. This could be because of its rich history, which is studied around the world and has affected so many people. Cincinnati was never the site of WWII air bombings, the Olympics, or the Nazi regime, but it can still boast its history on a smaller scale. I love being from Cincinnati, and I am excited to return for a few days before I head back to OSU’s campus for the remainder of the summer. Cincinnati will always be home, but traveling only enriches my knowledge of like and unlike places around the world. Berlin and Cincinnati are by no means the same, but their slight similarities have made it easier for me to assimilate here for the month, and also to appreciate all of the nuances that are divergent from my hometown.




Throughout my childhood, my family moved around for my father’s job. There is not one particular town I grew up in, but rather it was a combination of places. Each place I have lived in is different from each other, but also shares similarities. They can be comparable to Berlin, as well. I lived in two towns in New Hampshire, and one of the most prominent similarities that I see between these towns and Berlin is the history in these areas. New England is the oldest region in America, and most of the early foundational history of our nation took place there. Due to this, many parts of the region have worked to preserve these quaint, historical towns. The physical characteristics and architecture in the towns I lived in especially remind me of Berlin. The oldest buildings and monuments in Berlin, particularly the castles and Berliner Dom, appear similarly to what they did when they were created. This is the same for the churches and town squares that are in New Hampshire. These aspects preserve the rich history, and enable onlookers to feel as if they are experiencing what residents did back in time. It provides context to the town, and gives meaning to the town’s modern day appearance.

A noticeable difference I have seen is the lack of diversity there has been in any of the towns I grew up in. Berlin is one of the most diverse cities I have ever visited. It has one of the largest immigrant populations in the world, and that can be seen through every ethnicity and multicultural aspect of the city. There is every type of food imaginable here; there are countless trends, neighborhoods, and languages spoken here. Every school I attended was comprised of families from similar socio-economic backgrounds and race. Before attending college, I had little familiarity with diversity. This is drastically different from Berlin, and it has been greatly beneficial to further my knowledge of diversity by visiting this city. Through only four weeks here, it is already evident that I will learn through people that are different from me and that the future of our world is dependent on how diversity is handled.

May’s Achievements

May Ayim is well known for being one of the most prominent figures in leading awareness for the equality of Afro-Germans.  She originally made an appearance in the spotlight when she began her thesis research on Afro-German history, which was the first of its kind.  Her thesis became the foundation for the book, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. Her book is also discussed in the biography on this blog and described accounts of Afro-German women’s struggles of growing up in Germany and the hardships they faced.  The content of this book allowed generations of Afro-German women to share their stories with the world, an opportunity they had not previously been given. This enabled the issues to become visible to a wider audience, and at the time, it was the authors’ hope that this visibility would help in assisting future Afro-Germans to know that they are not alone and to understand that they too should speak out and let Germany, and the world, know their strife.

It was not long after her contributions to this innovative documentary novel, that May co-founded the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD), Initiative of Black People in Germany, alongside fellow activist Audre Lorde. This was a further attempt to help Afro-Germans band together and support one another. The group still remains an active community today, and continues to work towards the foundational objectives established by Lorde and Ayim. Their mission is multifaceted. Foremost, the ISD strives to represent the many relevant and essential interests of black people who call Germany home. It endeavors to promote Black consciousness and to oppose racism, as well as to support networking amongst the greater Afro-German community.

May Ayim’s role in Berlin’s society continued after the publication of her work Showing Our Colors. She began working as a lecturer at the Free University of Berlin, while also continuing her writing. Her work was centered on the difficulties multi-ethnic people in Germany face, and on the complex ideas reflected around personal identity. This was shared primarily in the form of articles and poetry, for which much inspiration came from Ayim’s own troubled childhood. Throughout the remainder of her life, she was a fervent writer and educator, publishing more work and participating in multiple conferences and summits. These meetings were primarily centered around her passion for the enhancement of the lives of those around her and revolving around the hope of a better life for Afro-Germans in Germany.


Through her contribution of famous written works and speeches, as well as leadership in initiating the movement for Afro-Germans, Ayim’s greatest legacy to society is arguably that her work lives on to influence future generations. Before May Ayim, there was not an initiative for Black people in Germany or published research about the struggles that this distinct community and subculture has faced. There was not a leader to recognize that Afro-Germans deserve the support of a community and the respect of the nation as a whole. Ayim created this role and helped to shed the immensely needed light on a subset of the German population whose voices were lacking. Her pioneering research revealed to the world that there are struggles and barriers that need to be overcome, and Afro-Germans today are still feeling the reverberations of the strides she made.

Not only did Ayim help to bring Afro-German discord to the forefront of Germany’s modern societal issues, but she also paved the way for other minority groups to have their voices heard as well. Although she was not an immigrant herself, she had her personal struggle as an adopted child in a white family. Additionally, her biological father was a Ghanaian while her mother was a white German, which helped other minorities relate to her and aided them in realizing that they too could achieve more with the support of a coalition like the Initiative of Black People in Germany, or with the confidence of a similar German minority organization. With Ayim’s pioneering activist mentality, she was able to inspire many forward-thinking individuals in the years to come, now and in the future.

Whether she realized the full fruition of her impact remains unknown, as she tragically ended her own life in 1996. However, to honor her work, her legacy lives on in many ways, including the continuation of her foundation and the expansion of awareness for the Afro-German community. She is also recognized as an inspirational leader and role model through the May Ayim Award, which was founded in 2004. This is the first of its kind, a Black German International Literature Award. The award’s intent is to mitigate the discrepancy that black authors in Germany face in the world of literature, a cause Ayim herself would no doubt be proud to have her name behind. Along with an award in her name, a street in Kreuzberg was renamed May-Ayim-Ufer to serve as a constant reminder of her notable work.




Flanc Newsletter. “May Ayim’s Legacy in World Language Study.” FLANC Newsletter (n.d.): n. pag. Gerlind Institute. 2012. Web. 26 May 2015.

Sandjon, Chantal-Fleur. “The Space Between Yesterday and Today: May Ayim.” Berlin Post-Colonial. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

The World May Lived In

“From the time they are children, Afro-Germans realize that their biracial background is seen as unusual.”

-Showing Our Colors, May Ayim

During the time that May Ayim grew up and lived in Germany, there was political and social unrest unfolding that shaped her world and defined the woman that she became. In 1961, one year after Ayim’s birth, the Berlin Wall was constructed.  This wall established division between East and West Germany.  At this time, she was still in foster care or had just been introduced to the Opitz family, who would raise her in Westphalia with their biological children.  The Opitz family was white, so adopting Ayim, a black child, was considered progressive for the time.  Germany was still a place of many prejudices and injustices, and anyone with a minority background was treated differently than the white, German majority.

The sixties in Germany were a time of tension and change.  The Cold War neared its culmination and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) sealed access from East Berlin, which would last for the next twenty-eight years, until 1989.  U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously affirmed America’s guarantee of freedom for West Berlin in a 1963 speech.  Germany was in a state of disrepair after World War II and needed to rebuild the nation.  In order to do so, labor shortages were filled with “guest workers.”  This was an opportunity for the working classes from Southern European countries such as Italy, Portugal, Turkey, and Greece to earn money to send to their families back home.  Nearly two million of these guest workers were recruited, and many of them decided to stay and bring their families to Germany.  This influx of immigrants began to shape Germany as a whole, especially Berlin, but not without controversy.  Today, Germany boasts the third largest immigrant population in the world, primarily because of the swell of immigrants who were instrumental in rebuilding the country during the sixties.


As May Ayim entered her teenage years in the 1970s, Germany too entered a new era.  In 1971, the Four Power Agreement of Berlin was signed, and West Germany was recognized as belonging to the Federal Republic of Germany.  The United Kingdom, the USSR, the United States, and France entered détente, meaning a thawing out of their cold relations, reestablishing friendlier ties between the two sides of Berlin and improving travel and communications.  In 1972 a basic treaty between West and East Germany was signed, and West Germany hosted the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.  Two years after the Four Power agreement was signed, in 1973, both German states were admitted to the United Nations.

The next decade, the 1980s, a new political force appeared in Germany.  The Green Party rose as a challenge to the established political parties.  The most important piece of German and world history, however, does not occur until later in the decade.  It was not until 1989 that the Berlin Wall fell, and the following year that the eastern and western blocs of the city were reunited.  Ayim lived through this monumental event, and well into the following decade.  Reunification and its implications were fully realized, including economic and political consequences.  However, May’s experience was not like the typical white German’s through these events, an important note and a marker of how race and background still played a major role in one’s place in German society, even well into the 20th century.

When the future of Germany and its strides since the fall of the Berlin Wall are discussed, cost and societal differences between the East and West are debated.  What it means to be a German, who is a German, and where a person comes from are important conversations, and there are often assumptions made about people that affect how they are classified.  May Ayim’s life and work was deeply affected by assumptions made about her and underlying prejudices because she was considered a foreigner from the color of her skin.  Ayim was not an immigrant to Germany; she was raised by a German family and her birth mother was a German as well. However, the color of her skin dictated how Germans interacted with her.  The city of Berlin is commonly known, but not commonly discussed, as being anti-foreigner and anti-Black, although it was entirely rebuilt with the help of foreign guest workers who became Germans when they stayed to make Berlin their permanent home.

It was not until the year 2000, four years after May’s death, that Germany passed a law granting citizenship rights more easily.  The new law enables citizenship to those that have at least one parent who has been a permanent resident for three years or to those who have lived in Germany for eight or more years.  Prior to this law, only children of German citizens were automatically granted citizenship, and many had to wait years before they could even apply.  This demonstrates an aspect of German society that creates an environment where someone like May, is treated as a outsider and has difficultly fitting in, simply because her father was not German so she was not considered truly German.


The DNA of Berlin is composed of people from all over the world, but Ayim, her fellow Afro-Germans, as well as immigrants and non-Caucasian Germans, felt the prejudice of white Germany as they constantly were treated as outsiders in their home.  This was the Berlin and the Germany that Ayim knew, and what prompted her to pioneer the issue of Afro-German history and to truly delve deeply into what became her life work and passion.



Gonzalez, Daniel. “Guest Workers Become Issue for Germany.” AZCentral. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2015.

“History of the Federal Republic of Germany.” History of the Federal Republic of Germany. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 May 2015.

“May Ayim.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 May 2015.

Morris, Jamie Christopher. “The Black Experience in Postwar Germany.”University of Connecticut DigitalCommons. N.p., 5 June 2012. Web. 23 May 2015.

Biography of May Ayim


May Ayim is an Afro-German poet, educator, author, and activist known for her pioneering work in the field of Afro-German history, specifically her instrumental role in founding the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD), which translates to the Initiative of Black People in Germany. May Ayim was born Sylvia Andler on May 3, 1960 in Hamburg, Germany to unwed parents Ursula Andler, a German, and Emmanuel Ayim, a Ghahanian medical student.  Under German law, biological fathers did not have rights to illegitimate children.  Due to their situation, May’s mother decided to put her up for adoption.

After staying briefly in a children’s home, Ayim was adopted at a young age by the Opitz’s, a white German family. She was raised in Westphalia as May Opitz, along with the biological Opitz children, but later said her childhood was unhappy and that her adoptive parents were strict and physically abusive. Ayim would later reflect on these abuses through the medium of poetry. She attended Friedenschule, the Episcopal School in Münster, and then teacher training college in Münster as well, where she focused on German language and social studies. She then moved on to the University of Regensburg and majored in psychology and education. During her time at the University of Regensburg, she traveled to Israel, Kenya, and Ghana, and was able to reconnect with her birth father. It was at this time that she took his last name as her pen name.

May Ayim’s thesis at the University of Regensburg, entitled Afro-Germans: Their Cultural and Social History on the Background of Social Change, is considered to be the first scholarly study of Afro-German history. It serves as the basis to a book later published in 1986 as Farbe Bekennen or Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. It describes the history of Afro-German women, discussing racism while they struggled to find their place in Germany. Ayim moved to Berlin in 1984 and lectured at the Free University of Berlin. It was at this time that she founded the ISD with fellow activist, Audre Lorde. Ayim battled depression throughout her life, and jumped to her death on August 9, 1996.



MacCarroll, Margaret Catherine. “May Ayim: A Woman in the Margin of German Society.” The Florida State University DigiNole Commons. N.p., 1 Apr. 2005. Web. 15 May 2015.

“May Ayim.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 May 2015.