May Ayim

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May Ayim (3 May 1960 in Hamburg – 9 August 1996 in Berlin; original name: Sylvia Opitz) was an Afro-German poet, educator, and activist.

Early life[edit]

May Ayim was the daughter of Ursula Andler and Emmanuel Ayim. Her father, a Ghanaian medical student wanted to have her raised by his childless sister, but German law denied him any say in the matter as he was not married to her mother. After a brief time in a children's home, she was adopted by the Opitz family, who raised her with their biological children. She had an unhappy childhood, as her strict adoptive parents used violence to control what they regarded as her deviant behaviour. This was a matter she took up later in some of her poems.[1] While May Ayim maintains that she was thrown out of the family home at the age of nineteen, this is denied by the family. She still kept in touch with the Opitz family. That same year she graduated from Friedenschule, the Episcopal School in Münster having passed her Abitur. She attended teacher training college in Münster, specialising in German and Social Studies. She then attended the University of Regensburg, majoring in Psychology and Education. During this period she traveled to Israel, Kenya and Ghana, renewing her relationship with her biological father, now a professor of Medicine.

Career[edit]

Her thesis written at the University of Regensburg, "Afro-Deutsche: Ihre Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte aus dem Hintergrund gesellschaftlicher Veränderungen" (Afro-Germans: Their Cultural and Social History on the Background of Social Change), was published in Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (and published in English as Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out) a book she edited with Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz. At this time she also co-founded the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (Initiative of Black People in Germany).

Showing Our Colors was released in Germany in 1986. It was a compilation of stories told from the perspective of Afro-German women. It described their struggles growing up black in Germany and finding their home as well as their identity.

Many changes took place in Germany as a result of this book. Although there were still Afro-Germans who felt isolated in Germany, their situations improved as they connected with each other more. The editors' original intention was to include conversations, texts and poems coming from the younger women who came together during the summer of 1984. However, Opitz, Oguntoye and Schultz decided to allow as many generations as possible to speak in this book. They explained how Afro-German women were used to dealing with their background and identity alone. Few of the writers had significant contact with other Afro-Germans beforehand, and Opitz and Oguntoye said they struggled to voice their thoughts and issues with friends. They were scared they would be accused of being overly sensitive or that they would alienate someone. As the editors met with other Afro-German women and became involved with them, they connected with each other in a way that they had not connected with anyone before. The Afro-Germans began sharing their experiences with each other and contacting other Afro-Germans, as they searched for and discovered their history. The editors and writers explained how they, as Afro-Germans, did not want to have to explain their existence anymore. They wanted to be sure of their identity and able to assert it to others. The editors went public with their experiences in this book, exposing their history and the prevalence of racism while sharing their own personal experiences. Opitz, Oguntoye and Schultz felt that as they pushed for Afro-Germans to become more visible, future generations of Afro-Germans would feel less isolated and marginalized. The term Afro-German became a way for this group of people to define themselves, rather than allowing themselves to be defined by others. Opitz, through this book and her involvement in the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche, pushed for Afro-Germans to unite together, support each other and speak up against racism.

After a visit to Ghana, where she met her paternal family she returned to Germany and trained as a speech therapist, writing her thesis on ethnocentrism in the discipline. After more travels, she settled in Berlin, lecturing at the Free University of Berlin. It was at this time that she adopted her father's name Ayim as her pen name. She was active as an educator and writer, taking part in many conferences and publishing Blues in schwarz-weiss (Blues in Black and White).[2]

Death[edit]

After spending sometime without sleep or proper meals preparing for Black History Month in 1996, she suffered a mental and physical collapse. She was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Auguste Viktoria Hospital in Berlin in January 1996. Despite regular visitors she remained despondent and when her vision problems were examined the doctors came up with diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Her medication for psychosis and neuroleptica was stopped and she was discharged in April 1996. She still suffered from depression and was readmitted in June, following a suicide attempt. Discharged again in July, she killed herself by jumping from the thirteenth floor of a Berlin building.[3]

Cultural references[edit]

May Ayim's poem "They're People Like Us" is cited in Paul Beatty's 2008 novel Slumberland.

References[edit]

  1. ^ May Ayim: A woman in the Margin of German Society by Margaret MacCarroll, p3
  2. ^ Excerpt of Blues in Black and White by May Ayim, at BlackAtlantic [1]
  3. ^ Ayim, May (2007). "The Year 1990:Homeland and Unity From an Afro-German Perspective". In Göktürk, Deniz; Gramling, David; Kaes, Anton. Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration, 1955-2005. Weimar and Now:German Cultural Criticism 40. University of California Press. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-520-24894-6.