BLOG << A New Day Dawns in Germany: Black Queer Women Resuscitating Darkness in the Urban Space. A Guest Contribution by Jeannette Oholi, Vanessa D. Plumly & Tiffany N. Florvil
May 11, 2021
A New Day Dawns in Germany: Black Queer Women Resuscitating Darkness in the Urban Space
by Jeannette Oholi, Vanessa D. Plumly & Tiffany N. Florvil
Into the Darkness
In the darkness of a big city club, only a few colorful lights and the outlines of dancing people appear. These bodies move rhythmically to the music, and as result, they literally turn night into day, into movements, and into actions of the individual and the collective. They are queer, Black, and gender non-conforming. In this space, dancing frees them from imposed and restricted categories that operate during the day through the forces of: societal expectations; social structures; exclusionary notions of 'normality'; powerful nationalist narratives; and white-heteronormative gazes which they encounter every day at work, at school, in the university, and on the street. These Black, queer, and gender non-conforming subjects express their plurality on the dance floor. The dance floor becomes a space for new kinds of liberatory practices and behaviors. On the dance floor, they make themselves visible in the darkness; they inhabit all of their complexity that defies clarity and tradition.
Urbanity, in Germany, offers the simultaneous possibility of being visible and invisible. Being Black in any German space means being both hypervisible and invisible. In urbanity, Black queer people can live and express their plurality at multiple levels. Urban space, especially in the dark, becomes a plural space that eludes the univocality that frames Blackness under the white-controlled gaze and light of the day. But even as we argue that urbanity and darkness reveal themselves as spaces of subversion, plurality, and empowerment, they also remain spaces of vulnerability and adversity. Not only are exclusions from society evident in many nightclubs across Germany where Black and People of Color (BPoC) are racialized and denied entry, for example, as thematized in Fatma Aydemir's novel Ellbogen. But the queer community itself has also built many nightclubs meant to serve as a protected space for queer people who experience homophobic and transphobic, as well as racist attacks. Nevertheless, violations come not only from the outside, but also from within the community itself, which is not impervious to colorism, racism, and sexism. Thus, queer Black women are at risk of being violated even in the darkness of the urban space. In spite of this, they continue to turn night into day, to celebrate their plurality, and to create intersectional counter-narratives to a cisheteronormative white society that tries to suppress them, their ways of being, and their forms of self- and collective-expression. This contribution therefore focuses on queer Black women in urban spaces who appropriate the darkness of the night, liberating themselves from social norms and cisheteronormativity. In Germany (and elsewhere across Europe), darkness as well as the color 'black' have mostly negative connotations (Sow 107-109), but we argue that queer Black people in Germany resuscitate the concept of darkness. What we mean by this is that queer Black people take up darkness as a force of power, knowledge, and consciousness, as a way of being and unfolding. We will first ground our claims in the theoretical work of Audre Lorde, a queer Black diasporic intellectual-activist and then apply this analytical framework to the poem “Abends an der SichTbar” written by Black German intersectional author and artist, Stefanie-Lahya Aukongo in her 2018 poetry collection Buchstabengefühle: Eine poetische Einmischung (Letterfeelings: A Poetic Intervention [our translation])
The Black Queer Self in (E)motion
Caribbean American and Black, lesbian, warrior, mother, and poet, Audre Lorde recognized the oppressive structures of a white, Western world, one in which thinking and the mind were disconnected from feeling and the body, or, put differently, a world in which the Black queer self in (e)motion with others is rendered a threat and/or aberrant. As a Black lesbian, among her many other acknowledged identities, she recognized the need to return to the body as a site of being in touch with the self and others and as a source for dreaming and envisioning. The former return to the body anticipates the liberatory practice of the latter source for dreaming which operates in the dark or in the territory of the subconscious, where what is suppressed during the day into a “flattened affect” comes alive during the non-linear night through the expansion of the self and the unraveling of its compressed layers in time and space (56).
Lorde conveys this waking of a slumbering consciousness most explicitly in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic,” that was originally delivered as a lecture in 1978 at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at Mount Holyoke College. In it, she explains how she is using the word “erotic” in contrast to its pornographic male hollowing that takes away feeling and replaces it with detached sensation. She writes, “when I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” (55). This recovery of erotic ways of being and knowing through the expression of the self involves the feeling of bodies in touch with others in space. It is precisely this energy field that Lorde recognizes as dangerous to the status quo, hence why it is so often mislabeled and recast so as to be used against women. By acknowledging and tapping into this source, women’s connectivity or what Lorde refers to as the “bridge” can be assembled (58). The erotic not only grants women power, but it also signals how they are alive in the here and now. As a queer practice, the erotic allows women to challenge essentialized notions and positions while finding a sense of belonging.
Liberatory Black Queer Poetry
Poetry is one outlet that Lorde uses to unleash and to enable the power of the erotic. In “Poetry is not a Luxury,” she writes, “the white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free” (38). Lorde holds on to this potential that the body and emotion have in advancing liberation that benefits not only Black people, but all marginalized and oppressed people throughout the world.
It is therefore not surprising that Stefanie-Lahya Aukongo, who lives and works in Berlin, explores this liberatory and emancipatory queer Black practice of poetry. In her poem “Abends an der SichTbar,” Aukongo centers the night that envisions new possibilities (Aukongo 246-247). SichTbar refers here to a bar or nightclub, but it also operates as a neologism that references the ability to be one’s own self. Sich means one’s self and bar is a suffix which makes words into adjectives in German; it means “able” or “that which can be done.” The capitalization of the letter T disrupts the flow of the word, functioning as either a barrier or resistance (likely both) to this ability. It also enacts a disruption to or rupture of sight/seeing/vision (Sicht). Finally, it connects the hypervisibility and invisibility of Black subjects in Germany in the word sichtbar or visible, as it purposefully breaks out of the word seeking to contain it.
This rupture of norms is also present in the lifting of censors that are in force and enforced during the day and that limit freedom of movement and expression. Aukongo writes:
Ich gehe aus
meine Extravaganz zu finden
Mich nicht zu zensieren
The night in Aukongo’s poem becomes a space and time that is unbound and unwound, in which she dares to feel the body pulse and move in whatever ways possible (not necessarily physically or in an ableist fashion, as the usage of the _ makes clear) and that becomes enrapturing. At night, she can orient herself in many different directions without being restricted by categories and boundaries. Night is thus associated with a boundlessness that is ever-expanding (like a sound wave pulsing in the air- “pulsieren”) in this stanza of the poem. In the darkness, which functions as a buffer space against norms, she can go in search of her true self, of her extravagance, and unfold her multi-layered identities.
The synesthesia of the night renders complex “Buchstabengefühle” (a neologism comprised of “letters” and “feelings”) palpable in the “Gefühlskaterstimmung” that is intoxicating:
Abends an der SichTbar
Die Klarheit vernebelt Bequemlichkeiten
Glitzern in Schwarz
und türkis und umbra
Night and darkness have positive connotations because, as we can see in the poem, they dissolve boundaries and make it possible for queer Black women to blossom. They light up the night, turning the impossible experience of seeing colors in the dark into a glittering materiality. The light that makes it possible to see these colors in the dark is one that emanates from within. Night and darkness therefore contain new beginnings. At the end of each night is the beginning of a new day filled with promise. In the clubs and bars, people spend the night and move towards a new day and new futures.
This new future is one that is achieved through resistance and sustained with each dawning of the day. Aukongo is explicit about the interconnectedness of past, present, and future, when she affirms:
Morgen um Morgen nach Gestern
Und wieder beginne ich das Jetzt,
weil wir sonst alle verloren haben
Traust du dich, von vorne anzufangen?
The endless cycle of time, when each night is followed by day, is indicated by the word “wieder”. Among the repetitions of “wieder”, however, mingles a “wider” that adds a resistant dimension to new beginnings and futures. This represents a slight but significant change in the dimensions of darkness and disrupts the repetition in the poem. The night as a resistant and subverting space thus extends to the next day. The voice in the poem appropriates the new day full of hope and empowered by the night, envisioning and experiencing a new beginning. Night and day as spaces become generative, no longer negating or flattening Blackness. In this way, these Black queer spaces are also affective sites that offer moments for growth and freedom. To return to Lorde’s words, “poetry as illumination” gives form to the “nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt” (36). Indeed, the revolutionary beginning is a child of the Black queer night and Black queer light.
Conclusion: Resuscitating Darkness
Black women, by inhabiting this Black queer dimension on their own terms, engender a positive reinterpretation of darkness. Darkness represents a dimension in which plural identities, movements, transformations, and futures unfold and are made possible. Darkness, as we can see in Aukongo’s poem “Abends an der SichTbar,” represents an intersectional space for positive and pleasant sensations, not detached from feeling. It is a subversive space that opens instead of closes and confines. Black queer women enact and affirm their plurality in nightlife, subverting identity categories that separate them from their true selves. They embody and feel themselves in their full, dazzling beauty. Queer people forge notions of belonging and community that therefore extend beyond traditional genealogies, their families, locales, and nations and that disrupt the status quo.
As the nightclub slowly empties, people stream out and scatter in all directions of the city. They take the feeling of liberation into the new day, still humming softly in the streets to the melodies that accompanied them during the night and to which they moved exuberantly. They look up at the sky, the sun is rising. A new day dawns in Germany.
Aukongo, Stefanie-Lahya. Buchstabengefühle: Eine poetische Einmischung. w_orten und meer: Berlin, 2018.
Aydemir, Fatma. Ellbogen. Carl Hanser Verlag: Berlin, 2017.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. 1984. Crossing Press: NY, 2007.
Sow, Noah. Deutschland Schwarz Weiß: Der alltägliche Rassismus. Goldmann: München, 2009.