- October 29, 2020
The creative task at hand — to address a letter to someone or something — is impossible for a black feminist communist. Our ontological totality (à la Cedric Robinson), and the preservation of our collective being (Avery Gordon) is the revolutionary consciousness we inherit. Plural pronouns, here, signify the same “us” summoned by Toni Morrison: “I think about us, black women, a lot.”1 How might we nourish this togetherness and its radical possibilities? Meditating on the transnational sisterhood and critical housekeeping of May Ayim, Audre Lorde, and their legacies is one such method.
Dear May Ayim, Dear Audre Lorde, Dear Us:
Morrison, when eulogizing James Baldwin, says it best: “you knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me?”2 You — May, Audre, and we — are the blueprint for a communist party (Joshua Chambers-Letson).
The recipe is as follows: poetics, dancing, third world solidarity, sunshine, colorful living.
Audre, I understand why you, like Baldwin, sought an elsewhere — you found May, and with her, a home in a movement. The work of housekeeping and all its racialized and gendered contradictions were central to your life. In Zami (1982), you detail memories of your Caribbean immigrant mother painstakingly making food last during the insecurity of the Great Depression in New York City. In 1981, while lecturing at the National Women’s Studies Association in Connecticut, you told another story of domesticity: a little white girl yells, “Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid!” to your two-year-old daughter as you wheeled her through an Eastchester supermarket.3 Domesticity is fraught for Black women; however, we know that the domestic sphere (and the care work performed there) can be a source of resistance — Angela Davis taught us this in “The Role of the Black Woman in the Community of Slaves” (1971).
May, I fell apart the first time I was introduced to your work, years ago, at Lichtblick-Kino Berlin, where I viewed Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984-1992 for the first time. Ironically, it is that film that cemented my understanding that Lorde was not the American savior of Afro-German women — you were there, with your sisters and community, cultivating a rebellious consciousness. It was simply Audre’s tenacious ability to bring us closer to one another that energized you to publish the first Afro-German feminist text in 1986.
The story goes like this: you, Audre, visit Berlin for the first time in 1984. You write poetry, commune, cry, dance, and laugh with Afro-German lesbians and feminists. It takes just a couple of years for you, with Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz, to publish Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. Beyond the literary treasures you left us, you illustrated the political possibilities of what other feminist activists refer to as housekeeping — the maintenance work done to sustain a movement. I imagine this is what you mean, Audre, when you declare that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Your friendship not only kept you alive while you were suffering — Audre from breast cancer, May from depression — but also started a movement. The black lesbian feminist transnational origins of the Afro-German movement of the 20th century, as such, necessitated a practice of joy, care, and togetherness. This exceeds and resists masculinist notions of political activism being legible to the state in essentialist ways — housekeeping includes care work, friendship, and communion as necessary components of revolution.
When I think of housekeeping, I remember you — Audre’s narratives of domesticity, her insistence on joy and care in movement-building, and the home you found in each other. I cherish your writing, May, about being a black woman attempting to belong despite the post-WWII German national imagination that erases Afro-German existence. If it is true, as Audre believed, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” then we must build and keep our own house.4
Alexandra M. Thomas