May Ayim

May 3, 1960, Hamburg – August 9, 1996, Berlin

May Ayim was born Sylvia Andler in 1960 in Hamburg, Germany to unwed parents Ursula Andler, a German, and Emmanuel Ayim, a Ghahanian medical student. 

Due to their situation, May’s mother decided to put her up for adoption. After eighteen months, a white family, by the surname Opitz, fostered Sylvia and nicknamed her May. The family already had natural children with whom Ayim was raised. She lived with the Optiz family from 1962 to 1979 in North-Rhein Westphalia. She attended schools in Muenster before studying at the University of Regensburg, from which she graduated in psychology and education in 1986.

The title of her thesis was Afro-Deutsche, Ihre Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte auf dem Hintergrund gesellschaftlicher Veränderungen (Afro-Germans: Their Cultural and Social History on the Background of Societal Change), which was later published in the book, Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte. It was then translated into Showing our colours: Afro-German Women speak out in England and the United states in 1992.

During her time at the University of Regensburg, she traveled to Israel, Kenya, and Ghana, and was able to reconnect with her biological father. It was at this time that she took his last name as her pen name.

In 1986, she became a co-founder of the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (Initiative of Black Germans and Black People in Germany). Her experience after November 1989, she has described vividly in the poem Deutschland im herbst” (Autumn in Germany) as well as in an interview in the documentary Hoffnung in Herz (Hope in My Heart).

She was also co-editor and author of the book, Entfernte Verbindungen (Distant Ties: Racism, Antisemitism, Classism). In 1995, she published a poetry collection blues in schwarz weiss (blues in black and white). The work traces the process of marginalization along color lines, with German unification as one of its immediate manifestations. To explain the age-old dynamic between black and white, she referred the African-American tradition of the blues: during the celebration of German unity, some rejoiced in white, while others mourned on its fringes in black – together they danced to the rhythm of the blues.

Ayim wrote in the tradition of oral poetry and felt a strong connection to other black poets of the diaspora. Poetry gave her an opportunity to confront the white German society with its own prejudices. In her last few years, she worked as an assistant lecturer at universities in Berlin, as a speech therapist and as a student counselor of the Alice Salomon School for social work and subsequently wrote a thesis on ethnocentrism and sexism in speech therapy. Ayim battled depression throughout her life, and she committed suicide on August 9, 1996.

Ayim’s writings cross many boundaries by virtue of their sensitivity, humor and political incisiveness. Her poems have passion and irony along with a strong magnetic force, for even her humor, her playing with words and her punch lines never veil the strength of her protest against racism, sexism, and all the other isms that add sadness to our society. The writings from authors like Ayim who stand on outside the society contribute a rich, new perspective to German literature and to the German discussion of the race. They carry an original viewpoint of society and this is what which makes their work indispensable.