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Black in Berlin: Self-Care as Warfare

Black in Berlin: Self-Care as Warfare

It’s a Saturday night in Berlin, and the streets are packed. Partygoers from across the globe flock to this city each weekend to lose track of time and their problems amidst heavy electronic beats in the capital of techno. Tonight however, a different rhythm floats through the air. At a nightclub in the north of the city, DJ PAM BAM, a premier femme disc-jockey of Ghanaian descent expertly weaves together afro-pop, trap, house and hip-hop, feeling and feeding the energy of the crowd. A Nigerian expat from London dances with a Black Parisian here on holiday. Two Afro-German ladies share a cigarette with a first-generation Somali woman, and the party itself is the brainchild of Jessica Lauren Taylor, a Black American theater practitioner, social justice advocate, and community organizer from Florida who moved to Berlin eight years ago and never looked back.

The theme of tonight’s party is “Self-Care as Warfare” and is presented by Black in Berlin. Headed by Jessica Taylor, Black in Berlin was originally a series of monthly salon-style discussions that has since served as a home base for Taylor to organize parties, picnics, brunches, readings and other events that provide a safe space for Black (and white) Berliners to discuss race and politics in the context of the city.

Black in Berlin was founded in 2012, as a response to the now infamous “African Berlin” issue of popular English language arts-and-culture magazine Ex-Berliner. Although the issue claimed to be offering insight into the lives of the city’s quickly growing black population, with articles like “Jungle Fever – German Cougars Search for Love in the African Banana,” the publication merely added to a pervasive sense of alienation. It was this deficiency of genuine conversation around the Black experience in Berlin that prompted Jessica to act. She explains, “I just thought, if this is the liberal media arrangement around the conversation on race, then we have a serious problem.”

 

Jessica Elizabeth Taylor
Photocredit: Justine Olivia Tellier

Ironically, this was the conversation that Jessica had left the United States in part to avoid. Like many Black creatives before her—James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Eartha Kit et. al—Jessica had left behind America’s historically constrictive notions of race and had looked to life abroad to find a new foundation for self-definition. “When I came to Berlin,” she explains, “I was trying to find some sort of identity outside of blackness. Being in the States, I was so often reminded that I was black. [In school] I was always singled out for the black characters, never given a leading role and always playing the clown or the fooI. I just wanted an opportunity to shed all of that.” To that end, Berlin, well known for its art friendly culture, liberalism and live-and-let live vibe has proven increasingly popular for Black folks like Jessica who want a chance to let their freak flags fly.

And yet, like Zora Neale Hurston once said, there is nothing like a sharp white background to make you feel particularly colored. At the end of the day, being the only black person in the room can be lonely, whether you’re in Berlin or Birmingham. And whether your blackness is filtered through an Afro-European, continental African or Black American experience, there is real power in seeing and interacting with people that look like you. Jessica recalls a particular instance: “I was walking down the street one day  and I heard someone yelling, like ‘Hey! Hey you!’ and I turn around it’s this Black girl – I don’t know her, she doesn’t know me, but she runs over and is like, “I just wanted to say hi! We should really know each other.’ And that has happened to me several times.”

The monthly salon as well as the parties create a stable support network in the city, so that folks don’t have to go chasing other Black people down the street just find some kind of solidarity. And through panel discussions on topics like new diaspora, model minorities or the role of the Black artist, the salons offer individuals the tools and language to understand each other’s experiences. “In the States,” Jessica observes, “we’re used to talking about race with everyone all the time – that’s not the case in Germany. In fact, the German word for racism, rassismus, was not entered into the German dictionary until 1996. And all the critical race theory language—appropriation, multiculturalism, micro aggressions—all of those terms are in English and do not have German translations.”

 

Participants at a recent Black in Berlin salon meeting

And so, the conversation Jessica had hoped to move beyond, ended up moving right along with her, only this time there was nothing constrictive about it, instead, being black abroad opened up an awareness, both for Jessica and the community she has built, to the reality of what she calls “the multiplicities of blackness.” “That was one of the biggest learning curves for me,” she explains, “being American and coming to this Afro-European, Afro-German context. It astonished me that I had to learn this, but it honestly takes my breath away, just the different experiences and worldviews of black people from country to country and from continent to continent.”

Tonight, that multiplicity is on full display. Black and brown folks from all over Berlin, representing all shades of the diaspora, gathered together for a night of joy-filled defiance – blowing off steam, taking up space, and shedding any sense of otherness they shouldered through the day. – self care as warfare.


Holly Ajala is a writer and storyteller with a fierce belief in the power of effective narrative to inspire empathy in the face of difference, to propel the reach of social justice and above all, to challenge human beings to be more human.

Follow her or Twitter at @123_serendipity and on Instagram: @123serendipity

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