Black in Berlin

Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor’s crucial salon

Hamza BegJustine Olivia Tellier

Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor has her feet firmly planted in multiple spheres. The artist-in-residence at District Gallery, Berlin, she works within the realms of conventional theatre; outside those boundaries, she participates in a particular form of artistic activism

Having studied theatre in the United States, Jessica’s move to Berlin coincided with her growing interest in advocacy for people of colour. Issues of race, identity, and belonging are the materials of her work as a community organiser and artist. Under Jessica’s guidance, dialogue blossoms.

As we chat, Jessica speaks enthusiastically. Her tone is matter-of-fact and informed, a combination that makes it strikingly clear why she is a successful moderator for discussions. Black in Berlin is a salon that Jessica began in 2012 in order to challenge the mainstream German–English press on their mishandling of racial issues. That challenge has grown into a movement that empowers people of colour in the city and speaks to Jessica’s own personal journey.

Jessica is part of a larger group of people inciting discussions on race in Berlin, although she admits: “I didn’t arrive and get involved, I accidentally got involved.” The catalyst was an article in a prominent Berlin-based magazine that used racially offensive terms in reference to the Afro-Deutsche community, such as ‘jungle fever’, ‘from the bush’ and ‘banana’. Appalled, Jessica went directly to the source: “I went to a panel discussion with the editors of the magazine, but the panel was terrible; they talked over the Afro-Deutsche community. I was just really incensed that this was a liberal-left magazine’s take on race in Berlin. Afterwards, a group of us stayed and just chatted into the night. That’s when I started Black in Berlin.”

Through this moment of collective frustration, Jessica discovered a critical need in the community here in Berlin. “In the UK and US we talk about race all the time, with our families, with our friends, our neighbours, but here people aren’t used to talking about race at all,” she says. Since the salon began, Jessica and the attendees of Black in Berlin have been discovering the benefits of having an open dialogue with each other about issues of race. As with the victims of discrimination of any kind, the space created for discourse has to be one in which the participants feel completely safe. In this case, this means that the guest speakers are always people of colour, and the ensuing discussions are ones that an audience composed primarily of people of colour feels encouraged to contribute to. But the demographics of the salons are slowly changing: “The salons at the beginning were 60% black and brown and, say, 40% white,” Jessica tells us. “But now we’re getting down to about 5% white.” That the number of non-white participants is increasing speaks to the welcoming environment, where demographics of the panel and community reflect those of the participants.

In the UK and US we talk about race all the time, with our families, with our friends, our neighbours, but here people aren’t used to talking about race at all.

Jessica speaks with meticulous clarity of how she constitutes ‘whiteness’. “When I use the term ‘whiteness’, I am referring to a concept of interlocking political and cultural systems,” she begins. “I like what the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say about whiteness: that it is a social construct, a fabrication. He says: ‘Whiteness and blackness are not a fact of providence but of social policy,’ though it is important to note that even if whiteness is an invention, it has very real repercussions. Something I always tell people at my salon is: if you’re bristled or made uncomfortable by the terms ‘whiteness’ or ‘white people’ then you have some unpacking to do.” The level of precision with which Jessica explains complex concepts is perhaps a product of her role in responding to the needs of her community. Her ability to distil identity politics into understandable terms is particularly refreshing in a time when many find the subject both difficult and confusing. Jessica concedes that when she came to Berlin, she didn’t have any knowledge of critical race theory, and it is clear that the salon has been a learning experience for her as much as for the participants. “It’s really amazing,” she continues. “I can say that unabashedly because it’s all about the community and the people who come and speak. It’s at least 40% regulars.”

The issues that the salons are trying to tackle are not limited to the experience of racism. They are a place of celebration, of sharing thoughts on how to spread a positive message throughout society at large. While Jessica feels that “Berlin is decades behind,” in regards to how race is imagined by other Western, multi-ethnic societies, she also states that she’s “not yet exhausted or tired of explaining things to white audiences.” The salons themselves, however, are not set up for this kind of explanation, but as safe spaces of expression – where people can discuss why most German companies still require headshots on CVs, for example.

In Berlin, I was free from all gazes, and in terms of identity I felt that it was a place where I could start over and be who I wanted to be.

The community surrounding the salon is making great strides. “Just last week I had to choose between Isaiah Lopez’s talk on what it means to be black, male and queer at Kunsthalle am Hamburger Platz, and Natasha Kelly’s celebration of the life of May Aylin at the Hebbel on the same night. The community is just so rich now.” While the salons can be a place to simply let your voice be heard, they are also a space to begin learning or relearning how to articulate your experiences. Jessica’s contribution to the slow and steady march toward racial equality feels revolutionary, but she draws a line between the work of an activist and how she sees her role: “I’m not an activist, and I say that because activists, from what I see, are putting blood, sweat and tears into the movement. I’m an artist, so I’m working for the movement, but I’m also working in the arts context.”

Black in Berlin tackles topics that require subtlety, patience and a variety of viewpoints. The events usually last for two hours, although Jessica admits that this is often not long enough. A recent salon looked at the idea of a ‘new diaspora’ with intersectional perspectives on privilege, class, race and mobility. This style of nuanced and open public discussion is not only radical but also accessible, and often therapeutic for its audience. Here, the participants find themselves in a rare and welcoming space where they can begin to reckon with the trauma inflicted by the politics of race.

Diversifying the group of literature- and arts-focused 20–40 year olds is a difficult task. Jessica tries to convince her Turkish and Afro-Deutsche neighbours to attend, but language can be a limitation. To tackle this problem, she encourages people to speak in their own language and finds translators to help out. Black in Berlin is always hosted in a different space. “I try not to have it in academic and art institutions too often, because I want it to have more of a kitchen-table feel,” Jessica explains. This seems to be the very heart of the project: the creation of a safe space in which those who have few places to turn to can be heard. “We work in majority-white spaces, we socialise in majority-white spaces and a lot of us are in relationships with a white person. A lot of people have told me that the salons are a bit like church and a lot of the time, these spaces can feel like coming home,” she continues.  There’s a simple beauty in creating a homespace here – despite Berlin’s notorious transience – for people who feel that their very social existence is also transient.

“Whiteness is so pervasive, it’s in all of us,” Jessica says when discussing the theatre scene in Berlin and finding her place in it. “Berlin has a long, rich history of alternative, progressive, radical theatre. The theatre I was seeing here in institutions, like the state theatre, was the most radical theatre I had ever seen in my life, and it still is,” she says. And yet the actors on stage were all white. Back in the United States where Jessica grew up, the stage was more diverse. She now cherrypicks the shows she will attend. “I also go in with the knowledge that I will be one of the only black bodies in the space. I just made a decision to stop going to majority-white spaces. I realise that I felt deeply uncomfortable, but more importantly exhausted by these spaces. Going to openings and being the only black person in the room, I always felt like a peacock. People were always looking at me, commenting, or touching me, my hair or my outfit.”

We work in majority-white spaces, we socialise in majority-white spaces and a lot of us are in relationships with a white person.

Jessica’s experience of her own blackness, particularly as a child, has clearly informed her work in Berlin. “As I was growing up I was never black enough. I was always told that I talked like a white girl by the other black girls in my community. I went to predominantly-white schools and all of my extra curricular activities were also majority-white. All of my social community programmes were majority-black, and those were the spaces I didn’t feel welcome in,” she tells us. This early narrative is replete with experiences that impact not only Jessica’s work in the salon but also her ability to understand others. “That was particularly tough growing up because I also grew up in a pro-black household,” she says. “My mum came in every year to teach Black History Month to my whole school, she started the first black book club in our town, but then I also had this part of myself that didn’t identify with being black because I was being rejected.” Even later at art school, both students and professors nullified her blackness because it did not quite fit the pervasive stereotype. She was frequently cast as ‘the fool’, a subversive character that comments on the play from the margins. They are often intelligent and witty characters – but it wasn’t until a black professor put on a ‘black play’ that Jessica was cast as a leading lady. With the complex interplay of institutional and inter-personal racism, Jessica’s move to Europe made perfect sense. “In Berlin, I was free from all gazes, and in terms of identity I felt that it was a place where I could start over and be who I wanted to be, because in the States there was a certain way to be black.

A lot of people have told me that the salons are a bit like church and a lot of the time, these spaces can feel like coming home.

“The American South is a very special place, it’s a place of warmth and family and bigotry and rampant, rampant unchecked racism, and backwoods and country roads and lawlessness,” Jessica says. Growing up around a certain amount of lawlessness in Florida seems good training for living in Berlin. Jessica points out that both places are built on swamps: “Berlin comes from the Slavic word for ‘swamp’. It’s a place where it is hard to find solid ground, and I think that speaks also to the people here.” It seems, however, that Berlin has stabilised Jessica in her beliefs and passions. She was on her way to the Jacques Lecoq School of Art and Mime in Paris when she first stopped over in Berlin, and never left. She schooled herself instead with alternative theatre in squats and abandoned warehouses. “I felt that it was my classroom,” she says. She plainly loves theatre, but her solid ground atop this marsh of a city is the community of people of colour: “The community really keeps me going: just when I feel like I’m ready to leave or move on, this incredible community is like ‘Wait, no, we’re here.’”

Jessica’s next venture sits at the intersection of her race and gender. It feels like a deeper, more specific iteration of the Black in Berlin series. She explains: “I’m starting a garden, incubation interview series called Muttererde, which actually means ‘topsoil’. I’m going to be interviewing other femmes of colour about their great-grandmothers while gardening, because I don’t know anything about my great-grandmother at all.” She clarifies that the only thing she does know about her great-grandmother is that she passed down her green fingers, inspiring the project’s gardening theme. “I started the garden a month ago,” she continues. “I go there every afternoon. I’ve always had plants in my house but a garden is something different, a really meditative place. We’ll start the interviews and filming in July and then have a screening in late August or early September.” Finding ever-innovative ways to offer marginalised people a space for expression, Jessica’s work invokes not only significance but also longevity. It is a transformational and representative style of social politics that offers a frame for marginalised experiences. She is in Berlin, not only to take all that the city offers, but also to give back what it so badly needs.

Keep up with Jessica and her upcoming projects on her website, thejessicastudy.com