‘Sisterhood empowers women by respecting, protecting, encouraging, and loving [them]’, bell hooks declared in 1982 in her exploration of black women and Feminism.
By default, when speaking about Black Feminism most will turn to bell hooks or Audre Lorde or another African American woman and quote her words and experiences. A quick trip to Google will confirm the extent of which Black Feminism has an African American face. Like many (young) women of colour, when I first became ‘radicalised’ or ‘conscious’, and sought to (re)claim the label ‘Feminist’, I found comfort in the words of titans like hooks, Lorde, Truth, Hill-Collins, Walker, and countless other African-American women who were at the vanguard of the movement, challenging the patriarchy of white (and black) men, as well as the racism of white women in the Feminist movement. It is much harder to find a comprehensive list of Black British Feminists than a list of African-American feminists of the past and present. Having spent my degree learning about the victories of the Suffragettes and the bravery of white women such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Mary Wollstonecraft in Britain, and the importance of women such as Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steneim, and Sheila Rowbotham in America, it was exciting, empowering, and uplifting to discover the voices of these self-defining black women who spoke my truth and put a spotlight on (some of) my own experiences.
However, I have been plagued by the fact that the Black British female experience isn’t as widely studied and well documented as that of the African-American woman’s. As Professor Heidi Mirza says, ‘the question of how black British feminism can foster group solidarities while recognising differences is a perennial one’, as is the question of representation.
As with all aspects of black life, American voices are louder—from literature to music to visual art, television and the world of social media—the black American experience is conflated with the experience of every other black person in the West. The single-narrative strikes again.
At university, my friends and I often wondered who would be counted as the British equivalent of hooks and Walker in terms of prominence (and volume of output). We also philosophised over the question of even needing a British equivalent—we already had the titans; but diversity is important. Just as black women strike a difference between the ways in which we experience sexism in comparison to our white counterparts due to the colour of our skin, we must also understand that racism will manifest itself in different ways depending on which part of the Diaspora we reside in. There are women like Heidi Mirza, one of the first women of colour academics and the editor of a collection of essays called Black British Feminism, and Nydia Swaby of SOAS working tirelessly in academic spaces, as well as Joan Anim-Addo, Professor of Caribbean Literature and Culture at Goldsmiths, and Lola Okolosie of the London Black Fems who are also consistently placing a focus on the Black British female experience.
There are a growing number of young Black British creatives using their talents to voice their struggles and document the lived experiences of women like themselves living in Britain today. When filmmaker Cecile Emeke took her well-loved ‘Strolling’ series to Paris (‘Flâner’) one of the young black women she interviewed made the acute point that if American voices are the loudest and British voices are the quietest, then the voices of black people in Europe, places like France, Germany, Spain and Italy, are completely silent. I remember being struck by this. Whilst we complain about being silenced by white people, we too silence, or at least ignore members of our wide Diaspora and ignore in particular the voices of black women outside of the UK and America. But by documenting our stories for ourselves we are at least making strides towards a more diverse documentation of the many black experiences.
At the Women of the World Festival in London I had the pleasure of meeting award-winning writer and American Feminist, Feminista Jones. I discussed the fact that it often feels like our American sisters are either not listening or are still unaware of the experiences of their sisters in the UK and in Europe. She sympathised and agreed more needs to be done to encourage cross-border learning but also spoke of Americentrism and the reluctance to move away from viewing the world solely through an American lens.
In Britain, an increasingly documented ‘Black Renaissance’ is upon us and young black people are reclaiming their heritage, reclaiming their roots, and demanding to be heard. We are subverting the status quo and working at grassroots levels to organise. Social media has played a big part in this revolution, bringing the Diaspora closer, especially through use of platforms such as Twitter. The most powerful thing marginalised groups can do is organise together, unite their resources, and congregate in discussion. In October 2013, Priscilla Mensah, the recently elected Cambridge University Student Union president, organised ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women’ – a panel discussion in Cambridge, which put a focus on black women’s, including Black British women’s, lived experiences. And on Saturday March 14th, The Body Narratives, a UK-based not-for-profit organisation dedicated to curating, documenting and archiving the narratives of Women of Colour, are hosting a conference on Black British Feminism at the Black Cultural Archives, in Brixton. It will be an opportunity to explore Black British womanhood and trace black feminist journeys and legacies into the present through intergenerational dialogue, reflection, and a return to an activist-centred movement.
It is vital that we have more safe spaces in which to share our experiences and organise for action. Organisations such as The Body Narratives and London Black Fems, platforms such as No Fly on the WALL, collectives such as Ain’t I A Woman, and coalitions such as Southall Black sisters are doing their part to put a spotlight on the experiences of Black British women.
It has been 18 years since Professor Heidi Mirza’s book was published and 30 years since The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverely Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe. The time for expanding the resources focusing on the Black British female experience is now. For too long we have been on the sidelines, learning from our American sisters and seeking comfort in their boldness to speak out against white supremacy, even in a movement that supposedly calls for the equality of all people.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Black British Feminism evolved as a political project, and in the 1980s and 1990s it flourished as a critical theoretical project, concerned with a micro, or localized, analysis of the mechanisms that promote, contest, and resist racist logics and practices in the everyday lives of the collectively constituted ‘black woman’, with Kimberlé Crenshaw—an African-American woman—coining the term ‘Intersectionality’. Today, Black British Women are demanding to be centred in discussions of black womanhood and Feminism.
I am very grateful to the women who came before me and the African-American feminists who gave me the strength to (re)claim the title Feminist at a time when I was disillusioned and lost in my search for identity and space to be visible. But black womanhood is by no means homogeneous. We learn a great deal from listening to the experiences of others. By constantly (un)learning, we can become better allies, better women, better members of society, and most importantly, better members of the global sisterhood. To all the Black British women out there, I say stand up and take the microphone. The world stage is finally ours too and for the first time in a long time, there are people watching, listening, and waiting to learn from us.
‘Black British Feminism: Past, Present and Futures’ is a one-day conference taking place on March 14th 2015 in Brixton in collaboration with the Black Cultural Archives and Chardine Taylor-Stone. It attempts to trace black feminist journeys and legacies into the present. Centred on intergenerational dialogue, the interactive programme encourages reflection, celebration and a return to an activist-centred movement.
For more information, visit: The Body Narratives
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Hailing from London – Via Freetown – Siana Bangura is a History graduate of the University of Cambridge, a writer, blogger, journalist, and Black British Feminist. She is the founder and editor of No Fly on the WALL, a platform to discuss, celebrate, and engage with Intersectional Feminism, with a special focus on the voices of Black British women’s experiences. Follow her on Twitter @sianaarrgh
For more, visit: www.noflyonthewall.com and online at: www.dontgotheresiana.com
- “Complicit No More” (mediadiversified.org)
- Black British feminism then and now (mediadiversified.org)