It takes a lot of confidence to be this ridiculous.
“I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet ” – Ntozake Shange
There is a need and there is an audience for the voices of women of colour in the arts, particularly in literature. As with so many things in life, the creative world, at least in the West, more often than not has the face of a privileged white man. And when it does have the face of a woman of colour, she is more likely than not to be speaking with an African-American voice. Where are the British women of colour in the world of poetry? Where are the voices sharing the Black-British female experience? Although our voices are still a minority, things are looking promising and a cultural shift is taking place.
Carving out our own spaces in our societies is vital. Carving out our own spaces in the creative world is just as necessary if we are to tell our stories from our eye-witness perspective. Audre Lorde reminded us that “If [we] didn’t define [ourselves] for [ourselves], [we] would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for [us] and eaten alive.”
When we are not represented by ourselves, white privileged men like Brett Bailey step into the black hole and create pieces of ‘art’ that serve to exploit African history, instead of celebrating it. They present us as fixed in one moment of history for all time, deliberately and crassly ignoring agency and the rich and vast history of the diaspora and its Motherland, ‘crunching’, particularly the black female body, into a fantasy and fetish for white gazes.
I ran a workshop recently at this year’s Feminism in London conference at the Institute of Education with the aim of introducing the attendees to the work of some of my favourite poets. I started off by asking them to write down the names of female poets of colour that they already knew of and sure as hell, most of the names were of African-American women, the great Maya Angelou being a name that came up several times. I shared the works of writers such as Yrsa Daley-Ward (Nigerian, Jamaican, British) and Patience Agbabi (Nigerian, British), who write about their experiences as LGBTQI women of colour, as well as issues of abandonment, family life, and identity. Along with Dorothea Smartt (Bajan, British), Agbabe writes about black hair – an interestingly political subject. Malika Booker (Grenadian, Guyanese, British) writes colourfully and sensually about her life as a black British woman of Caribbean descent. Chinwe Azubuike, a Nigerian writer and poet writes of the experiences of widowhood and the harrowing rituals women who lose their husbands endure.
As for women of my own generation, London in particular is home to extremely talented Black British women reinventing the poetic voice: London’s Young Poet Laureate, Warsan Shire, is widely celebrated and writes extensively about life as a Kenyan born Somali-British woman; Belinda Zhawi shares her experiences of life in Zimbabwe and London; Sophia Thakur, of The True Family (TTF), is raw, gritty, and honest in her performance style and chosen subject matters, earning herself a popular and growing group of fans who are investing in the spoken word movement; up-and-coming performers such as Rae Levine, Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan, Selina Nwulu, Ra Ra, SGJP, Myah Jeffers (from the rising spoken word scene in Birmingham) and so many more are all using the written and spoken word as vehicles to tell their stories, and in the case of women like Cecile Emeke, using film to accompany their messages and directly address their audiences.
As Daley-Ward concluded, “Art by British female artists of colour has been virtually, invisible. [But] things are slowly improving. I’m now able to view emerging playwrights, directors, acts writers – women of colour artists in general and I’m proud to be one of them. There is a long, long way to go, but I’m encouraged.” The path is indeed a long one, but strides have been made and for Black British female writers of colour such as myself, it is encouraging to know that our words will be heard and our HERstories will continue to be written. By us and for us. Anything less is simply no longer an option.
This piece was originally published in VS Notebook on December 15th, 2014