I too am Black and a Feminist: On the importance of Black British Feminism
by Siana Bangura
“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, 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.
(Originally published by Media Diversified, March 2015)
Her Words Will Be Heard: Black British Women, Literary Spaces, and Visibility
“I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. I can only change how they live, not how they think.” – Ntozake Shange
image from Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B: Human Zoo, commissioned by The Barbican Centre.
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.
Scene from Emeke’s ‘Ackee and Salfish’
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 likeCecil 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.
(Originally published on Vs Notebook in December, 2014)
‘THE COLOUR OF MY STRUGGLE’: BLACK FEMINISM AND DOUBLE JEOPARDY IN A WORLD OF WHITENESS
An abridged version of this essay was originally published in the Spring Edition of STRIKE! magazine – a radical, quarterly newspaper dealing with politics, philosophy, art, subversion and sedition – in their celebratory Feminist Issue. It can also be found on the No Fly on the WALL blog.
“I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognise that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.” – Audre Lorde.
I – like Lorde, hooks, Walker, Hill Collins, Davis, Morrison, Malveaux, Beal, and countless other women before me – declare fearlessly, unapologetically, and relentlessly that I am a Black Feminist. I am a woman. I am a member of the working class. I am a person of colour. I am a working class woman of colour and I wish to be accepted in my entirety. And it is only through acknowledging every facet of my complex identity that you will be able to understand my liberations, my incarcerations, my struggles, and my stance. As Lorde also said, ‘…what is important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’ Amongst many things, it was this call to face adversity and have those difficult conversations that first encouraged me, the reluctant feminist, to wear the title for all to see. Having become radicalized at university after one too many ‘you’re pretty for a black girl’ comments and certainly countless occasions when it was argued my gender was more important than my race when it came to ‘the fight’, I was compelled to supersede the former and take on the label of Black Feminist. You see, I have learnt that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because ‘we do not live single-issue lives’ and oppression works across several axes at any one time.
Having been told I am an ‘angry black woman’ – a very damaging and reductive caricature of a black woman who understands (what is more often than not) her difficult position – because I am outspoken, present, and resistant to patriarchy, I know very well the importance of refusing to be silent when people are uncomfortable with your truth. Let’s face it, women, in particular women of colour and working class women have much to be angry about. When Frances Beal wrote of the ‘double jeopardy’ of being both black and female, and offered her powerful analysis of the relationship between capitalism and racism, she spoke of how both were intertwined in denying the humanity of all people, especially the humanity of black people.
When Friedan spoke of “the problem that has no name”, she was not talking about the plight of women who were not like her: white, middle-class, well educated housewives of privilege. She spoke for a select group of women who were bored with leisure, with the home, with children, and with cleaning the house. For some women, this was the “problem that has no name” and the cure for said problem was a career and independence. For most others, being given equal access with white men to the professions would not solve their problems. These women without men, without children, without homes, without time for leisure, non-white women and poor white women did not feature in Friedan’s brave new world. Significantly, the one-dimensional perspective on women’s reality presented in The Feminist Mystique became (and remains) a marked feature of the contemporary Feminist Movement. As bell hooks observes in her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, like Friedan before them ‘white women who dominate feminist discourse today rarely question whether or not their perspective on women’s reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group.’ Arguably it may be impossible to ever to speak of the ‘lived experiences’ of women as a collective group as we are not homogeneous and nor should we be. I cannot assume that the lived experience of a woman like me – a child of a Sierra Leonian single mother, raised in a council flat in South East London, who went on to study History at the University of Cambridge – will be the same as the lived experiences of my female friends, black or otherwise. And I do not ever wish to speak for all women like me, despite sometimes feeling as though those that do not understand and wish to understand, expect me to. I think therefore I am? I speak therefore I speak for all.
And it is this frustrating pigeon-holing of my experiences, particularly at university, that drove me to seek refuge in a movement that argues that sexism, class oppressions, and racism are inextricably bound together, with their relationship being called ‘intersectionality’. Intersectionality itself is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, and so on – are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Third Wave Feminism, especially, thrived on the concept of intersectionality in order to redefine Feminism as inclusive, but fell short. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 who brought the term to wider attention. It is largely used in critical theories, especially Feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression. In the past, I and many other black feminists have been accused of trivialising the experiences of white women because I stand by Walker’s claim, and one of the theories that evolved out of the Black Feminist Movement – Womanism – that black women experience a different, more subversive, and more intense kind of oppression from that of white women. Black Feminist theory has argued that black women are positioned within structures of power in fundamentally different ways to those of white women. The added axes of oppression – race – added to factors of marginalization such as class, gender, and sexuality makes experiences and the consequences of oppression more intense.
Mainstream white feminist theory has neither comprehensively accounted for the economic, racial, ad gender exigencies of black female experiences, nor in many cases tried to. And although in recent times white women have been called to ‘check their privilege’, from my own experience, it is something that many find difficult to do. It takes great understanding of self to be able to imagine yourself in someone else’s position, particularly someone who is completely different to you. It is tough for the majority to put themselves in the position of the minority – not least because of fear and guilt of seeing what you may have knowingly or unknowingly been complicit to. And as is the case when the minority finally has their five minutes in the spotlight, the majority often takes offence and reacts. I’ve been in conversations with white women who claim that ‘check your privilege’ is a tool to exclude them from the Feminist discourse. I find such claims deeply troubling and ironic. In all cases, the privileged – be them white, male, wealthy, well educated, able bodied, and so on – can only struggle alongside the struggling minority (or in some cases the majority) and be true allies if they remove their privilege and see their counterparts as equals.
In December 2013, my friend and comrade at London Black Feminists, Lola Okolosie wrote in the Guardian:
“Within the media, and indeed the movement, there has been much celebration of our feminist resurgence. Yet our success is being marred by infighting. White, middle-class and young women are often seen as the ones spearheading this new wave of activity. Their high-profile campaigns – to have women on banknotes, challenge online misogyny and banish Page 3, for example – though necessary and praiseworthy, do not reflect the most pressing needs of the majority of women, black and minority-ethnic women included. The problem is not that these campaigns exist, but that they are given a focus and attention that overshadows other work feminists are engaged with.”
Her point is profound. Although seemingly contradictory, I advocate that it is important to acknowledge the existence of FeminismS – with a capital “S”. This is not a call to divide (an already fractured) movement, but instead to give centre stage to all groups of women and allow them to speak for themselves and highlight their needs, wants, and what change means to them. My heroine, bell hooks, would raise an eyebrow as she lamented extensively on the disunity and disharmony amongst women who claimed to fight for the rights of women. However, the age-old problem that Feminism has faced is the alienation of most women because of a handful of non-representative voices silencing everyone else. At this point it is worth pointing out that “black” is used throughout in its political sense – that is to denote women, including trans*women, who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin America) and Indigenous and Bi-racial backgrounds. Groups such as London Black Feminists and Southall black sisters use this definition in the work they do, which is important to note. The term is indeed inclusive and further emphasises that on a global scale, white women would be considered the minority. Interestingly, as written about in an article by Lianne De Mello, editors of a prominent Feminist publication, The Vagenda, in 2012 had the audacity to claim in a blog entry in New Statesman that “feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class movement.” They also expressed their concerns over “issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and privilege… fracturing feminist dialogue.”
And there are those who question why we are irate? No matter how well meaning, women like Caitlin Moran and Laurie Penny have all put their foot it in it at some point and dismissed intersectionality as an unnecessary consideration in Feminist theory. Intersectionality may be an academic term that has spilled into common usage among many feminists, but that does not mean that the concept it refers to isn’t real and worthy of discussion. In Who Said It Was Simple, Lorde ends by musing:
‘But I who am bound by my mirror/ as well as my bed/ see causes in colour/ as well as sex/ and sit here wondering which me will survive/ all these liberations.’
Which ‘me’ will survive all these liberations? Which part of my whole must I sacrifice in order to attain equality? Which part will survive the revolution that has not been led by me? Which part of my whole must be silenced so as not to ‘fracture’ the Feminist dialogue? The failure to accept the struggle of our sisters in their entirety seeks to threaten the overall success of the Feminist movement and will continue to alienate those who are on the sidelines, who watch and feel that they have no ownership of or part to play in the conversation. Lorde wrote that “The failure of academic feminists to recognise difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower” is true now as it was then.
She goes on to say, “We welcome all women who can meet us, face to face, beyond objectification and beyond guilt.” Black Feminism does not exists to divide. It exists because there is no room in the mainstream for the voices of women of the “black” diasporas. It exists because prominent white feminists on the left, and opponents of any movement promoting equality persist to silence the voices of those sharing opinions that do not fit into their understanding and analysis of the female experience. Black feminism exists because for the most part, the mainstream Feminist Movement is transphobic. It exists because white privilege is real and it is only through accepting this and endeavouring to rid oneself of such privileges that we will be able to struggle together as sisters who accept that we are not homogeneous. I spoke at a conference to celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this year and Baroness Flather – a no nonsense, fierce, teacher and politician – said something extremely significant and rather sad because it is so true: “Women do not support women”. Constant in fighting between different groups within the movement will only serve to keep us fractured. The ultimate aim is a united sisterhood, which will nurture a movement that is part of a greater struggle and more noble cause: The struggle for equality for all.
And just as we started, so too we will finish with a few wise words from my “black-lesbian feminist mother lover poet” heroine, Lorde:
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences.”