Great Britain

Identity and Liberation: How 21st-century Black British women have worked to create a better future

F

rom the literary to the academic world, black women continue to bring their unique experiences to the table.

Black British women are standing on the shoulders of those who paved the way for black female voices in the UK, including Claudia Jones, Olive Morris, Baroness Doreen Lawrence and politicians Baroness Valerie Amos, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler at a national level, and women doing outstanding work at regional and local levels such as Asher Craig, Cleo Lake, Jendayi Serwah, Sado Jirde, Marti Burgess, Marie-Annick Gournet, Peaches Golding, Latoya McAllister, Rebecca Scott and many others.

These women are celebrated and acknowledged in the remarkable work, both high profile and smaller scale, carried out by black activists, scholars, artists, hairdressers, business owners, mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers, from all walks of life and all across the country. All of these women are constantly reshaping the narratives of isolation, single parenthood and pain that people may associate with black women.  

Black women in Britain are taking up space, as exemplified by the popular self-help guidebook of that name for black girls and women published in 2019 by Chelsea Kwankye and Ore Ogunbiyi, or the scholarly work produced by Denise Noble, Lisa Palmer or Akwugo Emejulu. Black women have also been at the forefront of debates on issues that have not been tackled within the black community in Britain, as typified by the interventions of black feminist Jade Bentil on the subject of working-class black women’s activism.

Others, like psychologist Guilaine Kinouani and actress, entrepreneur and dancer Kelechi Okafor, use social media to share ideas and challenge everyday racism. These women speak at festivals and write about gender and equality, community activism, sexual orientation and discrimination. Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah (or Lady Phyll) cofounded UK Black Pride, and Paula Akpan and Nicole Krystal founded the first Black Girl Festival in London in 2017.  

Black European women can therefore be found in all areas, as activists and as scholars. These women are refusing to talk about race in apologetic ways when they are often on the receiving end of racial harassment. They are occupying places that were not assigned to them, in some instances leaving areas in which they thrived to become social and political commentators.  

One example is Bonnie Greer, who was born in the USA and made Britain her home over three decades ago. Black British identity is multiple. It is not constructed solely around the heritage of one’s ancestors or parents, but is also intertwined with one’s partner, one’s home and the effects of resettling and building a new life. It is about the notion of home and a sense of belonging.  

One can feel both African American and Black British, as demonstrated by the lives of women such as Greer. A notable number of African Americans settled in Europe and were able to reach fame in Paris through their connections to the world of entertainment. Other men and women found a propitious terrain in Europe for mobilising groups to fight for social justice and against racism. Ollie Harrington, William Gardner Smith, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Jean Sindab have spent years in Paris, London, Berlin, Switzerland and elsewhere.  

[...] The lives of these well-known African American women and men should not, however, obscure those of many others who travelled to Europe as enslaved servants or free black men and women over centuries. Some spent just a few years there, while others made it their home. Some were soldiers who had children and left to return to the United States after the First or Second World War. Many never knew they were parents, and left dual heritage children who were raised in multicultural cities and communities in London, Cardiff and other places. Black and dual-heritage girls and boys of African American descent are also part of the British history of migration, identity and citizenship. Some of them have been living in multicultural, marginalised enclaves, and have redefined the identity of these places.  

Tiger Bay, now known as Butetown or Cardiff Bay, is a vibrant hub where many people from across the globe settled. The place is a palimpsest of histories. These histories have never been forgotten, but they made the national headlines when thousands of people voted in a BBC Wales poll to have a statue of Betty Campbell erected in Cardiff city centre.  Betty passed away at the age of 87 in 2017. She was Wales’s first black headteacher. Her firm, fair and warm approach to teaching, as well as her extraordinary dedication to her community and to teaching children from all walks of life, has been the pride and joy of many in Wales.  

Betty was a committed educator, a music lover and an incredible activist whose background reflected the history of multicultural Wales, black Britain and African Europe. She was born in Cardiff in 1934 to a working-class Welsh Barbadian mother and Jamaican father. Betty grew up, was educated and taught in Cardiff. She was fiercely in love with the city, but was not blind to its inequalities and to the work that needed to be done to improve children’s lives. Concerned with education for all children as well as the representation of minority ethnic groups, she believed that one had to be part of advisory or policymaking boards in order to make a positive change. She was a councillor for her ward and became a member of the Race Relations Board (1972–76) and the Home Office Race Advisory Committee. Betty’s story is a black Welsh story.  

There are many other black Welsh, black Scottish and black Northern Irish men and women whose stories are known and whose lives and contributions are yet to be widely shared. Those dedicated black community members are still alive, and have been relentlessly working towards a better present and future for their families and their communities. They have been working to improve the lives of all black men and women in Britain.

Olivette Otele is the UK's first black female professor of history. She is history of slavery professor at Bristol University as well as vice-president of the Royal Historical Society

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