The Equiano Centre


August 2012

Passing on the Baton

Black British Feminism - a relay of collaboration

guest blog Nwakaego Ahaiwe

In October 2011 Joan Anim-Addo, Professor of Caribbean Literature and Culture,  organized  Black British Feminism, Then and Now held at Goldsmiths College, University of London.  The event built upon the conversations and reflections which took place at Goldsmiths on the legacy of Audre Lorde.

Speakers at the Black British Feminism, Then and Now event, October 2011

Joan was keen to plan a seminar for Black History Month and within the UN International Year for People of African Descent.  The October 2011 event included speakers, smaller group workshops and discussions. Those who took part as speakers were Heidi Mirza, a Professor of Equality Studies in Education; Ingrid Pollard, a visual artist who explores heritage and hidden histories; Dr Aisha K. Gill, a Reader in Criminology who focuses on black, minority ethnic and refugee women's experiences; and myself, a community activist and heritage worker.  The day was sponsored by Feminist Review, which celebrated its 100th edition in March 2012.  The event was targeted at those who "see themselves as feminists/ are inclined towards feminism and who perhaps find themselves with more questions than answers, particularly about the place of Black British lives, voices, and representation in relation to feminism."

Having worked for many years within voluntary women's grass-roots activism within South London through this work I have been involved in black women's activism in Brixton and the surrounding area.  In working with organisations seeking to challenge racism and sexism, I increasingly began to see the importance of archiving this long history of black women's struggles in London.  As a result I chose to study to become an archivist.  I am now a student at UCL's Department of Information Studies.

Recent projects such as the 'Remembering Olive Collective' and 'Heart of the Race: Black Women's Oral Histories' (inspired by the 1980s book Heart of the Race by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe), groups like the Black Feminist Group, and exhibitions such as the Women's Library 'Archival Tales: Uncovering Inter-war Black Histories' and 'Striking Women: Voices of South Asian workers from Grunwick and Gate Gourmet' have highlighted the resurgence of this living history, but there is significant work still to do.       

Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race - Black Women's Lives in Britain, 1985, reproduced by permission of Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group

For me right now it is hard to ignore this surrounding rich history, that is beginning to be explored. It's the 'Then and Now' that attracts me, the opportunity to actively and collectively bring them together, through these various projects and exhibitions; revisiting this history and in particular the collections that do exist with the aim of understanding our present experience as Black women in the UK today. I am looking forward to group visits for example to Lambeth Archives where the Olive Morris Collection is held and of exploring fundamental questions, with an understanding that there is no uniformity of experience and that there are different ways of seeing and experiencing life.

Early this summer as promised, Joan put another call out to those who attended the October symposium to continue the dialogue; my response was 'I'm in!' as often at these events it never feels like enough time, and it always feels like you are just beginning to scratch the surface. It was appealing to have the opportunity to reconnect with the women and discussions. A second gathering is planned for this October to continue the exploration creatively with the aim to document the experience and to further engage others. The 'We are Here' gathering is to use this history to give ourselves context in the present, by researching collectively and having time to be reflective. In 2014, it will be 30 years since the Feminist Review published Issue 17 - Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives. This edition included pieces on Black Women Organising Autonomously, Challenging Imperial Feminism and Asian Women in the Making of History.  Is it time to consider what a 21st century equivalent issue would contain or look like?

The questions I explored last year at the seminar were around imagining what a Black British Feminist Archive would look like, is there a need for one, where would it be best placed, what should be in it and how do we identify what is already in existence scattered around many archives and in people's personal collections. I often liken this to playing fantasy football. Having been involved with both the Remembering Olive Collective and Heart of the Race I soon started to get the sense that black women had yet to be asked of their experiences and contributions and thus many stories are yet to be recorded. I am interested in documenting those stories which are yet to be explored and shared collectively and the preservation of this history. Our aims are simple at this point, firstly to create a space, time and platform in order to begin to learn more about Black British Feminism, document creatively and share.  Watch this space.