‘Archiving’ and ‘documenting’ tend to evoke memories of history lessons or connote images of dark spaces lined with binders filled with age-old documents, but recorded historical information fuels our popular understanding of history. Therefore, when there is only one national repository for black history and culture in the UK, what can we infer about our history? What does it tell us when black historians like Dr Ashley Farmer write about still feeling “out of place in the archive”, when employees at the few existing black history repositories are “startled that the archive even houses black history records,” let alone confident in the significance of the collections? From the 4th century Ivory Bangle Lady to black women arriving in Britain after World War Two, how can we expect the stories and experiences of black women in the UK to be sufficiently told?
“Black women’s historical narratives are either rendered completely visible under the gaze of whiteness, or an extremely sanitised version that flattens the complexities of our lives is authored by non-black gatekeepers, both within and outside the academy,” historian Jade Bentil tells Refinery29. Over the last three years, Bentil has worked to recover and reclaim black British women’s experiences through oral history interviews, with a focus on the late 1940s to late 1980s. She continues: “For me, tracing the genealogies of black women’s presence and resistance in Britain is not only an act of recovery and reclamation of the histories that have been erased from public record, but it is also an endeavour to fashion fundamentally new ways of even understanding what is meant by the term ‘history’.”
We have to take it upon ourselves to document our own lives because if we don’t do that, our stories will die with us and it will be someone else’s take.Stella dadzie
Beverley Bryan is a political activist, academic and founder of the British Black Women’s Group. Her first writings around black people came out of an activist practice, with a focus on making their conditions more widely known. “I was always involved in trying to communicate what was happening to black people to other black people in community letters so that they would act on that knowledge.”
When the Brixton Black Women’s Group was formed by Bryan, Liz Obi and Olive Morris in the 1970s, it gave them the opportunity and autonomy to focus on the issues of black women within the community. “This did not mean issues where only women were affected but issues like work, education, immigration, health or police harassment,” notes Bryan. “Women came to us with issues from their workplace, incidents in hospitals or health centres; with their care of their children’s case of abuse from the police or schools… This came to the fore and so by the time I came to co-author Heart of the Race, we had the full range of the lives and stories that we could draw on.”
Co-authored by Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, Heart of the Race offers powerful insight into the lives of black British women, tracing their experiences with education, welfare services and work. Described by the Camden New Journal as a “scholarly examination of black women’s position in British society via the prism of slavery, colonialism and migration,” the text, originally written in 1985, has recently been republished as a feminist classic.
Education activist and historian Dadzie notes that Heart of the Race is a clear example of black women coming together to say “this is how we see it from where we stand”. She tells Refinery29: “I think one of the reasons why the book had such resonance with other black women is that we used the collective ‘we’; we told the story from how it felt in our own shoes which was quite rare, given when the book was written.” Dadzie recounts an occasion that demonstrated the impact of their work to her. “When we were launching the book in the mid ’80s, we had an event and there was a black woman in the audience and she was in tears. She said to us, ‘I’ve heard these stories around my grandmother’s table all my life but I’ve never seen it in print.’ It really shows us that we have to take it upon ourselves to document our own lives because if we don’t do that, our stories will die with us and it will be someone else’s take on how our lives evolved and the socioeconomic influences that shaped them.”
In telling our own stories, we are able to finally see black women in all our fullness.jade bentil
Professor Olivette Otele, the UK’s first and only black woman history professor, notes that her work on forming historical knowledge around black women in Britain is driven by a sense of duty, responsibility and urgency. “[Growing up] I didn’t see myself in any books or stories; I didn’t recognise any of the experiences. My grandmother has always been my role model and she told me to look for these stories because no one’s going to give them to you so I followed her advice.”
Through her teaching at Bath Spa University, her public speaking platform and community engagement, Otele retells the stories, memories and legacies of black women who lived in Britain long before us. She believes that we have reached a point where we can now meaningfully create our own historical narratives: “White scholars and researchers can and have worked on the black community but now the time has come for these groups to also acknowledge that one of the ways to support the community is to support the stories told by black women. We’ve learned to move away from the relationship of telling our stories with the white majority; we’re now telling our stories for a community – it’s an intra-community relationship which is deeply powerful.”
Addressing the importance of black British women forming our own histories, both Bryan and Margaret Busby, Britain’s youngest and first black woman book publisher and editor of anthologies Daughter of Africa and New Daughters of Africa, cite a famous African proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Busby adds: “One of the things that happens when someone else is writing the history is that it either excludes people or includes them in a way that makes sense to that person. Their understanding and perspective is different, which leads to stereotypes being repeated and narratives of black people being repeated and circulated that we know to be untrue.”
In telling our own stories, Bentil believes that we are able to finally see black women in all our fullness. She notes: “Narrating our own lives not only provides a counter to the invisibilisation of our histories within colonial institutions, but it seeks to move beyond that disappearance. Who are we when we are with each other? How do we come to know ourselves and how do we navigate life outside the pervasive lens of whiteness?”
Our histories can be found in our dress, hairstyles, songs and dances. We should celebrate that with equal enthusiasm or commitment, just as we celebrate our ability to have a voice through books and written histories.stella dadzie
Looking to the future, Busby believes that not only is it important to have black women writing corrective histories but also to have them in positions where they’re able to publish said histories. “I’m often in spaces where people think it’s more important to be a writer over a publisher but who is going to tell these stories? Who is going to make these stories and histories a priority if we’re relying on white gatekeepers to let them through the door? We need writers, publishers, editors and more. We need to participate in every sphere and be part of the process in every sense so that we can enable other people to pass on those histories.”
So how can we attempt to prevent any further epistemic violence against the histories of black British women? Otele notes the importance of supporting the organisations preserving archives related to our histories, such as the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University in Leicester. For Busby and Bryan, it’s important to focus on the fact that this is a community endeavour from which we may not individually benefit within our lifetimes. Bryan implores black women to “[be] aware of yourself and conscious that it’s not just for you and your career perhaps,” while Busby adds that “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who takes credit because you’re doing something because it needs to be done, not necessarily for you.” Meanwhile, Dadzie reminds us that it’s important to remember that we haven’t always relied on the written word as a primary form of archiving. “Our histories can be found in our dress, hairstyles, songs and dances,” she asserts. “We should celebrate that with equal enthusiasm or commitment, just as we celebrate our ability to have a voice through books and written histories.”
The work that these historians, and many black women like them, are doing to reclaim the stories and experiences of black women in this country is nothing short of essential and transformative, contributing to a wider project of providing us with a fresh way of understanding ourselves, something that Bentil firmly believes: “When black women are positioned not at the margins of history, not as onlookers, but as the original point of radical movements and events, a completely new vision of the world is made possible.”
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