‘The Colour of My Struggle’: Black Feminism and Double Jeopardy in a World of Whiteness

An abridged version of this article 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. This extended article is republished with permission.

An ongoing struggle and point of tension within the Feminist movement is the subject of race and how this intersection in particular has a significant effect on the experiences of women of colour in the UK and abroad. This tension has been written about extensively by esteemed Feminists of colour such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins (notice how these prominent names are names of American women and not women of colour from the UK – another issue and another conversation entirely) but still, in 2014, women of colour are battling one-sided mainstream dialogues of the ‘women’s experience’, fighting to put a spotlight on some of the traumas, challenges, and daily struggles they experience based on the colour of their skin. And although there are white Feminists who have acknowledged and checked their privilege, there are still far too many who refuse to do so and it is this refusal that threatens to damage any potential for a unified movement – something that has been difficult to achieve since the sixties and seventies.

Although bell hooks might take issue with a call for accepting FeminismS, it is necessary to accept that for each woman, equality means something unique to her wants, needs, and priorities and revolution may come in different guises. Women are not a homogeneous group and yet we are often spoken about as if we are. When the brave decide to speak out against such white-washing, derogatory caricatures, such as the well-known ‘Angry Black Woman’ stereotype are thrown around in order to shame and silence them. It is against this backdrop that Black Feminism has come to be and in all respects is flourishing as a legitimate political movement. Out of necessity, frustration, and the desire for their own voice, women of colour – the politically ‘black’ – are adding to the Feminist dialogue more publicly and more loudly than ever before. In this post, the debut from the founder of No Fly on the WALL, Siana Bangura, we explore the so-called ‘double jeopardy’ of being black and being female, the myth of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ and why it is a damaging stereotype, as well as why gender discrimination works alongside racial discrimination to ensure black women are not seen as equal to white women, even in the Feminist movement – a radical movement that is supposed to call for equality for all people regardless of their gender (and race, sexual orientation, class, and so on). 

 

“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.”

‘Defining Myself for Myself’: On Turning Thirty

Milestones come in all shapes and sizes. On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, Yvonne Maxwell shares her thoughts on her journey to self-acceptance, discovering her sense of self, and defining what that all means on her terms.

 

In a matter of hours I turn thirty.

In the months and weeks leading up to my birthday, I have constantly been asked how I feel about it. Cue panic mode, mini existential crisis, and staring at yourself in the mirror asking: “what have I done with my life? What have I achieved?”

As women, we are often reminded of our biological clocks and impending expiration. Family members have often exclaimed “Gosh! You’re 29; you should be settled down by now”. My response to this unwelcome commentary on my life ranges from awkward laughter to my infamous side-eye. But why do we allow these forces and people to influence our journeys and choices?

Why is the focus never on finding and cultivating meaningful connections with people worthy of us?

Why is the focus never on defining who we are, for ourselves?

I’ve had a very turbulent, but amazing journey so far when it comes to self-discovery. However, in the past, I have been guilty of swaying to the influences of other people, particularly in friendships. There have been many instances where I didn’t speak up for myself and what I wanted. Whether it was an opinion on men, fashion, or food; I never seemed to have the courage to speak up. This lead to a cycle of toxic friendships and relationships, with scars still visible to this day. When I finally chose to walk away from those attachments and cut ties, I decided to fight for who I wanted to be. When it comes to friendship and sisterhood, you matter, and you deserve friendships that benefit you and nurture and protect your happiness, as well as your identity and sense of self.

Today, I can honestly say that I have the most UH-MAZING group of sisters around me! These stunning black women have surrounded me with love, security, and strength. They’ve taught me that I should not be afraid to lay out my expectations of friendships. For the first time, I have people in my life who respect who I am choosing to be, actively helping me become the best version of myself. For the first time ever, I have people in my life who let me be the full spectrum of who I am – every tone and every shade.

And healthy friendships are not the only relationships that matter. Finding a partner who fosters your individuality and allows you to be the person you are at every stage of life is important; and although it may sound somewhat utopian, love is out there and can come at any age. I’m recently engaged to a truly exceptional man, whose love and support blows me away each day. Having someone who is in full support of my journey of growth, exploration and self-definition is an amazing feeling. There is a lot of pressure on women to do everything within their power to “keep a man”, have him fed, satisfied and knocked out cold after several rounds of acrobatic sex. Sure! Despite having an amazing man, I have had to teach myself that my wellbeing and needs are important. There may be some superwomen out there who provide this level of care constantly, but I’m not one of them and that’s okay. Sometimes I get headaches. Sometimes, I just can’t be asked. Sometimes, I don’t feel sexy.

In fact, a large part of coming to terms with who I am can be attributed to my physical appearance. I haven’t aged that much on my face (and I pray that the mighty melanin gods continue to bless me), but I’m slowly accepting that my body will change over time. This, for me, means learning to be unafraid to embrace my size and say “this is what I look like; this is me as a curvy black woman, and the world and its standards that say that I’m not beautiful are wrong”. However, I’m also learning to be more honest with myself in regards to how I feel about certain aspects of my body, and taking positive steps where possible towards physical and mental wellbeing. My health must take precedent over any aesthetic ideal. I am still on a journey of self-acceptance, and like many woman, have my good and bad days but it’s easy to get sucked into unhealthy cycles of dieting and excessive exercising when trying to achieve the media’s ideal of the “perfect body”.

I definitely see a correlation between how I feel about my body and my confidence to freely express myself sexually. I recall early on in my relationship feeling very self-conscious and uncomfortable in my nakedness. I’m learning to love my curves and love the fact that my partner loves my curves, which has given me the space to grow and explore my sensuality. My steps to refine my sexual prowess have only been possible because I have a partner who is completely comfortable in his sexuality. He’s not judgmental, he nurtures my desire to explore and grow sexually, and I now feel completely free to express and explore all facets of my sexual desires. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve become unafraid to explore my sexual limits and unleash the freak within. There is a whole world of sex and sensuality out there for the taking (and giving), and what I’m seeing online is a rise of black women taking ownership or their sexuality on their own terms, and owning their sexual experiences. In this freedom comes joy.

And black female joy matters.

There is great importance in living and doing the things that enrich and bring you happiness. Those are the things that really matter and they are what should be documented. Your expression of happiness is a form a protest, it is joy in a world that wants to deprive you of that. Black joy is protest. I find a lot of my happiness in food, and have early memories of cooking with both my mother and Grandma. Food has always signified happiness for me; it has always signified home, community and love, and is something that I hope to continue to use to connect.

The future is open to be redefined over and over again, and you are never too old to change your life. I encourage you as black women to be critical of your own negative thoughts and views of yourself, because sometimes your eyes and mind are not your friends. Be kind to yourself!

So, to anybody who is approaching the age of thirty…do not underestimate the power of self-reflection. Do not be afraid to evaluate the quality of your relationships, or to redefine your terms of love for the people you allow into your life. Do not see age as a limit on how much and what you can achieve. And do not be afraid to challenge your views of success, and where they come from.

Define yourself for yourself.

 

Yvonne Maxwell is a food writer and food blogger from South London. Catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cover Image by Mikela Henry-Lowe.

 

No Fly on the WALL Turns THREE on Friday 8th July 2016!

It’s that time of the year again… your favourite hub for (un)learning turns THREE next Friday and in true No Fly fashion, we’re celebrating by getting some of our friends and allies together to have important and thought provoking discussions.

Join us at Common House on Friday 8th July as we celebrate another milestone. Book your FREE ticket by CLICKING HERE.

Three years of flyness, resistance, defiance, (un)learning, taking up space unapologetically, creating safe spaces monthly for marginalised members of our community to gather together, running workshops, giving talks, hosting events, and centring the voices of Black British women and Black women living in the UK.

The night’s proceedings will kick off with an intimate conversation between No Fly on the WALL’s founder, Siana Bangura, and writer, photographer, and filmmaker Jendella Benson.

This conversation will be followed by a panel discussion on being ‘Generation Clipped Wing’, ‘Generation Clapback’, and ‘Generation #Brexit’. How do we resist and refuse erasure? We will discuss gentrification and the increasingly hostile nature of our cities, newly legitimised Fascism in the UK, racism, anti-blackness, identity politics and how all of this affects our mental health. We will also explore our DIY cultures and the things we create for ourselves. How do multiple marginalised voices come together and fight a common enemy without erasing each other’s individual struggles? Can we enter a new age of allyship? After all, black women do not exist in isolation, but in multiple different communities simultaneously.

Joining us for this lively discussion will be:

Grace Almond – Student at Royal Holloway and Vice President of Royal Holloway University’s WoC Collective

Chama Kay – Spoken word performer and mental health blogger and advocate

Amit Singh – Co-founder of Consented UK and political commentator

Rai Rafiq – Co-host of Mostly Lit Podcast on ShoutOut Network

Alex Holmes – Journalist and co-host of Mostly Lit Podcast on ShoutOut Network

The panel will be chaired by Siana Bangura.

Throughout the night there will be opportunities for audience participation and Q&As.

There will also be birthday cake, wine, and light nibbles. Signed copies of ‘Elephant’ by Siana Bangura will also be available to purchase on the night.

Missed last year’s event? Check out photos from last year here and here and watch our short film by Troy Aidoo here.

See you there!

#NFotWat3
Book your FREE tickets here.

In Conversation with Rudy Loewe

The next No Fly on the WALL event is a zine making workshop with radical non-binary independent artist Rudy Loewe. In the lead up to this, we had a quick chat with them to find out what made them start zine making and how they use it, and encourage others, to reclaim their narratives. And yes… we did not let #LEMONADE pass us by either.

 

NFotW: How did you start zine making and why?

RL: I started making zines when I was at art school. There were lots of people making art zines, but I didn’t really get into more DIY zines until after I left. I had lots of things I wanted to create a space for in my work – like mental health, racism, trauma – and making zines seemed like a good way to do this. Within the arts and in publishing, there is lots of gatekeeping and so it’s very empowering to take the narrative into our own hands.
I have been influenced by people like bell hooks, Assata Shakur and Paulo Friere to do much of the work I do. I remember bell hooks discussing in one of her books how her publisher couldn’t see the relevance of her work for a white audience. I am not interested in how white people view my work. I make work for people like me and I don’t want to have to justify that to people who can’t see why that’s important. 

Rudy Loewe 2

NFotW: How has using zines to tell your story/ stories empowered you?

RL: When I first told people I wanted to make memoir comics, I often was told “what could you have to say, you’re so young”. But often people who have experienced oppression will have had  experiences that more privileged people might not have. I didn’t listen to all the people who questioned why I wanted to make work about my own life. I started making comics about childhood trauma and I found this to be a very moving experience. It helped me to process some of the things that had happened and create a starting point to talk with other people who had similar experiences. I think people having control over our own narratives is very important. History is always told through someone’s lens and this should be our own. If we let other people tell our stories, we can’t expect them to be told how we would tell them. 

NFotW: Beyonce recently dropped ‘Lemonade’ – a powerful visual and poetic masterpiece. As a non-binary femme queer identifying Black creative, what does work like that mean to you and your narrative, if anything? 

RL: I’m still processing my feelings about ‘Lemonade’. I have some conflicted feelings about it that I need to mull over. But I appreciate the kinds of conversations that Beyonce creates through her work and what she represents to many people. Our contexts are so vastly different, I don’t create a link between the work that we are doing as creatives. The impact on my narrative and creative process comes from my community/ the people around me and those that share a much more similar context. I don’t expect the context that I’m working in to change because of work like Lemonade. What I would say is that Beyonce is responding to a number of topics that have been spoken about for a while within certain black platforms and the fact that those conversations are happening in the first place has some bearing on my work. For example the power of black Twitter promoting black girl magic and then placing my Medusa comic in the context of black girl magic and then the way that work is viewed because of this link.

Beyonce lemonade

NFotW: How can we as black people ‘take back’ our complex, multifaceted, layered narratives, especially those of us that mostly exist in very white spaces?

RL: It’s important that we don’t create homogeneous narratives. There needs to be an awareness of the multiplicity within black experience. We can’t expect for the same story to be told again and again. Even within representations of black life there will be dominant narratives and we need to look at who’s narratives it is that are dominant and who’s is getting left behind. We need to make space for each other.
For those in white spaces I think it’s often about linking with people outside of that space. Understanding how to exist within and outside of those spaces. Being a black person in a white space can be really unhealthy and isolating so I think it’s important that we find ways to feel supported, without expecting that to come from white peers.
Also we need to have spaces for our own narratives, not always just trying to get them into white spaces/ institutions. One of the most empowering things I heard about regarding publishing was how some black bookshops used to publish local black writers. This kind of thing amazes me because in some ways it’s so simple but such a great thing to do. 

Zines by Rudy Loewe

NFotW: Why is it important for marginalised voices to gather together in communion and take up space?

Being marginalised can be considered an action. It’s being pushed out of our neighbourhoods via gentrification, it’s being kicked out of schools. So when marginalised people gather together and take up space, it’s a resistance to being marginalised. It’s a radical way to work against being displaced in our communities. Through conversations, events, meeting each other, we can build radical resistance. We live in a time when community spaces are being shut down all over the country, which is a particularly divisive way of breaking down communities. So when we take up space together we are saying ‘okay, you might take away our space, but we will find another way to come together’. And that’s really powerful. 

 

Rudy Loewe creates their work through drawing comics, illustrations and zines. They graduated in 2010 from Brighton University with a BA (Hons) Illustration degree. Rudy has exhibited in spaces such as the Southbank Centre, Stuart Hall Library and EFA Project Space New York. They currently collaborate as part of Collective Creativity- a group of artists focused on creating dialogue around queer artists of colour and black arts history. Rudy lives in South East London and is starting an MA in Visual Communication in Stockholm in the autumn.  

www.rudyloewe.com || www.rudyloewe.etsy.com || @RudyLoewe

And check out and support Rudy’s kickstarter campaign HERE.

**Event** SHEroes of No Fly on the WALL: Celebrating Black British Female Performers

We are proud to announce that the next SHEroes of No Fly on the WALL event is next week! Once again we’re celebrating Black British female talent. Join us on Thursday 24th March at The Star of King’s. Taking to the stage will be Siana Bangura, Dylema, and Antonia Jade King, who will be sharing their candid and hard hitting poetry; and singers Savannah Dumetz and Janel Antoneisha will also be showcasing their stunning vocals with our guests. Don’t miss out on what promises to be a fantastic night of Black British female talent and an awesome way to see in the Easter Bank holiday weekend!

Book your tickets HERE.

And check out our last event here.

SHEroes of No Fly on the WALL Poster 4 - correct date

Workshop: ‘Read All About It!’ – Exploring Depictions of Black Womanhood in Women’s Magazines

The No Fly on the WALL Academy held its latest workshop – this time it was led by journalist and editor of Black Ballad, Tobi Oredein. This workshop, the first of an on going series of workshops by guest facilitators, explored the visibility of Black women in British and International magazines as well as the way in which Black women are depicted in the few instances we are present. In this post Tobi reflects on her experiences of planning and facilitating the session and what she learnt from it.

 

I was recently set a task that overwhelmed me with feelings of excitement and fear. That task was to lead a group of black women in an in depth conversation about black womanhood and magazines. Since the first magazine was printed, women who look like me have been constantly told that we’re not worthy to be considered ‘womanly’. So to sit in a group of black women on a Saturday morning and not only assess this ‘fact’, but see what we can do to right this wrong, was an unforgettable experience. Why? Because the black women in my session came with ideas and opinions of how we can push the media forward on our own terms. 

No Fly on the WALL created a space that morning where black women could look each other in the eye and feel the unspeakable solidarity that black women are accustomed to when we are determined to break down the barriers of whiteness and put our black womanhood on a pedestal.

In this space, we reminisced about the first magazines we bought (Smash Hits, Sugar and 17), and candidly discussed why the black magazines were not on the shop shelves. That morning was dedicated to finding solutions of what we can do, to not just make the mainstream listen, but where we can look to, to nourish our souls with images and words that are for and by black women.

Over oranges, orange juice and of course cookies, we created content that we would like to see in publications. We dissected which type of black women were allowed into these publications and we praised the magazines and blogs that are committed to feeding our hearts with a daily dose of #BlackGirlMagic.

I felt honoured to look across the table and see the variety of needs and different wants from these black woman when they picked up the magazines on offer. No Fly on the WALL took a space in Bethnal Green and turned it into a home in which black girls could sit side by side, united, and have intelligent conversations and enjoy great (black female) company.

The next No Fly on the WALL Academy events include another Fly Girlz Brunch this month and the return of SHEroes, our night of poetry and music celebrating Black British women. Our April programme will be announced shortly.

 

No Fly on the WALL March 2016 card - no typo.png

 

International Women’s Day Poem: ‘Alive’, by Antonia Jade King

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we’re sharing this beautiful poem about Black women’s hair, by writer and poet, Antonia Jade King.

You call it unprofessional because of course professionalism is straight and white
I am too much for you and I accept that
I’ve never followed patterns or rules
And my hair hasn’t either
Neither of us want to be tamed
You call my hair wild
I call it alive
When you try and push us to the ground we will both rise to the sky
Apparently my hair is good enough to touch even when I don’t want you to
But it is also the reason why I should not get a job
Listen
My hair is meticulously looked after glory
It is coconut oil covered beauty
It is all the hours I have spent lovingly detangling
It is resistant to your words because I’ve put too much love into these curls
Your hate cannot break through the Shea Butter barrier I’ve wrapped each of these curls in
My hair bounces when I walk like it refuses to stop dancing
You will not stop us dancing.
I have spent years massaging pride into this scalp
I have taught each curl on this head its history and you cannot undo the education by this point
There is more power in one strand of hair on this head than in your entire narrow minded existence
If my hair is too big I suggest you make room.

‘Which Me Will Survive All These Liberations?’: On being Black, Gay, and Woman

Off the back of LGBTQ+ History Month (February) and to kick off International Women’s Month (March), Kadie Kposowa reflects on her journey to acceptance of her multiple identities. Too often as black women we are expected to ‘choose’ between race, gender, and our sexuality, despite these intersections being inextricably linked to one another. 

In the words of Audre Lorde: 
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.
– ‘Who Said It Was Simple’ by Audre Lorde

 

 

Black. Gay. Woman.

Standing in this seemingly very small grey area of a three-way Venn diagram has been a journey that has taken me to places both physically and mentally I never thought I would go to. I’ve noticed it’s been a constant ‘toning down’ of one element within different situations, just to avoid unwanted friction. I have learned that, to be safe, I have to continually negotiate different parts of myself, and it feels rather like deciding what to wear.

Being black is difficult enough, being a black woman is even more stigmatised, but to be a black, gay woman is a minefield in British society. My parents came to Britain before I was born, hoping I would grow up in an environment where more opportunities than they could have dreamed of would be within my grasp. As soon as I started primary school, my mother began making me aware that stigma existed, that stereotypes existed, that I could not expect society to acknowledge me for all I had to contribute, just because of parts of me I could never hope to change. The one phrase I heard time and time again just encapsulates this experience you have to work twice as hard as them to achieve the same thing. There will be people who read this and hear an echo from their own childhoods. I was aware, but not completely, that there were barriers, that struggle would always be on my plate, be it because I was a girl or because I am black. I had to be the best at everything, my mother insisted, or I would be dismissed as a child of immigrants, expected to fall into a stereotypical abyss of worthlessness. For a time I hated being black. Those words sound like blasphemy to me now but back then all I saw was restraint. I couldn’t do the things my white friends did because I would always be looked at with a different eye. I felt more British than African but my mother was quick to remind me that ‘you may have been born here, but your name makes you different. Your face makes you different. You speak like them but you look different to them and they will never like you for it’. I felt like I was being held over a fire. Either you defy them and succeed, or you burn just as they think you will. It took me a long time to experience this kind of prejudice first hand, and to be perfectly honest with you, nothing could have prepared me for the bitter realisation that everything was just as my mother told me, if not worse. Funnily enough though, I never seemed to be affected by the media’s whitewashing of beauty standards. Looking back now, I’m able to attribute this to the attitude of my parents.

Naomi Campbell was god to me, I absolutely idolised her. I wanted to be her, I wanted to be Scary Spice, and I wanted to be Oprah Winfrey. Womanhood was definitely something I was taught to draw strength from. I was brought up by a woman who worked on raising me and simultaneously studied for a Masters degree. My mother was adept at showing me that life wasn’t going to be as easy for me as it would for a white woman, but she always insisted that I could reach any level if I worked myself to the bone. The same went for my father. If there was anything I wanted to try, he was up for it. I could always count on him encouraging me, egging me on to do what I wanted and to enjoy it at the same time. Being a young black woman in 21st century Britain would be undoubtedly so much harder without the support system I was raised with. It’s like having a skin of bulletproof confidence. I don’t apologise for my blackness. I am black. Anyone who underestimates me because of this is stupid. Today I realise that simply by existing, I am defying an entire system. A system that wants to grind me into the ground, a system that thrives on denying me my humanity, and a system that praises almost everything I am not. This means that every day I live is a fight. Thanks to the power of the Internet, I have accepted that my blackness is political. Every hashtag, every article and every campaign concerning black people is now relevant to me.

Most recently, I was pointed in the direction of a campaign initiated by Chardine Taylor-Stone, in which she calls out what one website coined as ‘Racism in the Rainbow’. This phrase is incredibly apt. A lot of white LGBT+ people seem to think that because they are also marginalized by society, they can somehow understand what it’s like to be black as well. Let me tell you now, if I had a penny for every single time a white gay man told me they get how I feel being black and gay, you can figure out the rest. Chardine’s campaign highlights a drag queen who performs under the alias ‘Laquisha Jonez’ (I honestly wish I was joking). Just imagine every stereotype surrounding black women and that is pretty much the act. This kind of thing makes it difficult to feel comfortable to assume a secure state of mind sometimes. Reading the comments about it on various sites continually proves what I feel as a black gay woman: spaces are not just afforded to me, I have to fight to carve them and I have to fight to keep them safe.

 

My teenage years were a period of restlessness. I was lost in the folds of puberty, for one thing, and I realised I might well be gay. The time lapse between me coming out to myself and coming out to everyone else is about eight years. I struggled to find a space within my mind where I could just be at peace with being gay. Attending a Church of England all-girls school didn’t help either. We were all growing up and finding our feet but we all knew what the ‘norm’ was and trying to break off from it was often just not worth the risk. Looking back now, I can accept I had a minor identity crisis. I hadn’t even heard the word ‘lesbian’ before I turned thirteen. Harbouring attractions to girls in my year was such a source of shame for me that I tried immensely hard to keep out of my mind. I thought my romantic interest in women meant I was supposed to be a boy. Soon it was dreams and fantasies of magically removing my breasts and declaring my name was Calvin (Kevin and Keith were definitely out). Further along the line I decided this wasn’t plausible. I then embarked on a I totally love boys, I’m so straight venture. I found myself a couple of suitable male celebrities to crush on and fangirl over in order to try to fit in with the other girls. It was a glaring alarm that I selected Lewis Hamilton over flavour-of-the-day Chris Brown and the fact that I was devoted to Cesc Fabregas was a shambles considering hardly any girls could recognise football players, let alone consider them dream-husband material. But I kept with it. I met a boy who asked me for my number (still not over it) and we dated for approximately two weeks before I realised that my ultimate goal of getting married to a guy, bearing his children and just never coming out was on the verge of impossible. From then it was all about building up the courage to say to myself “I am gay, and I am okay with that”.

To deal with the mental strain I threw myself into being a Christian. I went to church and became more and more active within it, eventually becoming an altar girl and doing Scripture readings on a regular basis. As luck would have it, the first adult I came out to was my priest, when I was 17. He had revealed himself to be gay during a sermon only a week before. This was the culmination of a C4 documentary being made about this whole process for him. Watching him stand before his congregation and challenge their religious attitudes convinced me that I didn’t have to hide for the rest of my life. Father Ray came out to himself aged 23. This was followed by the demon of alcoholism, and his struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his identity drove him to attempt suicide at least three times. Priesthood was his salvation. Christ provided to him a safety he hadn’t found anywhere else. Even now, remembering that sermon brings me to tears. Ray spoke of the ignorance he had witnessed within the Church and he felt he could not call himself a disciple of Christ if he chose to stand in silence while people just like him were persecuted. That Sunday, I bawled my eyes out about how hard it was, how my parents were going to hate me, and he was absolutely compassionate in his response. He offered to speak to my mother, and I felt obligated to refuse. I was conscious that he, a middle aged white man, just wouldn’t be able to connect properly with a single black mother. It was interesting to see how the congregation reacted to his story. Sure, many people agreed that the Christian thing to do was to accept Ray and to love him as Christ would. But in confidence, the whispers went round. There appeared to be a thick tension in the Church. Within three years, Ray left and he now works as a chaplain.

At the age of sixteen I began dating my first girlfriend – she was an integral part of me coming out. She gave me the courage to believe that there really was nothing wrong with me, and that I wasn’t hard to love, I just had to let it through. I loved her but I couldn’t show it on many levels. Out on the street together, I wouldn’t hold her hand for fear someone I knew would see us and betray me to my mother. The most upsetting thing was to know that colour and culture would forever be an obstacle for us. Her family were kind and generous towards me, and accepting of our relationship. There was no hope that it would be the same for my family. None. To my parents, it was a double blow. Mum, Dad, I’m gay…and my girlfriend’s white”. Being with a white girl felt like I was betraying my heritage, almost denying myself. I even encountered a black man in public who kept staring at an ex-girlfriend and I, and when I confronted him, he revealed he didn’t care about a same-sex relationship, it was the fact that we were mixing blood that was despicable. Our relationship was like a horrendously warped version of puppy love. We also had to deal with hiding our relationship at school. We spent all our time together but acted as if we were just good friends. It was hard imagining I would ever be in a relationship where everyone around me knew and was accepting of it. To cut a very long short, I think the pressures I felt surrounding me being black and her being white on top of the fact it was a same-sex relationship put a strain on things. It was a bitter pill to swallow. We had been together for two years before my mother found out.

Her initial reaction surprised me. Where I expected anger, I received logical reasoning behind my attraction to girls. “It’s because your father wasn’t really around. You’ve grown up around women and that’s what you know” as well as “We’ve all been there, it’s just a phase, you’ll see”. When I insisted that it was something I had been dealing with for a long time, the rage arrived. It seems the support system I’d grown up with concerning my blackness was being pulled from beneath my feet because I was gay.

 

No single issue problem - lorde

 

I mentioned religion before. Nine times out of ten, being African usually means religion surrounds you in many avenues of life. It was stifling a lot of the time. This time it was venom. Religion drove my mother to send me home to Sierra Leone for an exorcism, intended to ‘cleanse’ me and straighten me out (pun wholly intended).

The main thing my mother kept insisting on was that being gay was a ‘Western thing’, something the white man brought to Africa to destroy our traditions and societal structures. The irony of the colonisers using religion to make us submissive contrasted with the fact that Africans now use it to oppress one another is not lost on me, but that’s another story for another day. It was this rhetoric that had me believing there was no hope for my validation. So engrossed in believing she was correct, my mother told me that “gay people don’t exist in Africa”. To some extent, she’s right. To keep themselves safe, they have had to make themselves invisible.

 

In my mother tongue, Mende, there doesn’t even seem to be a word that equates to being gay. It doesn’t appear to be anything that someone might consider. Even now, I struggle with being African and being a lesbian. I would love to go and live in Sierra Leone when I am older, but how can I do that? I can’t take my wife back home and live with her openly. There is no space for me as I am in Sierra Leone. When I was sent back there, regardless of the bad things that happened to me, I felt like I belonged. In two weeks, I felt more accepted than I have done in eighteen years as a Londoner. In this aspect, I feel completely isolated. My current girlfriend can’t understand how that feels, because it just doesn’t apply to her.

A couple of months ago, I read about someone called Fannyann Eddy. In her work, she directly addressed the issues I worry about when I think about living back home. Fannyann was born in 1974 in Sierra Leone. In 2002 she set up the Sierra Leone Gay and Lesbian Association, advocating for the rights of LGBT+ people not just in Sierra Leone, but across Africa. She addressed the UN, arguing that the biggest danger to LGBT+ Africans was the consistent refusal by their governments to acknowledge them. She rightly contested that without recognising the existence of the LGBT population, leaders could conveniently avoid the question of their rights and their place in society. Fannyann was eventually killed by the hatred she sought to undo. In 2004, she was attacked by a group of men who beat her, raped her and broke her neck. Yes, I could have emitted all those terms and just stated that she was killed, but there’s a blind comfort in feeling disconnected from the violence inflicted on her. I do not feel disconnected from that. I feel that if I am to die because of my identity, it is likely to be in a similar fashion. Such is the power that men exert in a patriarchal society, and what happened to Fannyann is a very real and very clear threat. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever been arrested for her murder, with Sierra Leonean police doing their best to assert that they cannot label the crime as homophobic. It is this that underlines Fannyann’s point in her UN address, ‘silence creates vulnerability’. The unwavering message I feel I receive from society is that I am invisible.

 

Most of the time it’s hard to be optimistic, but there are points to be proud of and to take hope from. For the first time I heard about Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, otherwise known as Lady Phyll, a black gay woman who refused an MBE this year. She did so because of the persecution of LGBT+ individuals across the Commonwealth, suffering as a direct result of laws implemented by the British Empire. She described herself as a working-class girl and an out black African lesbian. I read those words and felt my inner self say “that’s you. This resonates with me entirely and I felt like my voice was heard through Lady Phyll. I felt represented. I can only imagine how much more empowered I would have felt had I known someone like her was out there to look up to. Someone who faces the same adversities I do on almost every level. When I was growing up there were a few black women I could call role models, but none of them were gay. I only found out Tracy Chapman was queer when I was 17, and her album was forever being played around the house when I was little. I only ever saw queer white people, and even then, it wasn’t something they normalized. It is somewhat a sting to have to feel that even in LGBT+ spaces, I have to work to feel accepted.

 

I will say though, that smaller networks and communities have created a chink of light and shown me that I am not isolated. There is so much more to do though, because the Internet isn’t the whole world. It has allowed for more discussion and opportunities for people to re-evaluate previous ignorance and prejudice. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I do doubt I’d feel so empowered without these alliances. I’ve come to see that spaces were I can safely and entirely be myself won’t just be afforded to me courteously by society or by people I think should be on my side. The goal is to be that role model I needed when I was growing up. It would all be worth it to know that just one person out there might read this and find the resilience to keep being who they are, especially someone who shares my experiences. It’s all about getting all the tools available to me and helping to create platforms where black people, women, and LGBT+ people are visible and are vocal.