Speak Out: The Brixton Black Women’s Group

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Speak Out: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
In this excerpt from ‘Speak Out: A Brixton Black Women’s Group Reader’, meet the members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group and their extraordinary contribution to the fight for justice.

“The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Black woman, and for good reason.” –Claudia Jones, An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman! (1949)

The project of freedom is often imagined as a linear, forward march towards an undefined future. The official record of history indexes the radical potential for imagining what freedom might be by measuring society in silos of ‘progress’. In this narrative, the importance of awarding the colonised and the nominally free with a seat at the table of power becomes a placeholder for liberation. The structures of power that distribute limited life choices, gratuitous violence, economic repression and exposure to premature death to the colonised and the nominally free remain intact. The vertical hierarchy of life continues; the future falls out of reach. Revolution is deferred once more.

The prevailing arrangement of social life has attempted to erode the critical labour of transforming our current conditions, eradicate our capacity for love and care, and foreclose the possibility of a world beyond the brutal entanglement of conquest and empire. Yet, even as the forces of anti-Black racism, free markets and state-engineered precarity have sought to wither away the belief that another set of arrangements is possible, ‘freedom’ is a word that continues to form the nucleus of the Black radical imagination. The long history of Black resistance has been marked by the insurgent longings of those whose lives are rendered surplus and disposable under the regime of racial capitalism. ‘Freedom’ names that which remains out of reach even as we endeavour to create it in the here and now, and ‘freedom’ brings together a set of practices that allow us to imagine what might be. Living within the ‘interminable catastrophe’ that structures Black life, political education, mutual aid, general strikes and riot have provided tracts for survival, a discourse of dissent, a love language for a liveable future, and a rehearsal of a radically different world.

At the heart of the revolutionary ideals that emerged under the press of death on the plantation, in the colony and in the metropole is the sustained labour of Black women. In ‘The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors’, Saidiya Hartman notes that the ritual theft and regulation of Black women’s sexual and reproductive capacities ‘defined black women’s historical experiences as labourers and shaped the character of their refusal of and resistance to slavery’. Describing the acts of subterfuge and autonomy that enslaved women engaged in – such as poisoning slaveholders, utilising abortifacients, giving birth, completing suicide, and dreaming of destroying the master and his house – Hartman draws an atlas of a world that continues to be shaped by the dispossession of Black women. Under a deathly calculus that renders our lives expendable, the collective refusal of Black women has been critical to both the formation and the survival of Black life throughout the diaspora.

In the mid- to late twentieth century, Black women in Britain drew upon the traditions of rebellion cultivated by the enslaved and the colonised to fight back against a ‘Mother Country’ that had only ever been hostile to their presence. Revolutionaries such as Claudia Jones, Althea Jones-Lecointe, Olive Morris, Liz Obi, Gerlin Bean and countless others whose names remain unrecorded were foundational in honing an analysis of the material conditions that made Black people vulnerable to both state and interpersonal violence. Understanding that to be Black in Britain was to be positioned outside the boundaries of the nation and that, in its corporeality, the state was antagonistic to Black life, Black women radicals endeavoured to find ways of being in the world that were not tethered to the ruse of citizenship, the fallacies of the nation-state or the horizon of empire.

As the chant for Black liberation reverberated across the globe, the labour of Black women activists was integral to the burgeoning Black Power movement in Britain. Inside groups such as the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Front and the Black Unity and Freedom Party, Black women taught at supplementary schools, staged campaigns against police brutality, fought racism within the education system and struggled against the epidemic of substandard living conditions that defined Black life in the late twentieth century. They produced literature and distributed pamphlets that analysed the historical dimensions of their experiences as Black people living on the underside of the capital; they sustained their comrades, cooking and cleaning and typing long after the men had finished lamenting the super-exploitation of the Black worker, put their coats on and turned the lights off.

Black women’s labours, however, are often positioned as a foot note or entirely written out of grand narratives of Black struggle and feminist revolt. Recalling the liminal space in which Black women were placed in the Black Power movement during the early 1970s, Black feminist activist and author Melba Wilson recalls that ‘it was a struggle to get Black women’s voices to be heard in that context. A lot of the women who came from the Black Liberation movement were doing the “backroom jobs” – the typing, the cooking … they were on the pickets for sure, but they were expected to follow, not lead!’ Having been a member of the Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP), Gerlin Bean remembers the reproductive labour that sustained Black liberation organisa tions: ‘We were the women, we had the responsibilities, we were doing childcare, we were doing everything and we should be recognised and should have a voice in the organisations, not just be their secretaries … because that’s where we were relegated.’

Refusing to capitulate to a worldview that overwrote their lives, Black women activists insisted that their voices be heard. Within what had by then become the Black Workers’ Movement of the early 1970s, they set up a women’s caucus and sought to attend to the nature of Black women’s subjection throughout the world. Reflecting on her participation in an early reading group, Marlene Bogle details the circumstances that shaped Black women’s practices of convening: ‘[The] lack of resources in the Black community made it necessary for us to meet in each other’s homes,’ she recalls, ‘as we had no other suitable place to do so.’

A space for political education, the women’s caucus afforded Black women the breathing room to think with each other, learn with each other and challenge each other outside of the rigid, patriarchal hierarchies that had come to define what had by then become the movement. More than fifty years later, these radical practices of intimacy, comradeship and care continue to defy dominant metrics of visibility precisely because of their incisive critiques of power. Black feminist labour, then, is stitched through the tapestry of Black radicalism even as it falls out of the frame of representation.

It therefore comes as no surprise that when I first learnt of the existence of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, it was through a chance encounter that would change the course of my life. It was 2014, and I was in my final year of an English Literature and Spanish degree. Having been taught everything from Civil War literature to the poetry of the Romantic period, I was hungry to read and learn about the narratives of Black people; those who had been omitted and erased from the lectures I attended but whose lives were woven within and beyond the whitewashed narratives that shaped the course.

More than anything, I was yearning to find traces of Black women’s lives in Britain, longing for anything that documented the voices of women who were never bound to appear in any of my modules but who I knew must have existed. This opportunity would finally arrive on a visit home to my family in south London in November 2014.

Walking around Brixton, I bumped into an old school friend who was volunteering at the newly reopened Black Cultural Archives (BCA). As we talked and I regaled him with tales about the narrow landscape that had been my experience in higher education, he invited me to join him in viewing the BCA’s inaugural exhibition, ‘Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain’. Charting more than four hundred years of Black women’s experiences within the imperial core, the exhibition was my first taste of the radical possibilities that resided within Black women’s everyday practices of refusal: the echoes of their voices, the textures of their memories and the rhythms of their lives, which not only challenged dominant forms of remembering and forgetting but also cleaved through the current arrangements of the world and imagined it anew.

Making my way through the beautifully curated space, I eventually arrived at a display mapping the history of the Black women’s movement in 1970s and 1980s Britain. Watching footage from the First Black Women’s Conference held in 1979 by the coalition of groups that made up the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent, I found myself yearning to know more about these women: who they’d been, who they were now and the aspirations that had incited them to come together as a critical mass and demand liberation for Black women everywhere.

Inspired by this brief encounter, I returned to Brixton a few months later to view archival papers related to the movement. Painstakingly collected and preserved by sisters of the movement across decades and eventually donated to the BCA, these pamphlets, meeting minutes, yellowing photos and scraps of ephemera provided a window into the thoughts and feelings of the women who were the heartbeat of the Black liberation struggle in Britain.

Casting my eyes over the Speak Out newsletters fanned across the desk in front of me, I drank in the words of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, women who were writing four decades prior
to the moment in which I encountered them, women who were expressing so many of the thoughts and feelings that I had yet to find a way to articulate. In the first issue of Speak Out, the group argue that attending to the specificity of Black women’s subjugation is a prerequisite for the liberation of all Black people: ‘In order to change our entire situation, we must strive to fully understand the nature of the oppression we face as black people, and particularly as black women. We have brought to this country a history of exploitation and a tradition of struggle which has never been documented.’

Having spent the entire day in the reading room poring overSpeak Out issues, the light began to dim outside, and soon enough it was time to leave, but the experience had left its mark on me. Reading BBWG’s insightful, urgent and prescient analyses of racism, sexism and capitalism, as well as all that exceeded these deathly entanglements – the conversations about art, the meditations on literature, the verses of poetry, the dreams of freedom – struck a chord that would continue to chime nearly a decade later. My growing desire to seek out Black feminist counter-narratives – other ways of knowing, other ways of living – was the same one that animated the group of Black women who came together to form the BBWG (then known simply as the Black Women’s Group) in 1973.

When I met with sisters of the group in the autumn of 2022 for a virtual roundtable discussion, they emphasised that when they began organising, they did so with a shared longing to deepen the struggle for Black liberation by forming an analysis of Black women’s position within it. As the first autonomous Black women’s organisation in Britain, BBWG member Gail Lewis noted, the group was focused on ‘the specificity, not just of “woman’s condition” but of woman’s role in the struggle’.

Gathering every Sunday at Sabarr Bookshop at 121 Railton Road, the BBWG extended the traditions that began in the women’s caucus of the early 1970s by first coming together as a study group. Seeking to incorporate the various political histories and understandings that shaped each member’s trajectory within the group, the collective read and analysed Marxist, socialist and anti-colonial literature and endeavoured to formulate an analysis that moved Black women from the margins of these texts to the centre. During our conversation, founding member Beverley Bryan emphasised the significance of exploring and interrogating texts collectively:

In the Panthers, we read some Black texts like Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and we read some Marxist–Leninist texts. That’s where I read Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto. We continued that because the women coming into the group were also interested in understanding Marxist analysis, understanding the economic foundations of the society we were living in and what capitalism was doing to us as Black women. I remember we re-read The Communist Manifesto, and that was really useful because one thing about being a women’s study group, I think we certainly felt freer to discuss, to ask questions. There wasn’t so much a teacher giving an opinion of how you should be thinking. We could work it out together.

Beverley Bryan

The group’s non-hierarchical, communal process of learning illustrates their commitment to developing a political consciousness that could speak to and, ultimately, transform the social conditions in which the lives of working-class Black women emerged.

As more and more sisters joined the organisation in the mid-seventies, the group formed a critical mass that was intent on not only naming the sources of their oppression but also, importantly, crafting a theory that could be mobilised in practice. Arriving at the term ‘Black socialist feminism’, BBWG sought to illuminate how the intersection of race, gender and class undergirded their position within the social order. When I asked the sisters how they defined Black socialist feminism, Lewis explained that it was important to the group that alongside an understanding of the ways in which racism and patriarchy functioned, ‘class was also central’ to their analysis.

We came from working-class life in one way or another. Even if people had been middle-class in terms of their social location and cultural practices back home, they became working class once they were here. We had to understand class. Reading Marx meant you had to understand how a class dynamic was also central … We weren’t just ‘socialist feminists’, we were Black socialist feminists, and we understood that class struggle, gender struggle and antiracist struggle were all part of the terrain in which we operated.

Gail Lewis

BBWG’s vision of Black socialist feminism sought to redress the overlapping crises of anti-Black racism, economic deprivation, patriarchal violence and the state’s organised abandonment of working-class Black women and children. Understanding that the mundane and the ordinary were staging grounds for revolutionary change, the group was foundational in forging links with fellow sisters in the local community and forming a network of initiatives and campaigns that could adequately address their needs. BBWG member Olive Gallimore formed the Mary Seacole Craft Group, which brought together a community of Black single mothers for craft sessions and provided a forum for them to voice the issues that imbued their everyday lives.

Bryan, then a primary school teacher in Brixton, was also active in the West Indian Parents Action Group and agitated alongside parents and other local activists to uproot a racist educational system that routinely criminalised and underserved Black children. Reflecting on the expansive network that the group cultivated, Monica Morris described the polyvocal nature of BBWG’s organising:

We had a good model. People would go along to other organisations and then report back and tell us what was going on elsewhere. We’d discuss it, and we’d form a group view on it, a strategy that we would follow when we went out to meetings. It was a really good learning experience in terms of how you operate in these spaces with different dynamics.

Monica Morris

This was Black socialist feminism in practice, theory in the flesh that was energised by an unyielding dedication to being in solidarity with those who were rendered forgotten, missing and disappeared within both the women’s liberation movement and the Black liberation movement.

In a landscape where intersectional analyses of race, gender and class fell outside of mainstream narratives of women’s liberation, the organisation’s insistence that Black women’s freedom had to be central to any notion of a feminist future was a radical undertaking. When white-led women’s groups organised for greater abortion rights and campaigned for ‘A Woman’s Right to Choose’, BBWG argued that this framing failed to account for the scale of reproductive injustice waged by the state against Black women. Noting that Black women were systematically coerced into having abortions and sterilised against their will and that many were given the contraceptive injection Depo-Provera without their consent, the organisation campaigned against the insidious practices of reproductive regulation that were illegible under a singular focus on abortion rights. In their demand for reproductive freedom at every level, including the autonomy and resources to raise their children with dignity, the group funda mentally shifted the terrain of feminist struggle.

Within their analysis of Black social life, the sisters of BBWG focused their energies on the granular, the local and the everyday, while never losing sight of who their enemies were or the historical dynamics that informed the political stakes of their organising.

The coercive power of the state and the colonial roots of Black women’s oppression were always at the forefront of their minds.

Recognising that borders and nation-states were sites of imperial enclosure, the group understood that their subjection in Britain was inseparable from the subjection that Black women experienced throughout the world. Sisters of the group hailed from different cultural and organisational backgrounds and brought with them a lens that was rooted in a transnational vision of Black liberation. Prior to joining BBWG, members such as Suzanne Scafe and Sindamani Bridglal had spent years organising in women’s labour movements in Jamaica and Guyana, respectively, and Jocelyn Wolfe had organised around politics and education, first in the youth movement and later in the People’s National Movement, in Trinidad. Amina Mama grew up in Nigeria where her politics were shaped by relatives who had been involved in the struggle against British colonialism. Claudette Williams, Melba Wilson and Gail Lewis travelled together to form links with women’s groups in Nicaragua, and eventually Gerlin Bean and Monica Morris went to work in Africa – in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and the Gambia.

Bringing together different diasporic contexts and perspectives at their weekly study sessions, the group crafted a Black internationalist framework in which they understood that the movement against racism, against patriarchy, against capitalism and against imperialism was a global one. ‘Black socialist feminism was about race, sex and class, but it was also about what was happening on the ground; what was happening to us and to other women,’ Bryan explained during our conversation.

We came from migrant families. We could still see what was happening to migrant families, to our families … So the idea that class was part of Black socialist feminism was totally about our experiences, and we connected those experiences to other women in our community. That’s why we had to support women when they went on strike. By doing that, you made the connection that it was also about our economic life. That was how the system worked. It might have been Caribbean workers in one iteration, or it might have been African women in another iteration. The system was fed by the impoverishment of our different countries of origin.

Beverley Bryan

Mobilising alongside sisters from across Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Central America as well as strategising with the growing number of Black women’s organisations throughout Britain, the group carved out an anti-colonial movement of Black women that was expansive enough to envisage their collective freedom while holding space for the specificity of their different locations and material conditions.

The spirit of collaboration that lay at the foundations of BBWG’s organisational practices found its expressive language within the pages of the group’s Speak Out newsletter, first published in 1977. Lewis describes the newsletter as ‘the “organ” of the group’, a vital contribution to the Marxist–Leninist tradition, in which producing literature that could articulate the organisation’s political vision and provide a resource for mass mobilisation, an essential part of revolutionary struggle. The group resisted their work being assimilated into an institutional frame, seeking instead to speak to the grassroots – those who they were organising in community with and those who were not yet part of the movement but could become comrades of tomorrow.

‘With Speak Out, we were very concerned to not just talk to ourselves, so it wasn’t going to be something that was primarily intellectual or hard to digest,’ Morris notes. ‘We were hoping to bring up issues that were relevant to people on the street.’

Speaking to many issues with many voices, the group’s news letter was a groundbreaking endeavour in which the capacity for imagining what freedom could be was centred around Black women’s lives. Speak Out: A Brixton Black Women’s Group Reader is alive with the energy that coursed through the group’s organising and brings together the threads of their work that have remained out of view until now. The book documents more than a decade of BBWG’s activism, illuminating the colossal scope of the group’s political vision, the relationships that they nurtured and the lives that they touched. In their writings and speeches, sisterhood becomes a verb, an action that the group committed themselves to over and over again.

The kinship, relation and struggle that brought BBWG together can be felt everywhere throughout their work. Speak Out is written in a collective grammar, and there are rarely any names under the editorial pieces collated throughout the newsletter, signifying the group’s desire to eschew individual acclaim and celebrity in favour of a shared vision of liberation. The book also doesn’t shy away from the tensions and failures that mark any attempt at revolutionary change; in the editorial to Speak Out, no. 5 (1983), ‘On Black Women Organising’, the group reflect on the marginalisation of lesbian women within the organisation and reaffirm their commitment to fighting racism, sexism, classism and homophobia on all fronts.

The piece is an important meditation on how conflict within organising spaces can be handled with accountability and care, and on the vital role that Black queer women have played in Black struggle. Speak Out acts as an archive to the lesser-known aspects of the group’s political work. In coalition with the Mary Seacole Craft Group, the organisation opened the Black Women’s Centre (BWC) in Stockwell Green in September 1980. Offering a space for other political groups to gather, as well as a crèche, a library and a place for Black women to come together and produce music, theatre and art, the BWC became a crucial site of resources and service provision for an underserved community. The BBWG was also instrumental in the Black People Against State Harassment (BASH) campaign, where, in coalition with a number of local Black organisations, they fought back against the police’s pervasive use of Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act (‘sus’ law). The BBWG spearheaded protests against the legislation by disrupting police attempts at making arrests and demonstrating outside police stations and courts.

Among their expanding network, the group strove to raise the collective consciousness by holding meetings at the BWC and documenting the discretionary power the law granted the police to prey on Black people. The group’s ceaseless organising would prove critical when, in 1981, Black people throughout Britain rose up against the endless cycle of police harassment. Orchestrating the Brixton Defence Campaign in the aftermath of the Brixton uprisings, the BWC became the epicentre of anti-racist organising in the local area, with the BBWG providing care and legal support for Black communities experiencing the brunt of state warfare. An open revolt in the face of state racism and police power, the group provided a critique that helped to lay the groundwork for contemporary demands for the abolition of the police and the carceral state.

As our conversation came to an end, I asked the sisters of the BBWG to reflect on how their political work in the seventies and eighties is in conversation with our present moment. ‘I think that question needs to be asked to another generation,’ Scafe replies. ‘It is important that the generation who’s experiencing what it means to be a Black woman or experiencing issues around Blackness and gender and sexuality speaks for itself in relation to how they might be in conversation with other generations.’ Scafe’s response encourages me to return to the young woman I was in 2014, when I first learnt of BBWG, and to all the women I’ve been in the wake of that first encounter. Nine years later, we continue to live in a state of emergency that produces precarity around Black women’s lives. Speak Out is a love letter to all those who yearn for another world, a reminder of the foundations that have been laid and a call to action for what remains to be done. In returning to the speeches, poems, articles and archival fragments assembled here, I retrace the steps of the working-class women, daughters of migrants, single mothers and queer people who came together as the Brixton Black Women’s Group. In returning to the Black feminist labour that held the organisation together, I am able to hear the soundscape of rebellion that echoes into the present.

Speak Out: A Brixton Black Women’s Group Reader is out now on Verso. 

Jade Bentil is a writer, critic and historian from South London
whose work is situated within Black feminist thought. Her debut book, Rebel Citizen, explores the everyday rebellion of African and Caribbean women who migrated to Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War and is forthcoming from Allen Lane.

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