Heart Of The Race - Still Relevant Today!!

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Heart of the Race; Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Sacfe is a book that recounts the history of the Black British women’s movement in the UK. It was first published in 1985 and has recently been republished by Verso with a foreword by journalist and teacher Lola Okolosie and afterword that contains an interview with the authors by Verso. As core members of activist groups throughout the seventies and eighties, the authors chart the creation of autonomous black women’s groups which sought to address the specific conditions of the lives of black women. They explore the central concerns of groups like OWAAD (The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent) founded in 1978 and the Brixton Black Women’s Group and their campaigns around education, childcare provision, the police, the state and reproductive justice. The authors sought to memorialise their experiences as grassroots organisers and ensure that their work was not lost in the attempt to form a linear history of women’s work in the UK. The book highlights the Black Power, anti-imperialist movements that were foundational in tackling SUS Laws, racist immigration policies, the formation of the UK Race Relations Act (1965) as well as paving the way for community book shops like New Beacon. The authors highlight how a lot of this work was coordinated and sustained by black women; they explore the rifts and tensions and reactions to their organising from the mainstream feminist movement and Black Power groups.

The text weaves in testimony and women’s poetry with a factual retelling of history and in doing so is much more than a simple recounting of the past. The authors walk the line between theory and practice with skill, ensuring that the book itself is not inaccessible but grounded in an understanding of importance of the theory that guided their practice. Many conversations that young black feminists and feminists of colour are having today are hashed out in this book and it is a good reminder that we are not the originators of these conversations, nor the discoverers of “new” and unique problems. The authors insistence on a internalist framework in their activism means that the text extends far beyond the British context. It places the so called ‘Third World’ firmly in view with the intention of demonstrating how anti-racist organisers saw themselves as co-partners in a global struggle.

Providing a general overview of grassroots organising in the UK and individual profiles of the women who were a core to them, eg. Olive Morris, Claudia Jones, The Heart of the Race is an apt and timely reminder that feminist work is not feminist work if it is not anti-racist. It demonstrates what Chandra Mohanty argues, that radical politics must be forged through struggle and never assumed. The authors show how they put terms like “Intersectionality” into practice long before it was coined. They belong to a long black feminist tradition that refused to sacrifice the importance of women’s issues for fear of “divisiveness.” Indeed, the breadth and wide ranging nature of the chapters demonstrates that the politics of liberation is long and messy. It cannot be neatly summed up or condensed. What is clear from the many testimonials and the recounting of actions taken by different groups is that solidarity between black women and women of colour was crucial in making material gains and tackling racism, racist laws and racist labour practices. The book makes visible struggles that might otherwise have been forgotten: such as the alliances between white working class women and women of colour who campaigned against the testing of contraceptive drug Depo Provera on their communities without knowledge of the risks involved. The book argues that the formation of autonomous organising groups for black women was not an attempt to ‘split’ Black Power, but a way to recruit women into the movement, provide support and solidarity for one another, provide a space to discuss the consequences of misogyny and facilitate consciousness raising and political education. It enriched the movement as women’s voices could not be ignored when they organised collectively. This book should be essential reading for younger activists engaged in community organising and those interested in the nature of black feminist organising in the UK.

Whilst there are aspects of the book that seem dated and hints of homophobia in organising spaces that downplayed the role and concerns of black lesbians and queer members of the organising group, there is much to learn from this text. It’s power lies in the claiming of the narrative voice and it’s insistence that the history of black women’s lives in Britain be told by black women and those who were engaged in the struggle for improving the conditions of their existence. That struggle has spawned a new generation, a new generation that should be as engaged and invested in continuing conversations, organising in new and exciting ways and honouring the past whilst doing so.

Reviewed and written by Lola Olufemi