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Black women’s organising in the 1980s – Shukri Ahmed

In 1982, the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) hosted its last national conference before it folded that very year. Its trajectory and demise are often considered indicative of the rise and end of the Black Women’s Movement overall, and subsequently treated as the endpoint of black women’s political organising.[1] Nevertheless, OWAAD was fundamental to black women’s organising, and a catalyst rather than an endpoint for the proliferation of new black women’s groups and organisations across Britain that continued on into the mid-to-late 1980s.[2] My undergraduate dissertation aimed to explore how black women’s organising developed and rearticulated itself into the 1980s, particularly in the new landscape brought on by the increasing presence of the anti-racism movement in local government and the voluntary sector, and the implications of these changes for black politics.

The uprisings of 1981 brought to the forefront the lack of care for and the abandonment of black communities by the state. White voluntary organisations had to contend with its inability to respond to and provide for black communities that was caused by what they identified as a ‘lack of involvement’, and ‘unawareness of the issues underlying the civil disturbances.’[3] As a result, there was a massive shift towards anti-racist projects brought through by the government’s Urban Programme.[4] Funding was provided to local authorities and organisations aiming to tackle ‘race inequality and disadvantage’.[5] Kindling a moment of possibility for change, the funding programmes resulted in local authorities and groups setting up women’s centres, and race and equalities committees.[6] It gave an opportunity too for black women’s groups to continue providing care and provision in their communities.

Instead of a national black women’s movement, the 1980s saw black women’s organising and groups emerging and thriving at the local level. The Walsall Black Sisters Collective (WBSC) was founded in the early 1980s. Similar to the emergence of black women’s groups in the 1970s, the founding members of WBSC came together through a shared analysis of black women’s positionality in Britain. As Jennifer Blake, one of the founders put it, they wanted to ‘make sense of our life here, because it kind of didn’t make sense where sat in the hierarchy.’[7] They experienced a pronounced sense of exclusion – ‘we were voiceless. There was a sense of non-existence’, invigorating a desire to ‘take up space really around some of issues we were dealing with’[8]. Blake situated this ‘sense of non-existence’ in the ‘lack of nuanced service provision that was specifically geared to specific needs’.[9]  The experience of exclusion as black women and the wider experience of exclusion faced by black communities went hand-in-hand, each one making the other more pronounced and urgent. WBSC came together to make legible a black women’s activism centred on tackling the lack of community and service provisions for Black Britons, illustrative of Samantrai’s analysis of black women’s negotiations and evaluation of the socio-political and economic landscape as ‘the democratic potential of dissent’.[10]

Practical activism and community care, as noted by Thomlinson, were key tenants of black women’s organising in the 1970s and remained so in the 1980s.[11] The anti-racism funding programmes of the new decade supported the proliferation of black women’s centres across the country. WSBC set up a Saturday school and an afterschool club to support mothers and provide childcare. The Liverpool Black Sisters opened a women’s centre to provide classes to enable black women’s self-determination, and the Brixton Black Women’s Group opened one to engage with the struggles of the local community. [12] These centres demonstrate how black women’s groups positioned the practical with the political on the community and local level, translating their analysis of the historical exclusion and abandonment of black communities by the state into material support for those around them.[13]

However, this anti-racism funding sometimes required concessions. The nature of anti-racism practice dampened inside government and local authorities in the 1980s and was focused on the production of ‘diversity professionals’ that practised a moderate politics in line with the Tory aims of appearing to tackle racial discrimination in inner-city areas without the material conditions of black communities changing.[14] This significantly impacted how anti-racism funding operated, and was often heavily criticised for causing ‘the inability or unwillingness of black organisations to ‘take on a political role’.[15] Black women that wanted to set up political organisations had to manoeuvre around this issue when obtaining funds. Groups such as the Birmingham Black Sisters and the Abasindi Co-Operative in Manchester purposefully refused external funding in fear of funders dictating over the organisation or being co-opted by local government or voluntary bodies.[16]

Jennifer Blake stated the WSBC initially had gone by ‘Walsall Black Sisters’ but received criticism from the wider community for being ‘non-inclusive’.[17] Yet even when the organisation had changed its name to include ‘Collective’ and softened its politics of separatism, barriers to funding remained. Blake recalled ‘they [the funders] decided the name was too political and wanted to say, “you can have this money, this capital, but you have to change the name.”[18] However, Black women’s groups did not capitulate to the demand of funders, and through this series of negotiations with funders whilst remaining steadfast to their political commitments, the WBSC kept their name.

The 1980s also saw black women rearticulating a new praxis of covert politicisation to contend with conflicts within black women’s organising, such as the debates around Afro-Asian unity and feminism. WBSC left behind the project of Afro-Asian unity and an explicit political orientation in order to minimise conflict and gain funding to provide community provisions and services.[19] However, the ethos of providing services was inherently political and radical in its challenge to political participation. Sudbury argued that black women participated in politics at the community and local level, positing this ‘challenge[s] the stereotypical notion of black women’s non-engagement, by asserting that they are involved in a range of political struggles in their everyday lives.’[20] Practical activism and local support is demonstrative of a covert politicisation and a rearticulation of a new politics within black women’s activism in the 1980s.

Although the project of Afro-Asian unity was abandoned in the 1980s, practical activism and providing services and provisions continued. Black women’s avoidance of an overt political orientation was not a rejection of these principles, but instead a repositioning that ensured the survival of black women’s activism and its integral position within black communities.

Shukri Ahmed recently completed her ungraduated degree in History with Political Science at the University of Birmingham. She is currently working in education and curating vocational programmes before she returns to university to continue studying Black British women’s history at a postgraduate level.

[1]  N. Thomlinson, Race, Ethnicity, and the Women’s Movement in England 1968-1993 (Hampshire, 2016), R. Samantrai, AlterNatives: Black Feminism in the Postimperial Nation (Stanford, 2002), and N. A. Swaby, ‘‘Disparate in Voice, Sympathetic in Direction’: Gendered Political Blackness and the Politics of Solidarity’, Feminist Review, 108 (2014), pp.11-25. In 1984, black feminists and activists hosted a conference for black and Asian women titled ‘We are Here: Black Feminists in Britain’ in an attempt to revive the Black women’s movement but were unsuccessful. Samantrai, Alternatives, p.11.

[2] J. Sudbury, ‘Other Kinds of Dreams’: Black Women’s Organisations and the Politics of Transformation (London, 1998), p.11.

[3] BCA, RC/RF/4/10/A, ‘Voluntary Organisations and Racism: A Discussion Paper’, 24 February 1983, Robin Hughes, Voluntary Service Unit, Home Office, p.1.

[4] C. Schofield, F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, and R. Water, ‘’The privatisation of the struggle’: anti-racism in the age of enterprise’, in A. Davis, B. Jackson, F. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (eds.), The Neoliberal Age? Britain Since the 1970s, pp.199-225, p.207.

[5] A. Afridi, ‘BME community engagement in the UK and public policy: a brief retrospective’, in G. Craig (eds.), Community Organising Against Racism: ‘Race’, ethnicity and community development, (Bristol, 2018), pp.25-40, p.27.

[6] Schofield, Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, and Waters, ‘The privatisation of the struggle’, p.208.

[7] Interview with Jennifer Blake

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Samantrai, Alternatives, p.20.

[11] Thomlinson, Race, Ethnicity and the Women’s Movement, p.64.

[12] BCA, RC/RF/23/01/B, Black Resisters: Liverpool’s Black community is the oldest one in Britain, yet racism is more entrenched in Liverpool than in other parts of the country. Liz Drysdale spoke to Spare Rib about the struggles facing the Black community and the women in it, Spare Rib, May 1986.

[13] Interview with Jennifer Blake, 3 November 2021

[14] Schofield, Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, and Waters, ‘The privatisation of the struggle’, p.207.

[15] J. Solomos and L. Black, Race, Politics and Social Change (London, 1995) cited in J. Sudbury, Other Kind of Dreams, p.83.

[16] BCA, RC/RF/23/01/B, ‘Black Resisters: Liverpool’s Black community is the oldest one in Britain, yet racism is more entrenched in Liverpool than in other parts of the country’, Lin Parker, Spare Rib, May 1986, p.40, and Guru, S., Housee, S., Joshi, K., ‘Birmingham Black Sisters: A Struggle to End Injustice’, Critical Social Policy, 40 (2020), pp.196-214, p. 203.

[17] Interview with Jennifer Blake, 3 November 2021.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Sudbury, Other Kind of Dreams, p.57.