‘No Liberation Without Black Women’: Gender in the Black Liberation Front, by Amelia Francis

Black Power groups began to erupt throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s in Britain as young people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent unified under the term ‘Black’.[1] Furthermore, the Black Power era manifested in international solidarity between various struggles for decolonisation, anti-imperialism and socialist revolution. The Black Liberation Front (BLF), was founded in North London, 1971, and operated on a Pan-Africanist, socialist axis. Active until 1993, the group propagated self-help approaches to issues facing the Black community in Britain and elsewhere. In historical memory, the BLF is respected for its many initiatives, including the Ujima Housing Association, three Black bookshops, supplementary schools and a prisoner welfare scheme. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the BLF was its Grassroots newspaper, which reported on issues relevant to the global Black liberation struggle and gave visibility to Black people in Britain.

Reflections on the role of women in Black Power organising have highlighted issues of sexism. As the movement began to disintegrate from the late 1970s, statements about the relegation of women to domestic and secretarial roles began to surface, in many political groups, “men both set the agenda and stole the show”.[2] While much is known about the masculinist tendencies of liberation groups,  these accounts should not be positioned in a way that eclipses the integral role women played in the movement. Nor should these accounts become generalised to portray the experiences of an entire generation of politically active Black women, many of whom were looked to as leaders in their communities but have been neglected by written history.

In exploring the role of gender in the BLF, it’s necessary to begin in 1970, one year before the organisation’s founding. In this year, Britain’s first National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford. It was attended by over 600 women yet only two were Black, one being Gerlin Bean. Whilst at the conference, Bean “couldn’t really pick on the relevance as it pertained to Black women”, concluding that Black people needed a women’s movement that was their own. [3] As a member of the Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP), Bean played a key role in setting up its Black Women’s Action Committee, which would remain a highly visible chapter of the BUFP in years to come. With the founding of the BLF a year later, Bean soon gravitated to this new group and ensured they too set up a women’s caucus.[4] These caucuses formed an intimate network of politically active Black women and allowed them to discuss gendered issues outside of their organisation’s general meetings.

In 1973, a meeting between the BLF’s Gerlin Bean  and Zainab Abbas, and the defunct Black Panther Movement’s Beverley Bryan, Liz Obi and Olive Morris, culminated in the forming of Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG).[5] This new group signified the consolidation of these various women’s caucuses into the beginnings of a cohesive Black women’s movement, facilitating the later emergence of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). With the growth of this Black women’s network came the evolution of gender as a more prominent issue within wider discussions regarding Black liberation. From 1978, the late Pauline Wilson led the BLF as its general secretary. As a member of social justice charity Nacro, she was particularly concerned with the conditions of incarcerated Black people and ensured the prisoner welfare scheme remained one of the BLF’s foremost initiatives.[6] At OWAAD’s third annual conference in 1981, Wilson showcased the BLF’s staunch commitment toward prisoner welfare and delivered a workshop regarding the experiences of Black women in the prison system. Four years later, Wilson and other members of the BLF organised the first ever conference on Black women in prison.[7]

Within the pages of Grassroots, a regular Sisters Column presented discourses around the intersection of race, gender and class, body autonomy, and beauty ideals. The BLF’s collective stance remained that women’s liberation was fundamental to accomplishing an international socialist revolution. In the spirit of the Black is Beautiful movement, one Sisters Column printed in 1971 contained a message urging Black women to “Get rid of our wigs, straightening of our hair and lightening our skin”.[8] Figures such as Angela Davis were a particularly significant source of inspiration for many Black women who were concerned with challenging traditional gender roles in the context of their activisms. As such, the Sisters Columns sought to present positive, militant examples of women who had “escaped the straight-jacket role of being women”.[9]

A notable concern for Black women activists throughout the late twentieth century were experiences of discriminatory contraceptive practices, evidenced by the campaign against Depo-Provera.[10] Grassroots first reported instances of forced sterilisations in 1973. During the late 1970s, the Sisters Column ran articles entitled ‘Birth Control: What it Means to us’, to divulge the latest healthcare and medical developments in relation to Black women’s bodies. From the 1980s onwards, the Grassroots collective sought to commemorate the legacy of women within Black liberation struggles. As the BLF’s Jackie Daniel noted, “initially we never separated women’s involvements in struggles for liberation. It was just people. But it started to happen that we were being written out of the history books”.[11] Therefore, Grassroots began to run features that detailed the rich history of Black women as consistent agents of resistance, from Nzinga, the 17th c. warrior queen who fought against Portuguese colonialism in present-day Angola, to women’s presence in contemporary resistances such as the 1981 Black People’s Day of Action.

The above paragraphs have explored some of the initiatives constructed by Black Power women to ensure gender was an ever-present consideration in Black Power organising. Indeed, the BLF’s history is testament to the great contributions made by highly motivated, committed, politicised Black women that have endowed the current generation of Black women activists with a blueprint for action. There is much yet to be uncovered about these histories, watch this space!

Amelia Francis is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the University of Chichester, where she is currently researching Black women political organisers active in Britain from 1970-85.

[1] For more on the development of Black Power in Britain, see: Rosie Wild. ‘Black Was the Colour of Our Fight’: Black power in Britain, 1955-1976. (University of Sheffield, 2008). Ch. 2.

[2] Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe. The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. (London: Virago, 1985). P. 144.

[3] Gerlin Bean. Interviewed for the Heart of the Race Oral History Project. Available at the Black Cultural Archives: ORAL/1/3.

[4] Shrew. Interview with Gerlin Bean. Vol. 3. No. 8. (September, 1971). P. 11.

[5] Zainab Abbas. Interviewed by the author. (London: 13/11/2017).

[6] Dada Imarogbe. In conversation with the author. (29/12/2017).

[7] ‘Contributions from Groups’ document. Available at the Black Cultural Archives: DADZIE 1/1/17. See also Come to the First Ever Conference on Black Women in Prison’ pamphlet. Black Cultural Archives: DADZIE 1/9.

[8] Grassroots. Vol. 1. No. 3. Available at the George Padmore Institute: New 9/1-9/8.

[9] Grassroots. Vol. 1. No. 4. Available at the George Padmore Institute: New 9/1-9/8.

[10] ‘Campaign Against Depo-Provera aims’. (London, 1979). Stella Dadzie Collection. Available at the Black Cultural Archives: DADZIE 1/10

[11] Jackie Daniel. Interviewed by the author. (Reading, 13/01/2018).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.