Black History, Blog and News

Quiet resistance: Black women in British publishing in the 1970s and 1980s, by Preeti Dhillon

Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a revival in the UK of our own civil rights movement and interest in anti-racist history. Much of this revival has focused on the more dramatic aspects of anti-racist resistance, like the high-profile court cases, such as that of the Mangrove Nine in 1971, or the major uprisings and demonstrations that were seen across the country in 1981. One area of radical resistance that is less well-publicised is the world of writing and publishing in all its forms. Writing and publishing have always been about more than art and creation: getting to choose whose stories are heard and how is a deeply political act. Black women were central in using the written word as an act of resistance.

Alongside campaigning on the streets, nearly every Black organisation in the 1960s to 1980s had its own newsletter. These were sold on the street, outside Black owned businesses, and in Black owned bookstores. Alongside newspapers like Claudia Jones’s West Indian Gazette, newsletters were an essential means of communicating with the community, to educate and organise in the days before internet. They reported on issues of the day ignored by mainstream media, and provided a counterbalance to the biased reporting of issues that did get column space.

One of these newsletters was Speak Out published by the Brixton Black Women’s Group, active from 1973 to 1986. The editorial of the first issue described one of its objectives to ‘free our minds to free our bonds and our sisters [sic] bonds!’.[1] Another major publication was FOWAAD!, the newsletter of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), formed in 1978. Together with Speak Out, these newsletters covered important issues which were often ignored elsewhere, like the widespread control of Black and Brown women’s bodies through the contraceptive injection Depo-Provera.

The magazine which perhaps most defined the 1970s and 1980s for the British Black community was Race Today. As the 2019 anthology states, the magazine ‘was at the epicentre of the struggle for racial justice in Britain.’[2] Originally the journal of the Institute of Race Relations, it was taken over by an independent radical collective in 1973. The offices were in a squat in Brixton, in a space found by Black activist Olive Morris, a key figure in the squatting movement in Lambeth. Under the strapline ‘voice of the black community in Britain’, the magazine covered everything from high profile trials like the Oval 4 in 1972  Bradford 12 in 1981, to industrial actions by Black and Brown workers, like the strike at Grunwick from 1976 to 1978. The Race Today Collective was also integral in community organising, such as the National Black People’s Day of Action in 1981. Leila Hassan Howe, a former activist in the Black Power group the Black Unity and Freedom Party and employee the Institute of Race Relations, was deputy editor of Race Today from its takeover, and editor from 1985 until it stopped publication in 1988. Under Hassan Howe’s leadership, Race Today organised a memorial event in honour of James Baldwin in 1988 which Maya Angelou headlined.[3]

As well as an urgent demand for news for Black communities, there was high demand for books by Black authors. Book publishing in the UK today notoriously has a diversity problem, with publishing assuming that readers are White and middle-class, and fifty-odd years ago this was even worse.[4] The only course of action was to publish books by themselves, for themselves.

Margaret Busby was the first Black woman to enter independent publishing in the UK in 1965, co-founding the company Allison & Busby. Other women soon joined the industry. Jessica Huntley was one such woman who, along with her husband Eric, was integral to the publishing scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Their publishing house, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, brought us titles that are still widely read, such as Walter Rodney’s first book The Groundings with my Brothers in 1969, as well as his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1972. They published Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher, which was republished in 2021 by Faber, and works by dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Lemn Sissay. Alongside publishing, Huntley was also active in community campaigning, such as against the widespread use of ‘sus’ laws.

Physical bookshops to house these Black publications were also important. There were probably more Black bookstores and publishers in the 1970s than there are now. Few from that time remain, with New Beacon Books in London being the notable exception. The Sabarr Bookshop Collective was created by the Brixton Black Women’s Group at 121 Railton Road, where Olive Morris, Liz Obi and Zainab Abbas squatted. The Huntleys created Bogle-L’Ouverture Bookshop in Ealing and renamed the store the Walter Rodney Bookshop after his assassination in 1980.

Bookstores were always more than places to sell books. With other public spaces often either closed off to Black people or unsafe, bookstores became safe havens for the community. Supplementary school classes were held in bookstores, activist meetings, parties and martial arts. The Sabarr bookstore made connections with schools to help them diversify educational material available to students.

The importance of these bookstores to the Black community was reflected in the abuse and discrimination they faced. The Black Panther’s Unity Bookshop was firebombed, and physical damage was commonplace: everything from swastika graffiti to the smearing of excrement on the walls. At Bogle-L’Ouverture Bookstore, one customer would buy all the greeting cards and proceed to cut them up in the middle of the store.[5] With a lack of concern from the police about the abuse, Black bookstores started a Bookshop Joint Action committee, with the slogan ‘we will not be terrorized out of existence.’[6]

The high point of Black publishing in the UK was the International Book Fair of Radical and Black Third World Books, co-founded by Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, New Beacon Books and the Race Today Collective. Jessica Huntley was a co-director and driving force behind the book fair which ran from 1982 until 1995. The ‘who’s who’ of Black writers and publishers from around the world attended the Book Fair during its lifetime, including Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison.

As strides were made in Black publishing, the lives of Black women in the UK were highlighted for the first time in book form in The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe in 1985.[7] This groundbreaking book highlighted the stories of work, family and resistance of Black women, in their own words. It remains one of very few books to address the lives of Black women in Britain even today.

Today, book publishing in the UK is unfortunately not as different as it was fifty years ago. It still has a diversity problem, reflected in both those who work in the industry as well as the writers that get published.[8] Black women only topped the book bestseller lists for the first time in 2020.[9] And like fifty years ago, Black women continue to drive change in writing and publishing, with magazines like gal-dem, and publishers like Dialogue Books and Jacaranda. Here’s hoping that in another fifty years this need will be spoken of only in the history books.

Preeti is an author, researcher and historian. Her forthcoming debut book, The Shoulders We Stand On: How Black and Brown people fought for change in the UK will tell the stories of ten remarkable movements, campaigns and organisations led by Black and Brown people that fought against racism in the 1960s to 1980s. Follow her on Twitter @preetikdhillon

Image: An interview with Leila Howe Hassan, founding member of the Race Today collective and editor of the Race Today journal. https://www.islington.media/resources/tony-douglas-russell-pierre-leila-hassan-and-barbara-bees

[1] Black Women’s Group Brixton. Speak Out pamphlet. Issue no. 1. Available from:  https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/8wGd1OOMcK7W-w?childAssetId=AAGU4AesP8EEbg

[2] Hassan L, Bunce R and Field P. Introduction. In Field P, Bunce R, Hassan L and Peacock M eds. Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A Race Today anthology. 2019. London: Pluto Press.

[3] Andrews K. Leila Hassan Howe: ‘My life was made hell. You’d just hear a tirade against immigrants’, The Guardian, 8 October 2020. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/08/leila-hassan-howe-black-power-london-revolution-black-lives-matter

[4] See Spread the Word, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, 2020, p2

[5] Black History Walks. Books, violence and resistance with Eric Huntley: part 2 of 4. 2021. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hhq8Ce3yDVY

[6] Beckles C. ‘We shall not be terrorized out of existence’: The political legacy of England’s Black Bookshops, Journal of Black Studies, 1998, 29(1), pp.51-72.

[7] Bryan B, Dadzie S and Scafe S. The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. 1985. London: Virago Press. Republished by Verso in 2018.

[8] See Spread the Word, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, 2020.

[9] Kale S. ‘This has never happened before!’ Bernardine Evaristo and Reni Eddo-Lodge on their history-making year, The Guardian, 24 December 2020. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/dec/24/this-has-never-happened-before-bernardine-evaristo-and-reni-eddo-lodge-on-their-history-making-year

Leave a Reply

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