A Quick & Dirty Intro to Black British Feminism

29th Jan 2014

A Quick & Dirty Intro to Black British Feminism
A lot of us know about Black American feminist writing: you only need to ask how many black feminists found their way to feminism through bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins or Audre Lorde to understand the impact of Black American feminist scholarship.

However, after watching that amazing conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry, I realised I desperately needed to find a feminism that reflected my specific experiences of being a black woman in Britain and navigating through issues of ‘black identity’, ‘black womanhood’, dual cultural identity among other issues. Black British Feminism.

First, I found blogs including the London Black Feminist’s website, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s blog No Comment, Media Diversified (they even have a dedicated section for academics), Emma Dabiri’s wonderful blog Black Girl Dancing At Lughnasa (you have to read her article Who Stole All The Black Women from Britain?).

Then I found the books. I’ve chosen to recommend only three books as a introduction to Black British feminist thought partly because they are that good but mostly because British Black feminist scholarship is still in its infancy, limiting the number of books available.

It is also worth pointing out that while many of the texts here use ‘Black’ in the political sense (and I do the same), all of them speak especially to the experiences and histories of women who are of African, (south) Asian and Caribbean descent and origin.

First up: Black British Feminism: A Reader edited by Heidi Safia Mirza. If you read only one book about Black British feminism, make it this one. Two pages into the introduction were enough to have me nodding in agreement and feeling like finally, finally someone had put into words our existence as young black woman in Britain.

The rest of the essays are similarly head-nodding-in-agreement inducing as they discuss issues around ‘black identity’, ‘mixed-raced identity’, sexuality, post colonialism, cultural hybridity and so much more in order to give a thorough picture of the key issues faced by black British feminists.

One of my favourite essays from the anthology, and the one I recommend you start with, is Hazel V. Carby’s White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood [Ed note: we’ve linked to a free online version of this article but please do buy the book as well!].

Carby does an excellent job of breaking down the ways in which colonialism, race, gender and class have interacted to shape the ways in which Black feminists understand feminism and oppression.

Two pages into the introduction were enough to have me nodding in agreement and feeling like finally, finally someone had put into words our existence as young black woman in Britain. While the anthology is undoubtedly the textbook for Black British feminism, it is not without its shortcomings: for instance, it would have been great to see an article that addressed issues faced by Black trans* women.

I first came across The Heart of Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe when it was the subject of an exhibition at The Women’s Library a few years ago.

Since then, it’s been made the subject of an oral history project by the Black Cultural Archives. You can listen to the interviews at the BCA centre or the British Library, or better yet watch snippets of the interviews on British Library’s Sisterhood Before and After page.

Made up of five chapters that focus on education, work, welfare, cultural belong and political organising, The Heart of Race uses interviews and analysis to make sense of issues of racism and sexism that Black women faced and reveals how they mobilised.

It’s only fault, if you can call it that, is that despite being associated with the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) and using the term “Black” in the title, The Heart of Race focuses exclusively on presenting the histories of Caribbean women.

In doing so, however, it does shed some light on the complexity organisations found themselves faced with when using black both a political term and as a racial indicator; a complexity that would eventually give rise to tensions that would lead to the disbanding of OWAAD.

That said, given its focus on Caribbean women, a good follow up read would be Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain edited by W. James and C. Harris, if only for its inclusion of an essay by Amina Wilson on Caribbean women, power dynamics, domestic violence and economic dependence.

Lastly, we have ‘Other Kinds of Dreams’: Black Women’s Organisations and the Politics of Transformation by Julia Sudbury.

If Black British Feminism: A Reader focuses primarily on academic theory and The Heart of Race provides first hand testimonies, Other Kinds of Dreams offers a history of Black women’s political organisation not only in autonomous women’s only spaces (Southall Black Sisters and OWAAD, for example), but also their participation in the political organisations of the black and Asian communities as a whole. The book plays a vital role in ensuring the history of black women’s agency in political organisation and activism is remembered.

The conclusion is especially great as Sudbury uses it to talk about the exclusion of some women from the movements (namely lesbian and bisexual women) as well as to address the term ‘Black’.

She describes how it went an umbrella term for ethnic minority groups (albeit predominantly Asian, African and Caribbean groups) to one that was the exclusive currency of primarily African and Caribbean communities as a result of government intervention (namely the 1991 Census) and the growing popularity of African American culture.

Although not specifically about Black women or feminism (or indeed written by women!), I would also recommend taking a look at the following books for an understanding of race relations in Britain: There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation by Paul Gilroy and Dilip Hiro’s Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain.

And that’s it! I hope someone finds this useful to finding a feminism that reflects their experiences, or indeed helps someone to be a better intersectional feminist.


  • Erin says:

    Thank you so much for the links. I have wondered myself on who to read as a black british feminist, and yes, it was also the amazing conversation re bell hooks et al that sent me on a search.

    • Vimbai Dzimwasha says:

      I’m glad you’ve found the article useful, Erin. The bell hooks/Melissa Harris Perry conversation was amazing but by the end of it I wanted to something similar take place between black british feminists and I hope that one day I will!