London’s Black Heroines

Black Lives Matter - London - June 2020 by Anne Quesney

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“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own,” Audre Lorde

This blog was written at a time of huge political unrest in the US following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020. While it is written in the context of a ‘travel blog’ focusing on black women in London, past and present, it is shaped by recent events. 

As a white European intersectional feminist writing about race, I might (likely will) get things wrong – if / when I do, please call me out, I am learning, but I cannot stand in silence and watch as black and brown people, here and elsewhere, continue to face discrimination in every aspect of their lives, continue being attacked or murdered because of the colour of their skin. Enough is enough! #AllBlackLivesMatter

Black and brown women – or Black And Minority Ethnics (BAME) as they are also known as – have long played an important role in every aspect of London life – mostly, however, their stories and legacy have been erased.

Florence Nightingale, Emeline Pankhurst and Mary Wollstonecraft have become well established household names – and rightly so, they have many achievements under their belts and should be duly celebrated. It has after all taken long enough for them to reach the pantheon of all-time greats. But have you heard of Mary Prince, Mary Seacole or Princess Sophia Duleep Singh? These trailblazers somehow slipped history’s nets, because for far too long we have privileged white heroes/heroines and role models – misrepresenting the reality and diversity of British life and multi-ethnic successes and achievements.

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race Book by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
Book by Reni Eddo-Lodge

It really struck me, when Reni Eddo Lodge mentions in the opening paragraph of her must read ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’; that as a young girl, she’d only ever encountered black history through American-centric lessons at school and a million miles away from her life in North London.

If you are white, take a moment to imagine what it must feel like.

Starting with slavery and colonialism seems particularly timely – especially after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol a couple of weeks ago and calls for the statue of Cecil Rhodes to be taken down from Oxford’s Oriel College are finally being heard.

In her powerful autobiography, The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (1831), Mary Prince, recounts first-hand her experience as a slave in the late 18th century, of being sold at a market where she “was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase ». Her story was so brutal, few people believed her. We know now that millions of people suffered the same fate – many dying in the process. Yet we continue to celebrate the perpetrators.

Mary Prince (c. 1 October 1788 – after 1833) was the first black woman in Britain to publish the account of her life and the first to file a petition to Parliament. Her story, published at a time when slavery was still legal in England, played a pivotal role in the campaign to abolish it. Today, her story remains largely unheard and there is no memorial commemorating her – yet!

Coverbook : The History of Mary Prince by Mary Prince (Penguin Classics)
Book cover : The History of Mary Prince by Mary Prince (Penguin Classics)
Book cover : Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands By Mary Seacole (1805-1881). London: James Blackwood Paternoster Row, 1857.
Book cover : Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands
By Mary Seacole (1805-1881). London: James Blackwood Paternoster Row, 1857.

It is particularly befitting, in the middle of this pandemic which has seem people of BAME backgrounds disproportionately affected in the UK, to focus on healthcare workers, many of whom also happen to be BAME – and to shine the light on the work of Mary Seacole.

Mary Seacole (23 November 1805 – 14 May 1881) was a nurse and a healer from the Caribbean – of joint mixed Jamaican and Scottish heritage. Inspired by her mother’s extensive knowledge of plants and skills as a healer, Mary embarked on a remarkable journey that took her from Jamaica to London via Panama.

In London she tried to join a contingent of nurses headed for the Crimean Peninsula, but was rejected several times, including by Florence Nightingale’s organisation, wondering whether it was at all « possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? »

It didn’t deter Mary. Woman on a mission, she set off on her own dime and built a ‘hotel’ and store in the settlement of Balaklava. From there, in addition to the provision of food, drink and other essentials, she treated injured soldiers on the battlefield. She quickly became known as ‘Mother Seacole’, a figure so popular that in 1857 upon returning to England 80,000 people turned up to honour her as a Crimean hero. Her autobiography, the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, the first written by a ‘free’ black woman in Britain, became a best seller overnight.

Statue of Mary Seacole, Thomas's Hospital, London
Statue of Mary Seacole, Thomas’s Hospital, London

After her death, her story fell into obscurity for over a century. It was not until 2004, when she was voted into first place in an online poll for ‘Great Black Britons’, that Mary Seacole reclaimed her place in history. In 2007, a blue plaque was erected at No. 14 Soho Square, where she wrote her adventures, and, 9 years later, after 12 ½ years of campaigning and fundraising, including by the illustrious Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, a statue of Mary Seacole was finally unveiled in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital. It is the first statue of a black woman in the United Kingdom.

There are of course many more black and brown women to honour – from poet Phillis Wheatly, suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh or Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Eaton whose stories and lives are so inextricably linked to Britain’s dark and violent colonial past. Every single one of them making Britain the place it is today, every single one of them deserves her rightful place in our history – as do their many contemporaries.

This brings me full circle to Bernardine Evaristo whose mesmerising novel Girl, Woman, Other I’ve just finished reading. Last year – in 2019! – she became the first black woman and first black British author to win the Booker prize, after 40 years in the arts! Another first.

In a recent interview – At home with Bernardine Evaristo – she reflects on the black British experience; on how little it has been explored and how underrepresented black authors continue to be in the UK today. She highlights the shift – as opposed to change! – brought about by the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements – including how they have influenced how her writing is received.

Girl, Woman, Other is a fascinating, intricate, intimate portrait of 12 (mostly black) women and girls in Britain (mostly in London). It explores their lives and sexualities, motherhood, girlhood, gender identities, and race. Through her intersectional feminist lens, Evaristo truly captures their realities over the space of a century. It is extremely powerful and moving – truly a literary tour de force and I highly recommend it.

UK and US women writers' books : Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi, Why I'm no longer talking about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis, KIndred by Octavia E.Butler
UK and US women writers’ books : Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi, Why I’m no longer talking about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis, KIndred by Octavia E.Butle

Recent events have led to a surge in demand for black writers. At long last! If you are looking for ideas, here is a non_exhaustive list – a mix of UK and US authors, fiction and non-fiction, that I have read, loved and learned so much from:

Octavia E. Butler; Kindred

Angela Y. Davis; Women, Race, Class

Bernardine Evaristo; Girl Woman Other

Toni Morrison; The Bluest Eyes

Lola Olufemi; Feminism, Interrupted

Reni Eddo Lodge; Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race

For more inspiration, check out: @blackfeministbookshop and @antiracistbooshelf on Instagram.

Looking to support women’s rights organisations which support BAME women?

Southall Black Sisters

Sistah Space

Women for Refugee Women

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