Black British Feminism: An Explainer
From the start of the 20th century several people started arriving in Britain from British colonies such as Jamaica, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Trinidad and Tobago.
At first, these were primarily small groups of students coming to further their education in the mother country but, following World War II, larger groups started coming. After World War II ended in 1945, many British colonies experienced extreme economic and political instability, causing thousands to come to Britain in search of jobs and economic opportunities they could only dream of finding back home. Of those who came to work, perhaps the most well-known are the 492 Jamaicans who arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on the HMT Empire Windrush boat in 1948.
All these early migrant communities experienced severe racial discrimination in Britain. People would refuse to rent to them, people would refuse to employ them, and people would shout racial abuse at them on the street. Some were even killed in racially motivated attacks.
This dangerous racial climate caused some to become activists, including some women. These Black women, the originators of Black British feminism, experienced racism because they were Black and sexism because they were women. They fought back, campaigning for civil rights, reproductive rights, and independence for their African and Caribbean homelands. They also prioritised cross-racial solidarity, often fighting alongside South Asian women who had similar experiences with racism and sexism in Britain.
These brave Black female activists included Una Marson: a Jamaican writer and poet who, soon after arriving in Britain in 1932, became a key member of the League of Coloured Peoples – a British anti-colonial and anti-racist activist group. Claudia Jones: a Trinidadian activist who famously organised a march against racist immigration policy in 1962 and was the instigator of the original Notting Hill Carnival. Fellow Trinidadian Jocelyn Barrow: who, alongside other students and young activists, played a key role in getting the UK’s first anti-discrimination act passed in 1965 – Europe’s first race discrimination law. Olive Morris: a Jamaican activist who died at 27 but achieved a lot in her short life, including defending a Nigerian diplomat against police brutality. She also co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group – a 1970s group created to fight against state racism and to protect the reproductive rights of Black women. Stella Dadzie: a woman of Ghanaian and English heritage who, in 1978, co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent – a cross-racial anti-racist group. In 1985, she co-authored The Heart Of The Race, an award-winning book about the history of Black women’s activism in Britain.
When confronted with racism and sexism, Marson, Jones, Barrow, Morris and Dadzie took charge of their destinies and fought back. Today, against a changing social, economic and digital landscape, a new wave of young Black British feminists continue the mission to end discrimination in Britain.
- Tobi Oredein – the founder of Black Ballad, an online magazine that uplifts Black British women’s voices.
- Tanya Compas – the founder of Exist Loudly, an organisation that works to uplift Black LGBTQIA+ youth through creativity, self-expression and digital storytelling.
- Ebinehita Iyere – the founder of Milk Honey Bees, a London-based group that provides young Black girls with skills and opportunities to navigate society.
- Mercy Shibemba – born HIV positive, Shibemba is now an HIV/Aids activist who promotes equality for children, women and young people living with HIV.
- Temi Mwale – the founder of the 4FrontProject, an organisation that advocates for all Black young people impacted by violence.
Seun Matiluko is a British writer and researcher in law, race and politics. She has written for publications including Gal-dem, The Independent and Glamour, and is the host of the Black British women’s history podcast Hello From Britain!