The Forgotten Story Of The Women Behind The British Black Panthers
The Debrief: 'Let me tell you first of all, I have zero interest in Beyoncé' - Heather Agyepong speaks to Beverley Bryan, a former Black Panther, about the female Black Panthers of Brixton.
First confession, I don’t deny how hugely talented she is but I am not exactly the world’s biggest Beyoncé fan (cue face with open mouth emoji). When her now infamous Super Bowl performance landed in our Twitter feeds last month, it seemed everyone and their dog launched into a critical analysis of her true intentions (including me). Her performance and the video for Formation drew on lots of topics involving African American struggles from Ferguson when the young boy in her video puts his hands up in front of the row of police officers, the politicisation of hair with the lyric 'I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros' referencing the negatives comments made about Blue Ivy’s hairstyles, and the sinking New Orleans police car where the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is still affecting its predominantly black American inhabitants.
The costumes of her backing dancers at the Super Bowl were intended to reference the Black Panther Party, a tribute to its 50th anniversary.
The large majority believed she was speaking out for the BlackLivesMatter movement - a powerful campaign that highlights the injustices suffered by black and brown people. It’s a global movement but you probably haven’t noticed that there has been significantly less coverage of black British oppression involving women.
The tragic case of Sarah Reed, a black British women who had previously been the victim of police brutality, was found dead in her cell in Holloway Prison in January. She suffered with mental health problems and was denied treatment in prison.
Following the reporting on her death, other, similar, cases surfaced with links to alarming statistics of black women who struggle with mental health, or who fall victim to domestic violence alongside equally stark reports about specialist services designed to help them being cut.
As a member of the African diaspora in Britain, I have mostly experienced black femalehood through an African-American lens. I grew up watching Trouble and Nickelodeon, the main networks which regularly televised women of colour. Although I loved the shows filling my screen from the States then, now, as an adult, I have realised the importance of highlighting black British female experiences in their own right - to preserve, present and uphold those stories. In the biggest Black movements, women have often been less recognised, despite the fact that they have often been at the forefront of political change.
What Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance did was shine a light on those often overlooked women. But, how is that connected to the black British experience, if at all?
Okay, time for my second confession: there was actually a group of British Black Panthers in Brixton and I had absolutely no idea about this until a year ago even though I’ve pretty much grown up in and around Brixton. I discovered aged twenty-four that there was a group of brilliant women here, where I live, who had protested, squatted and advocated for the rights of black women living in the UK.
I managed to track down Beverley Bryan who was one of the last Panther recruits and a founding member of the Black Women’s group in Brixton - the first of it’s kind in the UK. She is now a retired professor at the University of West Indies and has co-authored a pioneering book about the rise of black British feminism during the 1970s called The Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain.
She was then, as she is now, truly a force to be reckoned with. I asked her to tell me about her experiences, the challenges and the triumphs of living in the UK as a black British woman.
We arranged to have a Skype session on a Monday afternoon at a quiet period during her day of teaching. She had to pull the fan closer to her as the sun beat down into her office. She sat at a large brown desk, with some books behind her and a window opened wide. I suddenly felt like this was my first therapy session with a renowned specialist and she was just about to give me some incredibly life advice, which if I’m honest is more or less what came next.
BB: So [I know] you’re going to ask me about Beyoncé, let me tell you first of all, I have zero interest in Beyoncé. I don’t kinda pretend to have an interest in her, I looked at the video you were talking about, it was Formation right? There was a link from an older American man, probably someone who was from the Panthers, the phrase he said I liked was being a black panther was not about being cool and hip it really was people who put their life on the line, some people died in order to make a point for racial and social justice.
HA: Well, I mean when I watched the performance I thought, I wonder what a Panther would say about it?
BB: Well, struggle is not a commodity, right, to get you more clicks. It’s not a commodity to be packaged and sold, so there!
HA: What drew you to the British Black Panthers and how did you get involved?
BB: I was there from about 1970 to the end in 1973. It wasn’t my first experience of black movement organisations. I was in a group called the Black Arts Workshop when I was about 16/17. Then I went to teacher’s college in Cheshire at 18. By the time I came back to London, I think I really wanted to be involved in a group that was more radical, I think I felt that we weren’t doing enough in that particular organization because it was really an education group, a consciousness raising. I thought we had to do more that’s why I joined the Black Panther movement. When I came out of college, I went to teach in Brixton and it was really just up the road, so that’s the organization I joined. We were thinking all the time, because as a country, it was very difficult to live in and you found kind of sustenance and support from being with each other and talking to each other. So we didn’t have much to do with the white community so to speak, of course at school, I went to a school that was mostly [with] whites people in Lavender Hill but the few black girls that were there, we stuck together.
HA: You’ve said that you had a strong sense of self, where did that come from?
BB: I think part of it was the school, I think part of it was the time, the only period when to be a black skinned girl was the most powerful and the most beautiful thing. I mean, it wasn’t stated that it was about shade but to be black skinned was to be beautiful. Do you understand me?
HA: Yeah I do, the whole ‘black is beautiful’ movement. I’ve only read about it but I didn’t know how it really affected people.
BB: We were! Oh God! You could hold your head, you felt you know, you were a Queen. People use to call me Empress (laughs).
HA: So, I guess my next question is because of that ‘Black is beautiful’ movement did that encourage the Black Women's group to be formed?
BB: Well, in organisations I think women are the workers and mostly the quarrelling started between the senior leadership. I don’t even know half of it, but most of [them] were men. I wouldn’t even say it was ideology, it simply fell apart... in the end we decided it can’t go on and people just went their separate ways but the group of women who were there said it really can’t end like this and Olive [Morris] was one of them. Apart from education and police brutality the third thing we were about was housing. There was a shortage of housing, and there were these houses that were empty and shops that were empty so she squatted with Liz [Obi]. I don’t know how exactly how they managed it but within a week, next thing you know, this is where we going to meet. We wanted to have a women’s group but we also wanted to continue some local work, meeting together and continuing some of our actions and we wanted some activity and the activity was a bookshop. So small support groups started to flourish from Sabarr bookshop. So the first black women’s group in the UK came out of the remnants of the Black Panther movement in 1973 in Brixton.
HA: Have you ever felt that the black British female experience is overlooked in literature and by the media?
BB: You know what I’m going to be quite critical of that, I don’t think it’s about anybody being overlooked, you overlook it, you have to write it yourself. We didn’t set up and write [The Heart of the Race] because we were writers, we were English teachers and we were activists so you can’t sit and whine about your experiences [being]overlooked, you have to write it and you have to tell it and nobody can tell it as well as you can. You know what they say, the African proverb? The Lions story will never be told by hunters, so you have to tell your own story and it will be told, the hunters will tell it and it’ll be the view of the hunters. So that’s why the Lion is always fierce, a lion is never the one that is the oppressed and the one kicked out of his home and not allowed to roam, right? It’s a very good analogy, don’t you think?
HA: You’ve got a lot of self belief Beverley, there is sometimes such a fear in me….
BB: Why? Well, sit down with somebody else and write it, that’s why we did it as a collective, the three of us sat and wrote it.
HA: Do you think that’s quite important woman working together collectively?
BB: Yes, yes I think so. I think you get more done and supporting each other and leaving the egos out the door.
HA: Did you feel like you had any particular obstacles whilst you were writing the book?
BB: No, just time…the real workers have gone before us, they had to work so I don’t think there was any excuse. I was really surprised, I meet people that say they read the book and say it had such an impact on their lives...I really thought they’d be another one coming from the next generation of women and so on, that there would be a lot of things coming out so I wouldn’t have to be talking about Beyoncé (laughs).
HA: What do you think of the increased popularity of feminism and people calling themselves feminists?
BB: I don’t know if that is true, you’re saying that is true (laughs).
HA: Do you think it’s actually advocating women’s rights or just paying lip service to a term which has cultural cache now?
BB: I think maybe you have to define it, we had this [at University], ‘what is black feminism?’.
HA: What do you think black feminism is?
BB: It’s economic as well as cultural. A case in which you understand how men and women are engendered to play certain roles within their society and understanding how you should ensure that they each play equally positive and contributory roles in this society. So I think feminism means something different in European societies where that strong patriarchy has meant that men control the levers of power. I think patriarchy has been intersected with race and culture that forces you to think about what has happened to black men. The role that they must play and how they need to be empowered because you can have a society where women do have a certain amount of control and the men take that lack of control and really enjoy it. There are times when women have all the mid level jobs where all the work is done and the big guns at the top are still men. Certainly at the time [of the panthers] we felt there was definitely a difference between black and white feminism. There are cultural imperatives that means we have to define it in certain ways, class was also a part of it and it may have been skewed that it was started by middle class white women. I remember when they wanted to be liberated from the home, but there were a lot of black women who really wanted to spend some time in their home (laughs). So there you’re talking about race and class intersecting with gender and feminism.
HA: If you could give British women one piece of advice what would say?
BB: You have to love yourself, have a strong sense of self and you can do anything, you don’t need anybody as a crutch to do it, just love yourself.
HA: Including Beyoncé right?
BB: Yes, yes she can love herself that’s right
HA: But do you think we should not be looking at celebrities to motivate us?
BB: No you can’t look to them, if you’re looking anywhere you should look inside yourself, your own family, your own community and think about ways in which you can love and help them to develop themselves. You’re only here for a time and you have to do something to say you’ve passed through. I think that’s what we had in that time, a sense in which there was certainly an urgency that we were going to change the world; ok we didn’t change the world but we did try. We did want to make a difference. OK. Love yourself and try to make a difference.
Talking to Beverley really gave me a wake up call. It shook me - to not sit and wait for others to tell my story and be encouraged to look to my neighbourhood, my friends and family as a source of inspiration.
The biggest personal hurdle I come up against is imposter syndrome; always feeling inadequate and massively under qualified to speak out against things no matter how desperately passionate I am about them.
Today British woman are establishing incredible creative platforms to showcase our experiences on from art exhibitions and online magazines to documentaries, podcasts and entire organisations, creating important and challenging content written by and for women of colour. The keys seem to be working collectively, understanding the importance of self love and building a community to reflect that back at one another. Black British female lives will forever matter and women of all races, must encourage each other's narratives in order to move forward into our shared goal of equality, peace and justice.
We owe that to the people who have gone before us and the generations that will come after us.
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