Heart of the matter
In the first of four features to mark Black History Month, Angela Cobbinah talks to one of the authors of a radical book that emerged from the civil rights ferment more than 30 years ago
05 October, 2018 — By Angela Cobbinah
BACK in the day there was a book that every woman I knew had a copy of and if they didn’t they would borrow mine. That is why it eventually had to be held together by sticky tape.
Documenting for the first time the lives of black women in Britain as told by those who were living it, Heart of the Race went on to become a best seller, award winner and academic fixture.
Now, 33 years on, it has been republished as a feminist classic.
So it is a surprise to learn that Heart was originally written anonymously as part of a women’s book group.
“We wrote with no names but simply contributed as a collective, recognising that we were speaking on behalf of other people,” explains Stella Dadzie, one of the three authors.
“But the publishers told us that someone’s name had to go on the book cover, so that was that.”
Such an attitude, almost unheard of in our self-serving times, reflected Heart’s radical roots. The book evolved out of the social and political ferment of the civil rights struggle sweeping Britain in the late 1970s as black people rebelled against a system designed to keep them at the bottom of the heap.
Out of the myriad community-based groups making a stand emerged was one that was to take everyone by surprise in terms of its impact and scope. It went by the unwieldy name of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent and was always referred to as “Owaad”.
Artwork from the cover of Heart of the Race
Stella, who worked as a teacher at the time and describes herself today as an education activist and historian, was one of its founding members and recalls the first meeting in Brixton in 1978: “I had never seen so many black women gathered together in one hall. I was not expecting it and it was hugely empowering.”
She adds: “Originally it was aimed at African Caribbean women, but African Asian unity became a principle of the organisation in recognition of the fact that state racism might manifest itself in all different sorts of ways but ends up oppressing us all the same.”
Owaad quickly developed into a national space for women to organise and debate, away from male-dominated set-ups and white feminist groups, and held regular meetings and “study days”, all culminating in annual conferences. There was even a newsletter, neatly titled Fowaad.
The conferences were considered must-attend events and I remember turning up at one at Acland Burleigh School in Camden and being struck by the heady feeling that I was part of something really big.
“We were young, idealistic and sometimes we did not get things right but there was a huge desire to advance black women’s position,” agrees Stella. “There was a lot of spontaneous community activism that needed to be channelled and Owaad became an important crucible. People like Diane Abbott and Valerie Amos, if they were not at the forefront, would have attended Owaad events and like other women would have gone on to disseminate its politics through their careers, partnership choices and lifestyles.”
However, Owaad’s initial strength became its weakness and it began to creak beneath the weight of its many divergent voices, not to mention the absence of any paid staff or outside funding.
After burning so brightly for four years, Owaad’s spark finally went out and it disbanded.
But prior to this, the feminist publishers Virago had approached Stella about writing a book about African Caribbean women. She took the suggestion back to Owaad and a book collective was started in line with the organisation’s famously non-hierarchical approach to decision-making. Among its core members were fellow teachers Suzanne Scafe and Beverley Bryan, who would go on to become Heart of the Race’s co-authors.
Published in 1985, the book is a scholarly examination of black women’s position in British society via the prism of slavery, colonialism and migration, interwoven with personal testimonies around contemporary flashpoints like health, housing and employment.
“Owaad was about giving black women a voice and the book was part of that project,” explains Stella. “Although there were books around about black women, these came from the US. This was the first one that described our history and our struggles in our voice and that is why it struck such a chord.”
It was an immediate success, winning the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize and featuring in Time Out magazine’s top 10 reads for several weeks.
Its republication coincides with a resurgence of interest in black feminism, with the Owaad papers being the most visited archive at the Black Cultural Archives and Heart itself still included on university courses.
What is encouraging for Stella is the number of young women who turned up to the series of launches held over the summer alongside Owaad old timers.
“There has been a kind of vacuum since Owaad and young black women are really looking for something that speaks to them,” she says earnestly. The fact is, although the kinds of demands we made back in the 80s are taken for granted now, very little has changed. True, there is more black women female visibility –Diane in the Commons, Michelle in the White House and Meghan at the Palace – but this has created an illusion that black women have made it. We are still struggling and cleaning up other people’s mess. Windrush and Grenfell confirm my suspicions that we are still very much at the bottom.”
She concludes with a flourish: “Heart has stood the test of time and people continue to treasure it. I hope that it will influence a new generation of women, that it will speak to not just to black women but dispossessed young women in general.”
• Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. By Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe and Beverley Bryan. Verso, £11.99
Black History Month: upcoming events
Saturday October 6
• Screening of popular 1980 film Babylon, about the trials and tribulations of Blue, who fronts a dub sound system, loses his job and has his friendships tested by racism. 5.30-7.30pm, CLR James Library, Dalston Square, E8 3BQ. Free but book in advance: 020 8356 3000 for more details. Age 15+
• Discussion with Kandace Chimbiri, the author of black history books for children, including the just-published Story of the Windrush. 12-2pm, Wood Green Library, 187-197 High Rd, N22 6XD. Free but entry restricted to first 30 attending
Sunday October 7
• Tour of the British Museum’s prized African collections, including Bronzes of Benin and artefacts in the Egyptian Gallery. 2-4.30pm, British Museum, Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG. £10 adults, £5 children (must be aged 7+). Pre-booking essential, 020 7323 8181/ email@example.com . Meeting place indicated on ticket
• Veteran actor and one-time dancer Allister Bain discusses his autobiography The French Cashew Tree. 2-3.30pm, Hornsey Library, Haringey Park, N8 9JA. Free
Tuesday October 9
• In conversation with filmmaker Amma Asante, an event organised by the Greater London Authority. 6-9pm, City Hall, Queen’s Walk, SW1 2AA. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Sounds Like London: Lloyd Bradley discusses his best-selling book tracing the history of black music in the capital with Jazzy B. 6-7.45pm, Homerton Library, Homerton High St, E9 6AS. Free but book in advance: 020 8356 3000. Age 15+
Wednesday October 10
• In conversation with Irenosen Okojie, who won the Betty Trask Prize for her debut novel Butterfly Fish. 5-6.30pm, Wood Green Library, 187-197A High Road, N22 6XD. Free but tel 020 8489 2783 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book. Earlier in the day, Irenosen will run a short story workshop at the same venue. 2-3.30pm. Booking details as above.
• Jamaica, Britain and the Maroon Wars: author and genealogist Paul Crooks draws on his own experience of tracing his West African ancestry to tell the story of Jamaica’s Maroon people. 7pm, Impact Hub Brixton, Pop Up Brixton, 49 Brixton Station Road, SW9 8PQ. Tickets £5 (early bird ticket, £3). Email: email@example.com
• Lovers Rock Monologues: Join musical pioneers Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson and Victor Romero Evans as they take a trip down memory lane. 8pm, Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Town Hall Approach Road, Tottenham Green, N15 4RX. Tickets: £22/+concs from berniegrantcentre.co.uk
Thursday October 11
• Colour of Madness: Exploring black mental health in the UK via poetry, fiction, memoirs, essay and art. 6pm, Brixton Library, Brixton Oval, SW2 1JQ; 7pm. Free, tel 020 7926 1058 for more details
• Screening of three-part documentary Out Of Darkness (cert PG) examining the untold history of African people. 7-9.30pm, Wood Green Library, 187-197A High Road, N22 6XD. Free