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Black History Month 2023: Saluting our sisters

This Black History Month, our Content and Copy Writer is shining a spotlight on five of the brilliant Black women who have inspired her.

Where do you begin when there are so many extraordinary Black British women to celebrate? This Black History Month the theme is ‘saluting our sisters’, and I wanted to share some of the women who’ve inspired me.

Malorie Blackman

The writer who made me want to be a writer. I was 13 years old when I read Noughts and Crosses, the first in a series of six novels and three novellas. It’s a young adult novel set-in dystopian Britain where the ‘pale-skinned’ Noughts are treated as inferior and discriminated against by the ruling ‘dark-skinned’ Crosses. The book eloquently explores racism, prejudice and politics while telling the story of star-crossed lovers Sephy and Callum. It’s still celebrated 22 years later and even became a TV series in 2020 (And it’s still on iPlayer!).

Malorie had 82 rejections before her debut book - Not So Stupid! was finally published. She’s since written over 70 books for children and young adults and was the Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015. She’s received many awards for her work, including, most recently, the 2022 PEN Pinter Prize. She’s just published her memoir, Just Sayin’: My Life in Words – go check it out.

Olive Morris

Olive wasn’t born in the UK. She came over at nine years old to join her parents, who were part of the Windrush generation. And she had a huge impact on my hometown of Brixton (“my heart will always be in Brixton” too, Olive). She was a fearless, radical community activist, and part of the Black Panthers’ Youth Collective. She dedicated her life to fighting racial, sexual and class oppression, and was a co-founder of the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG), which existed from 1973-1989. It brought together Black and Asian women to focus on political, social and cultural issues impacting Black women. Olive sadly died of cancer at just 27 in 1979.

Having spent many years demonstrating for better housing rights, the BBWG successfully campaigned for 18 Brixton Hill (Lambeth’s Housing Office) to be renamed in her memory in 1986. Unfortunately, ‘Olive Morris House’ was demolished in 2020, but the Remembering Olive Collective blog keeps her name and story alive by bringing together the personal memories of those who knew her, as well as publishing information and materials related to her life and work. Once reopened in its new location, you’ll be able to find information about her at the Lambeth Archives in Brixton. Because of Olive’s profound impact, we can’t be sure what will be dedicated to her in the future. But what’s certain is, if she was still alive, she’d definitely still be fighting.

Reni Eddo-Lodge

Reni is a journalist, author, and podcaster. I was able to meet her at an event, so I took the opportunity to ask her to sign my already pre-signed copy of her book. I bumbled on about how she inspired me when all she probably wanted to do was drink a gallon of wine, but she indulged me anyway. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race gave me newfound confidence when it came to talking about racism in the UK. It’s an exploration of how British society is shaped by race. It was easy when I was younger to look at the US and agree when people say that all the issues are over there. Even the little Black history we learnt in school focused on America. But the more educated and aware I became – and the more I experienced – I realised that systemic issues are still so prevalent on this side of the Atlantic. And Reni’s book helped me to articulate that.

Her debut book Why I’m, published in 2017, received countless recognition and awards (as it should) and she was the first Black British author to top the UK book charts in June 2020 (well deserved, but interesting, given the world was in turmoil because of more than Covid at the time). It’s a book I still recommend to this day. In her fearless yet eloquent way, she ripped this country’s system to shreds, in an effort to change hearts and minds. And I reckon she probably changed plenty of them. My hope is that Black authors who happen to write about race can go on to write about whatever they want, and still be as successful. Watch this interview where she discusses the book with Emma Watson here.

Baroness Doreen Lawrence

Though I’d rather not know her name, Doreen Lawrence’s is one that should be revered and recognised. Doreen started her campaigning work in 1993, after her son, Stephen, was killed in a racist attack. She and her husband fought hard for their son’s justice and brought better attention to racism and corruption in the police force. She’s taken a personal tragedy and created a positive impact for so many young people and the Black community as a whole.

Now, sitting on the Labour benches in the House of Lords, she continues her efforts for racial equality, working with charities and the government to make change. She’s outspoken about injustice – particularly institutional racism in the police force, which she believes is as rife as it was 30 years ago – and she’s dedicated in the fight to create greater equality and inclusion for all. Read about the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation here.

Margaret Busby

Margaret is best known as Britain’s youngest and first Black female publisher who’s tirelessly campaigned for greater diversity in publishing. Alongside Clive Allison, she founded independent publishing house Allison and Busby in 1967. She’s also an editor, writer, broadcaster, and literary critic. And just this year, she became the President of English PEN, one of the world's oldest human rights organisations that champions the freedom to read and write around the world.

Although it was highly rejected by publishers, she published a very well-known book called The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee, a satire thriller about the first African American man hired by the CIA who was given a very visible non-job (the point being to improve the CIA’s image). Apparently, thought of as a handbook for guerrilla warfare, one of the first Black FBI agents, Aubrey Lewis, told the author that the book went on to be required reading at the FBI Academy.

Even now, we see that the publishing industry is still extremely posh and white. Margaret said in a 2020 interview for The Guardian: “I can still go to literary parties where I’m the only Black person. So, what are we going to do? It’s not just about saying: ‘Well, we’ll let one in to sit by the door so people can see, so nobody can accuse us of being un-diverse. But what next?”

Interested in finding out about more extraordinary Black British women? Here are some I recommend you read about:

Afua Hirsch

Yrsa Daley Ward

Bernadine Evaristo

Joan Armatrading

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