Top row, left to right: Dianne Abbott, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou and Miriam Makeba; Second row, left to right: Nanny, Bernardine Evaristo, Harriet Tubman and Jackie Kay
When you see a Black woman, what image does it conjure up in your minds eye? Be honest now, I would hazard a guess, admittedly dependent on who you are, but in general it is an image more pitiful than celebratory…well unless you are thinking of a pop-culture figure, but even with those transcendent figures their ethnicity or race is rather glossed over and rendered a non-fact. That’s how the media chooses to side-step uncomfortable truths and chooses to mass market an appeal for max profits. So Beyonce’s lyrics to “Formation” clearly referencing The “Black Power Movement” jarred and shocked her White fan base (See SNL’s hilarious ‘The Day Beyonce Turned Black’ The Day Beyoncé Turned Black- SNL – YouTube) and her “Brown-Skinned Girl” signalled that perhaps she had a racialised context that she cared about after-all, not just the melodious pop tunes that appealed to a fan base who did not understand the heritage that made her who she is.
In the rest world we are used to seeing Black women as our institutional cleaning staff, the cluster of students within particular subject disciplines (totally absent from others), as professional staffers, but there are yawning gaps and sparse representation at senior levels. In public life; political, financial, CEO-cliques, the upper echelons of health care, media, the judiciary even working across the Royal households and charities at senior level, it is truly painful particularly when you travel to the USA and see the sheer brilliance of representation across the board unlike the UK, Europe, and parts of the English-speaking world. In the British HE system we all know that the absence or near absence of Black women across the executive and senior executive is totally “normalised” irrespective of the EDI agenda which quite frankly has benefited every other “protected characteristic” and White women on the whole. As for significant representation on decision-making funding bodies, as research-leads, early career researchers, as departmental HoDs, it remains an intractable state of affairs.
Of course, the voices of Black women that work in HE testify loud and clear for those that really want to hear; so many testimonies of the micro-aggressions from colleagues and students alike. Made to feel out of place, a “space invader” to coin sociologist Nirmal Puwar’s term. Or conversely treated as exceptional, one minute lauded but the next encouraged to “stay in your lane.” Always having to justify oneself in a way that demonstrates value. Not encouraged to be innovative, or a “thought-leader” breaking new ground, as White peers would be-with the knock-on effect of a rapid rise. The odd heralded appointment then quick departure a little while longer with no accountability. Overlooked for promotion or actively discouraged to go for promotion. Or promotion when it comes taking twice as long than for White peers. The micro-management or overburdened with higher expectation to perform when compared to White peers. The subtly of being undermined, patronised, and gaslighted. Sound familiar to some? Again, I guess it depends on who you are and to whom you have bothered to ask those difficult questions of. It has all been chronicled time and time again. HE is a reflective microcosm of the larger society, and it ain’t changing anytime soon, if COVID working stories of BAME HE academics and professionals are anything to go by.1
However, this is the time to talk, the Black Lives Matter phenomenon has opened debate in the UK as elsewhere. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign is calling for accountability not only in representation of the figures of the past, but who it is that narrates the histories going forward. The “Ain’t I A Woman” conference platforms scholars who are researching the rounded and multi-faceted elements of Black women; mothers, grandmothers, adventurers, innovators, business people, teachers, activists and more in new and innovative ways. As part of Goldsmiths’ Library’s Black History Month series three Black British historians invite you to gather and join the palaver of scholars and notable women who together will present a nuanced view; past, present and future. As our celebrated Maya declared powerfully:
“They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Extract Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise.
Author: Dr. Elizabeth Williams
- See, Ahmed, S, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life(Duke University Press, 2012), Bopal, K, White privilege: The myth of a post-racial society (Policy Press, 2018), D. Gabriel, Transforming the Ivory Tower: Models for gender equality and social justice (Trentham Books, 2020), Gabriel, D. et al Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia (Trentham Book, 2017), Mirza, H. et al, Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Puwar, N. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place (Berg, 2004),
Image designed for the conference ‘Ain’t I a Woman?: “The Black Woman” in Historical and Contemporary Context’, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2021, organised by Dr. Juanita Cox , Dr. Angelina Osborne and Dr. Elizabeth Williams.
1 Olive Morris, ‘STREET ART OF OLIVE MORRIS by BREEZE YOKO,’ by StockCarPete used under CC BY 2.0 / original image changed to: red, yellow and black.
2 Audre Lorde by Elsa Dorfman, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 / original image changed to: red, yellow and black.
3 Professor Wangari Maathai by Oregon State University used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / original image changed to: red, yellow and black.
4 Dido Elizabeth Belle by howard_morland used under CC BY 2.0 / original image changed to: red, yellow and black.
5 Diane Abbott by Chris McAndrew used under CC BY 3.0 / original image changed to: red, yellow and black.
6 Sojourner Truth by js used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / original image cropped and changed to: red, yellow and black.
7 Maya Angelou by York College ISLP used under CC BY 2.0 / original image changed to: red, yellow and black.
8 Miriam Makeba, ‘MIRIAM MAKEBA PATA PATA 12” LP VINYL’ by vinylmeister used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / text removed, original image changed to: red, yellow and black.
9 Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons by David Drissel used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / original image cropped and changed to: red, yellow and black.
10 Bernardine Evaristo by Acthom123 used under CC BY-SA 4.0 / original image cropped and changed to: red, yellow and black.
11 Harriet Tubman by National Park Service used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / original image cropped and changed to: red, yellow and black.
12 Jackie Kay, ‘Paisley Book Festival – Jackie Kay 02’ by byronv2 used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / original image cropped and changed to: red, yellow and black.