Tag Archives: Black Britain

Women’s History Month – Olive Morris and Black Women of London

I first came to London in the mid 1980s so no, I don’t remember Olive Morris and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) took place in the early 80s just before I arrived. Olive Morris was a founding member of OWAAD and part of the Brixton Black Panther Party.

Olive Morris

Olive Morris was a key figure in Lambeth’s local history. She worked with the Black Panther movement; set up Brixton Black Women’s Group, was a founder member of The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and was central to the squatter campaigns of the 1970s. She died tragically young in 1979 at age 27.

The aim of this weblog is to create a collective portrait of Olive Morris, bringing together the personal memories of those who knew her, and publishing online information and materials relating to her life and work. Lambeth Council has one of its main buildings named after her and yet there is very little information about Olive Morris that is publicly available, especially on the Internet.

By the mid 80s police racial harassment along with the “sus — stop and search” laws contributed to the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985; the Handsworth riots of 81 and 85 and Broadwater Farm riot in 1985.  For me the mid 1980s marked the beginning of  my awakening with the now historic community organizing from Camden Black Sisters, Camden Black Parents and Teachers Group and Camden Black Workers. None of us had heard of ‘intersectionality but thats what we were all living in our daily struggles across race, sexual orientation, gender, class. We read Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Bell Hooks, Zora Neale Hurston,  and much more.    We walked in solidarity with  our sisters and brothers in South Africa and Grenada, with miners and other unions being torn apart by Thatcher.  We struggled  against  police harassment especially  - stop and search of Black  youth, the institutional racism in our schools leading to the exclusion and pathologizing  of our children,  and for our rights in the work place.     Now most of us have dispersed to various parts of the world, our children grown, our lives moved in new directions but all of US were brave.

Camden Black Sisters is part of Black Women’s History in Britain, the sisters themselves are part of  the black struggle in history. I too am part of that history and I celebrate myself for coming this far.

 

 

 

Black history in Britain through the courts.

The central criminal court in London, the Old Bailey has published court records from 1674-1913 online. The database includes records on the lives of Africans and their descendent’s in London. The publication of the archives online is probably one of the most exciting additions to the history of Black people in Britain. The site archives records of 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913. I spent many hours looking for cases of Africans accused of crimes, as well as victims of crimes as a way of beginning to understand the kind of lives they lived.  My search included keywords  ‘negro’, ‘slave’, and ‘African’.

 In Staying Power: A Black History of Britain, Peter Fry traced the Black presence as far back as the Roman invasions, when many of the soldiers came from parts of Africa. By 1674,Britain had been involved in the Transatlantic slave trade for nearly 100 years. In total, 11,500 slave-seeking voyages to Africa were made by British merchants in the 245-year period.  So it made sense there would be a considerable number of black people in London [more on London history here] from that period on — a fact that one Joseph Guy used in his defence on being tried for highway robbery:

‘There are a thousand black men in London besides me: last Monday se’nnight I went to see a serjeant’s sister that lives at the Three Conies in Rumford road; when I had rode over the stones, and cantered about half a mile, I found my horse would not perform his journey; I turned back again, and got to a house in King-street, Westminster; I got there about ten minutes after five, and gave my horse a feed of corn, and in about half an hour or three quarters after, I went for Chelsea; I have been in England six years. Guilty. Death.’ Joseph Guy was convicted of highway robbery on 18 February 1767.

Esther Allingham was a sex worker who refused to work for nothing and was then accused of theft. Surprisingly, this black woman, a sex worker, was acquitted in 1782. She told this to the court:

‘This money they swear to, is my own, I have saved up at a shilling a time. When I met this gentleman first, he was with a black woman with a white gown and white coat on. What he had, was entirely unbuttoned. I was at a distance, against the rails. I went down towards Pall-Mall; I stood upon the stone of a door in Gloucester-court. He asked if there was any house he could go into; I said there was a house there. I knocked at No. 3, and went in. He said, My dear, I have no money; I have been with a black woman; my money is all gone. He pulled out his pocket, and said, I have got a snuff box, and a watch, and a pin valued at so much, and a pocket-book at so much, which he could not part with. I said, if he had no money, I would not go with him. I said, As you have no money, I do not chuse to give my carcase up to you for nothing; and I hope you will give me liberty to get some water, for I am dry. He said yes; but he would keep my cloak till I came back. What he offered to me, was what is not fit: he is a man neither fit for God nor the devil; he is neither fit for a black woman, nor a white woman. What he expressed to me, put a shock upon my spirits, and frightened me.’ Esther Allingham — not guilty, 15 May 1782.

Another interesting case was that of one Highwayman,  John Guy. When he refused to have sex with two women, they robbed him. It was 1786 and Guy was a sailor, so he possibly was a ‘freeman’ from one of the Caribbean islands.

Here’s his testimony:

‘I was just paid off from the Ship Newcastle, and walking along Rosemary Lane , between 4 or 5 o’Clock I met 2 Women; I asked them for a Lodging, they bid me come with them: I went with them to Whitcher’s House, and we had some Salmon and Punch and a quartern of Brandy? Then I went to bed, and one of the Women came to bed to me, tho’ I would not let her: The oldest of the Prisoners pull’d up her Coats, and bid me look at — and told me it was as black as my Face, &c. &c. — I would not do it, but went to sleep, and when I waked I found all my Money gone. One of the Girls own’d before Justice Farmer, that 8 Guineas and 4 s. of my Money was divided among them.’

Like Esther Allingham, John Guy was acquitted — is it possible that black people in those days received better justice than they do today? Certainly if this had taken place in the US, Guy would have been lynched.   However other cases resulted in extreme punishment which could have been as much due to class as race.  ‘Poor’ Thomas Robinson (‘a Negro Black Boy ‘), for example, was sentenced to death for house-breaking and stealing ‘divers Goods’ in 1724.

John Bardoe  was bought as a slave in Lagos by a Genoese sea-captain and, when their ship docked in London in 1859, Bardoe apparently freed himself with the aid of a fellow countryman and began working for another Italian. Bardoe then fell ill and, in a feverish state, assumed he was being recaptured. He first barricaded himself into his room, then made a break for it and stabbed a policeman in a rooftop chase. An interesting story in itself as the translator at the trial was ‘Miss. M. B. Servano, a native of Yorubah, and educated in England’.  Bardoe was found to have acted in self-defence and judged not guilty.

These are only a handful of the many cases at the Old Bailey that involved black people.   There are lots of interesting analytical details to be found: social networks among Africans in London, the continuation of slavery at sea, varying perceptions of freedom, and the education of African women.    Roughly the period I looked at was between 1725 and 1860 and it’s worth briefly examining other events and legal cases during the same period  for example through the civil courts.  For example,  Saartje Baartman arrived in England in 1810 and was exhibited at Piccadilly Circus.  What I did not know was Baartman’s role in the abolitionist movement in her capacity as the “Hottentot Venus”.  This is explained by Christina Sharpe in “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post Slavery Subjects”. [a must read]

Zachary Macaulay, Robert Wedderburn and the African Institution petitioned the Court of the Kings Bench on account of the indecent nature of the exhibition, in which they suspected she was being kept as a slave.  After hearing and viewing the evidence [including testimony and a signed contract between Dunlop [her keeper/owner] and Baartman dated 29 October 1810] the court concluded, “She came by her own consent to England and was promised half of the money for exhibiting her person – She agreed to come to England for a period of six years”

Sharpe explains that the court’s decision was to “resolve” the question of whether Baartman was someone else’s  property [chattel] or a ‘free’ person with rights over herself.   Although the intention of the petition was to free Baartman and effect her return home, but in claiming Baartman was consensual to her own humiliation, meant she remained in captivity.

“Even as Baartman has the legal signifers of a free subject conferred upoin her by the outcome of the case, in fact she remains captive to her employer and becomes a kind of theoretical limit case that helps define the limits of freedom for the English subject.  However the case could have been resolved, the freedom at issue was never Baartman’s own.   Had she not been viewed as a free citizen under contract in England, she would have been set free [redemption operating here in the sense of the 'action of freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment' ] on the Cape into a state of near slavery” .

I have taken Sharpe’s work slightly out of context of her book to provide a historical and political understanding of this period  in the history of Black people in Britain and the changing significance of race…  The point is that the criminal and civil courts can provide us with an additional perspective on the presence and lives of black people in Britain in the 18th and 19th century’s and how these were and continues to be intertwined closely with the empire.

 

 

 

 

Trans-homosexuality

The funniest things happen when you out yourself as a translesbian (i.e. a transsexual woman identified woman; a lesbian.) I, for one, am an African translesbian and I have a beautiful girlfriend who is virtually more African (if I may use this as an honorific) than I am and she’s a lesbian as far as being a lesbianism goes. Although all this is happening in Europe as I speak; African LGBTI is condemned to the underground while the “religiously righteous” seems to prefer repression to sex, sexuality and gender identity truths. Yes the strangest things still happen in the twenty first century. In Africa, for instance, as a translesbian, I will be so far underground the light of day will only emerge as a virtual spectre and how sad is that? All these stem from the deluded assumption that transphobia or homophobia is of African origin. Nothing can be further from the truth, according to Dr. Sylvia Tamale, the moral order (as applied in Ugandan Law) in its ascribed hatred and fear of transgender and gay people exposes its own selfishness. [1]

Some of this is still played out today in Europe, exported worldwide and with that is the knowledge that the fear and hatred apportioned to the civilising process which continues riding the wave of contemporary history today. It is no surprise that suddenly all the lesbians around you feel threatened by the unknown they assume that you present them with. It is something people do out of insecurity, paranoia and a scream out for approval. The question I would love a straight answer to is, who’s transphobic/homophobic now? The assumption that only female born women can be lesbian has a history as dated as humanity itself. Translesbianism is only one strand of womanhood and trans-homosexuality (i.e. transsexual and homosexuality), there are trans-gay-men (a strand of manhood) out there doing their thing on various platforms too: be they non op, pre op or post op and we date with as much diversity as the mainstream does.
What makes this area interesting? Well, translesbians unlike our lesbian allies are subjected to a sort of underhanded scrutiny by all as a result of absolutist conditioning. You can understand my shock when pre op, an acquaintance asked me if he could be honoured with a test run “fuck”. Worse he could not even imagine how offensive and demeaning his request was. I find that the wonder still prevails in a lurch, a sideways glance or a passing shout of abuse by a child, an adult or both, one aiding the other in learned prejudice. Everyone seems to want to see you naked to confirm their assumptions. When you are out for the night all eyes are on you and I’m not raising this subject in isolation as the situation above confirms. If this isn’t enough, I have also inadvertently had week long flings with women curious to know: vagina or hole? With a certain experience you instinctively become aware of your innate longings and act on them without the expectation that you are going to be anyone’s “science project”. Why are trans-homosexuals so threatening to the gay community especially when we are part of the same group? Why do people feel that they have to get into relationships with you because somehow they find out that you are transgender/transsexual? Is it merely their curiosity that goes into overdrive or is something else on a psychological level tossed in the mix?

Imagine going into a club and everyone just seems to be rearing for a fight. Understandably, you leave them to it. Engaging circumstances like these are counter-productive open traps waiting to ensnare you at the slightest opportunity. You measure their range and spar virtually as you blow them virtual kisses, or cyber smooch them, if you like and it ought to end there but it rarely does. Talk to those that are worth it, hug those that you love, and befriend accordingly. Those who are intent on picking a fight soon get the message that no matter how loud their voices get, more often than not what happens is that they expose their own fears, their hatred. Even the fear in their uncomfortable laughter sounds more jarring than anything a translesbian or trans-dyke and a trans-gay-man or a trans-fag could ever provoke; and wait for it: trans-femme, trans-androgynous or trans-butch, we are proud and we are here to stay not in competition but together.

Conversely, perhaps it is time we start thinking about lasting sexual orientation and gender identity freedom in Africa today rather than waiting for another European pill to bail us out or worse, the next century and half hence in which to mend our way, ourselves. The script of our future is ours to write, definitions ours to define and all that. Divided we fall, united we stand together as one.

[1] See Voices of Witness —Africa 2008, which can be viewed on the Integrity USA website under ‘other resources’.

 

Aid travels with a bomb

Remember Olive Morris? – History of Black Britain

I first came to London in the mid 1980s so no, I don’t remember Olive Morris and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) took place in the early 80s just before I arrived. Olive Morris was a founding member of OWAAD and part of the Brixton Black Panther Party.

Olive Morris

Olive Morris was a key figure in Lambeth’s local history. She worked with the Black Panther movement; set up Brixton Black Women’s Group, was a founder member of The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and was central to the squatter campaigns of the 1970s. She died tragically young in 1979 at age 27.

The aim of this weblog is to create a collective portrait of Olive Morris, bringing together the personal memories of those who knew her, and publishing online information and materials relating to her life and work. Lambeth Council has one of its main buildings named after her and yet there is very little information about Olive Morris that is publicly available, especially on the Internet.

By the mid 80s police racial harassment along with the “sus – stop and search” laws contributed to the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985; the Handsworth riots of 81 and 85 and Broadwater Farm riot in 1985.  For me the mid 1980s marked the beginning of  my awakening with now historic community organizing from Camden Black Sisters, Camden Black Parents and Teachers Group and Camden Black Workers. None of us had heard of ‘intersectionality but thats what we were all living in our daily struggles across race, sexual orientation, gender, class. We read Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Bell Hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Sojourner Truth and much more.  All the women were white and all the blacks were men but all of us were brave.   Most of us have all dispersed to various parts of the world, our children grown our lives moved in new directions.   Camden Black Sisters is part of Black Women’s History in Britain, the sisters themselves are part of  the black struggle in history. I too am part of that history and I celebrate myself for coming this far.