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Rethinking the Political: Black Women’s Grassroots Activism in Britain

Tracy Fisher

In 1999 I conducted research looking at black women’s grassroots activism in Britain between the 1970s and 2000. While doing this research I was exposed to a stream of politics that included everything from Black Nationalism to socialist feminism. Women talked about the uncompromising anti-imperialist struggles for justice and equality; issues in relation to adequate childcare and the creation of literacy programs, resistance against police brutality; and the ways in which racialized groups appropriate, subvert, and contest racial categories and meanings. Overall, they spoke of a highly mobilized period of activism (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) in a non-romanticized way both freely and openly. Their narratives underscored the heterogeneity within the African diaspora at-large and more specifically in Britain. These women also spoke of differences for example, in relation to class, sexuality, and political alliances.
What is more, they spoke of the ways in which these differences were thoroughly embedded within and shaped by gender. The narratives encouraged me to think more about the ways in which black women’s grassroots activism has played a fundamental role in Britain’s black diaspora. More to the point, this research led me to question how diasporic identities and politics are formed and defined in London.

Using black women’s grassroots activism as the primary lens, this paper critically reflects on the Black diaspora in Britain and examines the complexity in which race and class are articulated within London’s political landscape. The paper draws attention to the ways in which identities are being shaped through and by community activism, political ideologies, and the state. I am interested in such questions as: In what way does Britain’s African diaspora politically identify with other diasporic communities in and outside of the British Isles? How does politics within the nation-state affect diasporic identification? By focusing on the experiences of people of African descent - who embody differences along gender, race, and class lines - this paper sheds light on multiple intersecting and overlapping spheres of diasporic identities. More than this, the paper explores the ways in which diasporic identities are contested, recreated, and reconstructed. In so doing, the essay implicitly challenges scholarship that solely emphasizes racial solidarity and obscures differentiation.

The paper is part of a larger project that examines the transformation of the Left in Britain. In this project I examine the ways in which black women’s grassroots organization shifted and transformed alongside Britain’s political economy, particularly focusing on the transformation of black women’s grassroots activism over the past three decades.

Workshop Questions:

  • How do state policies and practices shape grass-roots political activity, local organizing, and diasporic identification?

  • In what ways do other diasporic populations/communities shape African diasporic identification?
    How is African diasporic identification shaped by gender? By class?

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