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Black futures matter: Celebrating Black History Month in 2020
Upon her election victory in 1987, Diane Abbott proclaimed, "I have come a long way to stand here before you tonight. And I am aware that a lot of hope – not just in Hackney but across the country – rides on our victory tonight. I hope and believe that I can fulfil those hopes. This campaign and this result have been a victory for faith, a victory for principal and a victory for socialism." Ms Abbott's brief remarks that night have resounded across the Black British community for the past thirty-three years, firmly placing her among the "titan(s) of British politics.”
33 years later, in her August speech during the Democratic National Convention, in which she accepted the nomination for Vice President of the United States, Senator Kamala Harris pronounced, “In this election, we have a chance to change the course of history. We're all in this fight. You, me, and Joe—together. What an awesome responsibility. What an awesome privilege. So, let's fight with conviction. Let's fight with hope. Let's fight with confidence in ourselves, and a commitment to each other. To the America we know is possible. The America we love.”
Just weeks before this historic political moment, I co-wrote a piece for the September issue of Political Insight that examines the political power of Black women. Now, as the United States is just days away from a monumental presidential election that could see the nation’s first woman of colour elected to the second-highest executive office, and as both nations grapple with the devastating effects of a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and minority ethnic communities, I've been reflecting on the tone and tempo of this year's Black History Month celebrations in the United Kingdom and the United States, and the unique ways in which global Black communities have experienced both overwhelming loss and great hope in what has truly been a year of tremendous contrasts.
While both the UK and the US currently have the highest numbers of BAME political representation in each country’s history, record numbers of citizens took to the streets to rally against rampant inequality and to call for the destruction of statues and monuments dedicated to imperialist figures. Just as we begin to reorient lives yet again, including the reopening of businesses, community spaces, schools and universities, and prepare for the US election and its aftermath, the weight of profound sadness due to the Covid-19 crisis and its worsening of economic insecurity, the growing number of racially-motivated crimes and incidents of police brutality, and the physical isolation and exhaustion of widespread lockdowns have left many Black British people and Black Americans feeling discouraged and disillusioned. How do our political spaces – inside and outside of the academy – seek to address this extraordinary era? In the face of structural inequality that permeates our society, how can we best fulfil the political promises of a more just society that resonate throughout the words and work of figures like Ms Abbott, Senator Harris and many of their BAME political colleagues? In other words, how do we ensure that Black futures matter?
Black women's political power revisited
In January of this year, Bell Ribiero-Addy centred race and empire in her maiden speech to Parliament, stating that “To tackle racism at its root we must confront the brutal legacy of the British Empire, apologise and make meaningful reparations for the historic wrongs of slavery and colonialism. How can I be equal in Parliament if this is how Parliament treats people that look just like me?” This feeling of being outsider-within also appears in the stories of mistaken identity within Parliament and the media. Abena Oppong-Asare and Florence Eshalomi, two newly-elected MPs, discussed over Twitter earlier this year how they were mistaken for other Black members and parliamentary staff, even by members of their party. Dawn Butler's office manager has been mistaken for her boss. The Evening Standard and the BBC have been taken to task over the incorrect identification of Black MPs in their coverage of parliamentary events. As part of just 57 ethnic minority women serving across both houses, the provocations and experiences of these elected officials and many of their other Black colleagues provide a glimpse into realities of Parliamentary life for modern political Black women and the communities they serve.
33 years on from Abbott’s parliamentary victory, we still watch on as folks grapple with the idea that the elected official standing before them is a Black woman. Politically-engaged women of colour are deeply impacted by a set of racialised and gendered stereotypes that construct particular narratives about women as individuals, the structure of their families, and the communities that they represent. To capture the uniqueness of these lived experiences, we require the employment of an intersectional framework, one which contends with the impact of overlapping systems of oppression.
Black women are voting in large numbers, running for office at higher rates than ever before, and directing large social movements, cementing their place at the epicentre of politics in this contemporary era. As such, politically-engaged Black women require sound, considered and cross-disciplinary attention. Thinking through the personal stories and electoral victories of these influential political figures give us great insight into the trends, discourse and locations of power within contemporary political culture.
Image credit: Author provided
Race and racism in contemporary academia
By now, we’ve all seen the abysmal data: “The vast majority of British universities employ between zero and two black professors;” in 2018, just 25 Black women were professors in the UK, making up just 0.1 per cent of all professors, forced to work in a “culture of bullying and stereotyping;” and though this number rose in 2020 to 40, it is still small enough that portraits of all Black women professors were housed in one exhibition. In 2017, the Birmingham City University introduced its BA in Black Studies, later adding an MA program in the subject, and these degrees are now joined by a PhD in Black Studies at Nottingham to begin in 2021 – the first of their kind in Europe. Even with these gains, the attainment gap persists between white and BAME students and Black students continue to speak out about their disappointing experiences within current institutions, with some even seeking alternative educational spaces that are supportive and better attuned to their needs, further widening the scope and urgency of efforts to address inequality across the whole of our universities.
Recent incisive statements from across the social sciences, including in British sociology and anthropology and American anthropology and political science, have rightfully condemned systemic racism and violence and critiqued the current state of academic affairs in their disciplines. Right-wing leadership, however, in both the United States and the United Kingdom have rallied against the left’s take on such issues as race, gender and inequality. In the United States, the federal administration has recently released a memo declaring the elimination of federal funding for any agency that teaches critical race theory and courses that expand United States history to include more stories of Black, Indigenous and other minority ethnic people, including public institutions. Parliamentary debate on Black History Month also ended with a call to restrict such teaching in UK schools and further framing discussions of race and inequality as divisive and dangerous. These changes to the political and educational landscape threaten to suppress both existing and emerging scholarship on the subject of racism and could result in the silencing of voices, many of which have become only recently read by wider audiences. In these trying political and social contexts, continuing with rigorous research that seeks to widen the scope of race and gender studies takes on added importance.
Alongside the anti-racism work we conduct in our personal lives, in our local communities and our society more broadly this year, we must also quite profoundly extend this work to our professional spaces and structures, supporting the efforts to expand Black studies departments, increasing the intake of BAME students, recruiting BAME candidates for permanent teaching and research positions and providing holistic institutional support to retain these scholars. As Black and minority-owned businesses start to see a drop-off in sales and investment, and support for the Black Lives Matter movement is already declining from its high earlier this year, we must establish an overall approach to higher education that brings Black studies – and in particular, the experiences and knowledge of Black women – from the margins to the very centre of our scholarship.
Black Futures Matter: A call to action
Taking the intersection of race, gender and politics as its core focus to reimagining what identity, representation and political power mean in contemporary United States politics, my research explores the multi-faceted ways in which politically-engaged women participate in a full breadth of political practices and processes in the US state of North Carolina. Near the end of my fieldwork in 2017, I decided to craft a series of collaborative short films with my main informants that were recorded in the political and personal spaces they inhabited each day. Among these political women was North Carolina State Representative Yvonne Lewis Holley, a four-term member of the 140-seat legislative arm of the state's General Assembly and the 2020 Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor. Our filmed conversations spanned from her high school days as one of the first to integrate the public school system in the state's capital city to her signature achievement in the 2015-2016 legislative session, during which she shared this with me:
"I want to be known for the issues and the solutions I bring to the table, not necessarily who I was. Who I am can be an asset, if I'm someone of the community who has a level of power – a representative. Shirley Chisholm [the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress], her quote was, ‘If they don’t invite you to the table, bring a folding chair.’ That’s a philosophy that a lot of the women in the General Assembly have – we’re either at the table or constantly pushing to be at the table.”
She sat back in her chair, looked away for a moment, reflecting on the daily interactions with her legislative colleagues, both the all-male leadership of her party and the conservative leaders in charge of the state House. Through a knowing smile, she replied, “and at some point, we hope they get it.”
The words of these pioneering Black political women presented here continue to reverberate today, requiring our collective reflection on the ongoing negotiation over a secure seat at the table for women and people of colour, calling us to challenge inequalities and the barriers they create, and actively encouraging the rise of Black political figures, Black scholars and the study of Black political and social life more broadly. We don’t have to look too far to find a wealth of Black stories and scholarship across the UK – we can be energized by the activism and leadership of young political figures like the former MEP for Yorkshire and The Humber Magid Magid, feel the eagerness of organisations like the newly-registered Black Liberation Movement UK, find empathy and guidance in the tremendous work of Marcus Rashford, and we can encourage British universities to confront their shortcomings, listen to the pleas Black students and staff, and lead the way in the growth of Black studies scholarship in Europe. The end of Black History Month UK offers us an opportunity to begin the next chapter in the fight for racial equity, gender parity and greater inclusivity in the structures and study of politics in the United Kingdom, the United States, and beyond.
Dr Skyler Hawkins was awarded her PhD from the University of Manchester in 2019 for her thesis 'Traversing the Personal and the Political: An Ethnography of Progressive Women in North Carolina Politics.' An early career visual anthropologist, Dr Hawkins explores the intersection of race, gender, and politics through written and visual texts. She tweets @skylerehawkins. Image credit: Author provided.