Stella Dadzie co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent and co-wrote The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain and A Kick In The Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance. She talks to EachOther about women-centred activism, confronting Britain’s imperialist past and Black History Month.
Dadzie was born in London in 1952, and was inspired to join the Black civil rights movement while studying in Germany in the early 1970s, where she became “very isolated as a Black woman”. Refugees and asylum seekers “were the only people that looked like me,” she says. Dadzie found herself listening to their stories from the frontlines of African liberation movements, from Eritrea to Mozambique.
When she returned to the UK to complete her studies, she was raring to join the burgeoning civil rights movement. She started writing for journals The Black Liberator and African Red Family, but once again found herself isolated in organisations that were predominantly male.
It was through the African Students’ Union that she first met Olive Morris and other women from the Brixton Black Women’s Group. They discussed forming a caucus within the Union, but soon decided to found their own group in 1978, which would become the Organisation of Women of African And Asian Descent (OWAAD). “We needed something autonomous that would allow us to speak with our own voices and prioritise our own issues,” she says.
At the time, the women’s liberation movement in the UK was well underway, with feminist groups campaigning for better childcare, employment and abortion rights. But OWAAD was looking to do something different. “Our politics were forged in an anti-imperialist framework that very much connected the struggles here [in the UK] with what was happening elsewhere in the world, particularly in our parents’ countries of origin,” Dadzie says. It was that focus on anti-imperialism and anti-racism that made OWAAD distinct from the women’s movement, she adds.
“We understood that our life chances were influenced not just by our gender, but also by race, class and other issues,” she says. “We couldn’t really afford the luxury as Black women simply to focus on gender.”
The call for the right to choose to have an abortion was a centrepiece of the women’s liberation movement. But for many Black women, who saw women in Zimbabwe being used as guinea pigs for drug trials of the contraceptive Depo-Provera, alongside working-class women in Glasgow, “it was also important to highlight the right to have our children”, Dadzie says.
OWAAD was an umbrella organisation which connected Black women’s groups around the UK. Dadzie joined the United Black Women’s Action Group, formed by a group of women who lived on a council estate in Tottenham, north London, which campaigned for better childcare provision. Other groups had different priorities, she says, like campaigning against deportation because their families had been torn apart by the government’s immigration policies. OWAAD’s strength was to allow women to voice their perspectives and the issues that mattered to them, rather than setting an agenda from the top down. It was a “means of communication… and a mechanism for solidarity and support”, says Dadzie.
Dadzie, who was a teacher at the time, says OWAAD tried to work around women’s busy lives. “It was very woman-centred in the way we organised,” she says, and drew on the wider community for support. “Sometimes it was the brothers manning the crèche for us or running the bookstore.”
Though OWAAD disbanded after five years, its work is immortalised in The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, a book co-written by Dadzie and published in 1985. Virago, a publisher founded in the 1970s to champion women’s writing, had approached Dadzie to write a book about the daily lives and struggles of Black women in the UK. OWAAD formed a book collective, but in the end it was Dadzie, alongside Beverley Bryan and Suzanne Scafe, who wrote a book chronicling the oral histories of Black women. The aim, she says, was “to give Black women a voice and then offer our own analysis of what we thought those voices were saying”. The Heart of the Race won the 1985 Martin Luther King Award for Literature.
Republished in 2018, The Heart of The Race is now considered a feminist classic. But, reflects Dadzie, its enduring popularity is a “double-edged sword”. While she is delighted that the book continues to inspire young feminist activists, she finds it disappointing that so many of the issues raised in the book have not gone away.
That is one reason why she sees the past as so relevant to today’s politics. Dadzie’s latest book, A Kick In The Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance, published in 2021, explores the history of the slave trade through the perspective of enslaved women who found agency over their own lives and resisted in any way they could.
There has been a concerted “brushing of the imperialist past under the carpet” in the UK, Dadzie says, but she is glad to see the demands that she and others made 40 years ago, such as decolonising the curriculum, getting more traction today. The protests led by Black Lives Matter in the UK following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US sparked a challenge to dominant understandings of Britain’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade. Dadzie has been working with a number of London heritage organisations, including the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, to highlight the stories of people who were enslaved and colonised.
Black History Month, which takes place this month, serves an important role as a national institution that makes Black history more visible, Dadzie says. But it is not without its flaws. “There tends to be what I refer to as a Black History Month, white history year approach,” she laughs.
“There’s no great in Great Britain without the story of enslavement, colonialism and imperialism,” she goes on. “You cannot separate those histories out.” She also feels that too often schools and organisations focus on individual “Black achievers”, rather than the popular struggles within the Black civil rights movement in the UK.
“If teachers focused on radical movements and stories of resistance, I suspect Black History Month wouldn’t be so popular,” she says.
Dadzie and OWAAD are certainly part of that radical past. Looking back, she feels humbled to have known so many “phenomenal” women united by their desire to bring about change.
“It was a powerful movement and I hope it will continue to send out shockwaves as younger generations engage with these stories,” she says.
“We didn’t know we were making history at the time. So it is gratifying when you reach my age to be able to look back and say we did something. We made a mark.”