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Stella Dadzie, feminist pioneer: ‘The Black British women’s movement was about life-and-death issues’

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Show caption Stella Dadzie … ‘I’m somebody who’s quite adaptable.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian Black lives Stella Dadzie, feminist pioneer: ‘The Black British women’s movement was about life-and-death issues’ She co-wrote a classic, The Heart of the Race, and helped draw attention to overlooked atrocities – including racism in schools, police brutality and deaths in custody Tobi Thomas @tobithomas_ Thu 30 Sep 2021 06.00 BST Share on Facebook

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One night in 1998 Stella Dadzie went to two celebrations. The writer, 69, best known for co-authoring the 1985 feminist classic, The Heart of the Race, first stopped at the Dorchester hotel for Maya Angelou’s 70th birthday. It was a wonderful party. “I tied my hair up and wore a very Afrocentric dress, unlike many people who’d been at the hairdresser all day and bought a special outfit, I was never that kind of person.” Later, after a quick change of shoes, and “without batting an eyelid” Dadzie was off again, this time to a “rave on the Stonebridge estate in Harlesden”.

Her ability to feel equally comfortable at both events, she thinks, encapsulates something about her. “I’ve had a life that’s involved shifting from poverty to wealth, from institutional to being out there on my own; it’s meant that it’s made me somebody who’s quite adaptable.”

This adaptability has allowed her to have huge influence in different fields – as a writer whose pioneering work documented the full spectrum of the lives of Black women in Britain, as an activist who, alongside other Black radicals such as Olive Morris, helped found the campaigning feminist and anti-racist group Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent in 1978, and as an educationalist who has written and fought for an inclusive curriculum.

“If I hadn’t had the life I’ve had, I certainly don’t think I would have the kind of sensitivity to what it means to be the underdog, or poor and dispossessed,” she says.

Stella Dadzie as a baby, with her mother. Photograph: Courtesy of Stella Dadzie

Dadzie was born in London, in 1952, to an English mother and a Ghanaian father. She spent her early years with a Welsh miner’s family while her father completed his studies, but was returned to her mother at the age of four after a custody battle.

The next few years were a difficult period for the mother and daughter, who found themselves struggling with homelessness, instability and poverty, while Dadzie also had to adjust to the contrast between rural Wales and inner-city London.

Intensifying all this was discrimination. “My mum really had a hard time,” Dadzie says. “She was a single parent with a Black child, and in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy for her. She was often a target of racist abuse, and so found it very difficult to cope.”

“I’d had this time in foster care, with brothers and sisters and the family of my foster parents. But then I was thrown into this little bubble, where it was just my mum and me trying to survive from day to day,” she says. “We did sometimes end up on a park bench, but you know, we managed, we survived.”

By the age of eight Dadzie had attended at least 10 schools as she and her mother moved around London and the south coast, often because they had been evicted by racist landlords. “We’re talking about the era of ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish. And probably, they should have written on those cards: ‘No children’, too,” Dadzie says. “We rarely stayed in the same place for more than a few months. As a latch key kid, I was often looked after by somebody else while my mum worked. I even spent some time in a convent”.

At the age of eight, Dadzie was given a place at the Royal Wanstead School, a boarding school in east London. “It was a turning point because, having been on the move for so much of my childhood, the school represented stability and continuity,” Dadzie says. She joined her mother for the holidays “wherever she happened to be”, but having the school to return to made her feel secure. The headteacher, Mrs Reynolds, who she remembers had “thin, long butterfly-winged glasses and red hair” took her under her wing. “She really did encourage me to reach my full potential.” It was thanks to her that Dadzie was given a place at King Edwards school, Witley, on a scholarship for deprived London children.

Her mother had often “played down” Dadzie’s African heritage in an attempt to navigate the racist abuse they encountered. But as one of the only Black children at the school, Dadzie became increasingly conscious of her difference. Then, at the age of 12, she finally reconnected with her father.

I was under the tutelage of people who’d been fighting for their lives. I wanted to confront the injustices of the world

The first meeting was arranged by a family friend, who had quietly maintained contact with him. One holiday, she took Dadzie to a Lyons Corner House in Westminster. “And in walked this very tall, handsome Black man and I immediately knew it was my father,” Dadzie says. “She hadn’t said anything, and I had no expectation of meeting him, but somehow I knew.”

Dadzie began to spend more time with him and his family, visiting him at his home in Paris where he was a Ghanaian ambassador. On her first trip in 1965, she was awestruck. “When he took me to the country house where he was living, I remember looking up at the ceiling and asking him: ‘Who lives here?’ And he looked down at me and replied: ‘We do.’”

But this sudden brush with wealth, even at an early age, had an unexpected effect. “I’ve always said that I was a socialist from that point onwards,” Dadzie says. “It just seemed bizarre to me that anyone would be expected to make my bed or to serve me food at the table. I’d look at the sumptuous spread that often appeared on my father’s table and think, ‘Blimey! My mum and I could live on this for a month.’”

If her trip to Paris made her a socialist, a difficult year spent studying in Germany taught her about Black liberation. Moving to Bavaria she found herself stuck in a youth hostel as day in, day out she tried to find a place to live at the student accommodation office.

The three authors of The Heart of the Race: Dadzie, Scafe and Bryan. Photograph: Courtesy of Stella Dadzie

One day, the man working in the agency took her aside to point out her difficulties were because of racism. He told her, she says: “Look, I’m going to give you this address before I give it to anyone else because you’re never ever going to find anywhere to live otherwise, you do realise that?”

As her university grant barely covered her rent she had to find part-time work. This too, often seemed dictated by her skin colour, she says, “things like promoting bananas in a chain of supermarkets”. In one supermarket her colour was such a novelty that people began to come in to gawp at her. “One member of staff said to me that it was like Christmas day,” Dadzie says. “I can laugh now, but at the time it was not funny.”

Things changed when she was taken under the wing of a group of Eritrean students. “They were very radical, highly politicised, and they showed me the ropes,” Dadzie says. “The ropes included how to survive in an extremely racist society that did not want you there.”

The friendship inspired Dadzie to further educate herself on the liberation struggles taking place in countries such as Mozambique, South Africa, Guinea-Bissau and Algeria. “I was under the tutelage of people who had literally been fighting for their lives on the continent of Africa and often ended up in Germany as refugees or by some other route,” Dadzie says. The experience was life changing. “I came back to Britain champing at the bit, wanting to get involved, seek out likeminded people, and wanting to confront the injustices of the world.”

The women’s movement focused on the body, men, the glass ceiling. For us it was a whole range of civil rights issues

On her return, Dadzie became involved with the Black Liberator, a “theoretical and discussion journal for Black revolution”. “We studied, we discussed the articles that were to be published, and had contact with other likeminded Black activists; we would sell the paper outside Brixton tube station in other places,” Dadzie says. But she felt like the only Black woman in a predominantly male movement.

At the same time as joining the Black Liberator Dadzie was studying for her PGCE and finishing her training at a large comprehensive in east London. “I was slowly seduced by the idea of becoming a teacher,” she laughs. “And despite myself I fell in love with the kids; I fell in love with the naughty kids.”

But this meant learning how to tackle racism from inside the classroom, from students. Dadzie remembers one particular student at a young offender’s institute who, when told she was his new teacher used a racial slur and replied that he hated Black people. Dadzie says she calmly reasoned with him and ended up happy with her influence on him. “I heard years later that in the aftermath of the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985, one of his mates, who happened to be Black had been arrested,” she says. “He went down to the local police station and ended up having a heated exchange with the copper behind the desk … I smiled when I heard that story.”

In 1976 she was a delegate at a conference in Tunisia, and was asked to deliver a paper on the liberation of Ghanaian women. “That was my first real exposure to, I’m not sure if we’d call it feminist politics, but certainly a focus on women,” Dadzie says. “I came back with a heightened interest in what women were doing, and started taking note for the first time about the emerging women’s movement in a context where, as a woman, I was already feeling quite isolated in these different organisations.”

The three authors reunited for The Heart of the Race’s republishing by Verso in 2018. Photograph: Courtesy of Stella Dadzie

As an attempt to counter this Dadzie attended a meeting with women from the African Students’ Union that ended up with the formation of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (Owaad) in 1978, alongside Olive Morris, and women from the Brixton Black Women’s Group as founding members.

Initially, the group was called the Organisation of Women of Africa, or African descent. “My memory is of a young Asian woman turning up at one of our meeting and saying: ‘What about us?’” Dadzie says. It was clear that Asian women were also a target of racial violence. “We quickly realised that what she said made sense; racism was bigger than us. And I think that was one of Owaad’s most important features.”

The group’s make up – women of colour – meant their goals diverged from what was considered the mainstream feminist movement of that time. “So unlike the women’s movement – which did focus very much on the body, on relationships with men, and on the glass ceiling – for us it was about the racism in schools, the incidents of police brutality, deaths in custody, and a whole range of real life-and-death civil rights issues,” Dadzie says.

“And as women, many of whom had sons or brothers or partners or uncles who were living those realities, it would have made no sense whatsoever for us simply to focus on narrow women’s issues, or what was seen in those days as ‘women’s issues’.”

Some of the aims of Owaad, which included looking at how forms of oppression intersect with the experience of being a woman, were fleshed out in The Heart of the Race which Dadzie co-wrote with Beverley Bryan and Suzanne Scafe. It was clear for Dadzie that the book, which documented both the victories and struggles of Black women in Britain, was a vehicle to tell this story through the voices of other women.

“I think the fact that we told the story from our own perspective, made it a very powerful book, particularly for the Black women who read it.”

It was a hugely important book for generations of women and was republished by Verso in 2018. But Dadzie has mixed feeling about the fact it still seems so relevant. “On the one hand, it makes you feel proud and vindicated. On the other hand, the fact that some of those issues haven’t gone away, is not something to celebrate,” she says.

Her latest book, A Kick in the Belly, is now available in paperback. “To emphasise a story that begins in Africa, and traces the journey of women who could have been a mother or a grandmother of mine, from across the Atlantic and into the plantations and beyond, was my way of reminding people that those ties between the Caribbean and Africa, and those peoples who survived enslavement and colonialism, are important ties that could be a source of strength and empowerment if we embrace what we have in common, which includes that shared history. The legacies, which are described in the book, are still very much with us today.”

But despite having experienced deep hardship growing up, and having encountered racist abuse, Dadzie is adamant that her life should not be viewed or represented as a sob story. “Because I don’t feel it as that,” she says. “These things are just things that happened to me in my life. I was never really someone to see myself as a victim.”

A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance is out now in paperback, published by Verso Books.