“It’s difficult to talk about double messages without having a twin tongue.”
Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
I think of this quote from Audre Lorde and wonder why there is very little space for a Black British woman to write herself, moreover, write herself freely without contention. It is not that black women who write are without agency, but is to note that her tongue is in constant battle with intersecting identities that equally demand much from her.
When black women take to the page, it is often expected that they will either pledge allegiance to their race or stand firm in their womanhood, never both. The work of Lorde’s Zami and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls, for example, are pivotal literary moments exploring the ways in which, sexuality and gender are expressed in a racialised body.
That being said, given that their context is of a black American experience, their sentiment is far felt, but their outreach limited. In my understanding and experience, to write as a British-born-something is to develop an active voice that sings three melodies simultaneously with the expectation it will carry one song.
I write this in retrospect having moved to Germany early in January 2017 after my undergraduate studies in English Literature and Creative Writing. During my time as a student, I quickly became aware of how easily dismissed the black British voice was and is. With three years worth of lectures, seminars and tutorials accounted for, I was graced with less than 5 black writers — with much representation of BME academics coming from my own interest and desire to implement them.
Like many other keen readers, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made their regular appearances, but only in passing. I longed for a moment in which the work of Jackie Kay, Bernardine Evaristo or Sharon Dodua Otoo could be platformed on the same level as Kafka, Borges and Benjamin. In my own time, I queried as to what would come of cultivating spaces in which precipice is given to writers that sit outside European or African-American cannons?
In his 1963 essay, “A Talk To Teachers”, black American writer James Baldwin speaks on this, saying: “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” In that regard, my environment, upon examination, was not conducive to active learning, but to producing docile and conventional thinkers.
Perhaps out of a necessity, I grew to learn how powerful my voice is; not because of appraisal, but simply by its mere absence. There were no black academics in senior management, nor a push to include them as part of the academic set up. Given that each academic institution is responsible for its own recruitment process, the message is for many black students in education, that they are not wanted, welcomed or respected.
I do not wish to come across as anti-academic. On the contrary, I support the practice of environments that support autonomous learning, but effective learning can truly be implemented when subjects are made relevant to the student. If I know more of white European literature than it care’s to know about me, I in effect sign myself out of history. If, by current academic measures, am obliged to read and learn only of white histories, then white history ought to learn of me, by me.
As I take back agency of my voice and begin my journey of encouraging others to do so, I think of my name and the strength within it. The act of choosing to claim a title, or changing it when it no longer serves you is an incredible tool for black British women. Just because I am able to access a breadth of knowledge from my American counterparts, does not mean that their input serves my specific needs.
It is in this light, that I think of the wonderful black women I am surrounded by working tirelessly in their respective fields to become the representation they never had. When I write, I write because I have the ability to affirm my own existence. I write because I refuse to let my voice go unaccounted for. I write because there will be other young black British women who come after me, looking back to see where they can go. And I hope that space in which I make my name will be enough for them to grow.
By Candice Nembhard