This is an important book. There are few books about the lives of black women in the UK and even fewer about working class black women. Set in Moss Side in Manchester it shows the resilience of black women to the racism and discrimination that they have experienced and the strategies and actions that they used to challenge that reality. Crucial to its importance is the fact that its written not just by the credited authors but “represents a collective endeavour of the women of the Abasindi Black Women’s Cooperative.”
I lived in Hulme and Moss Side during the late 70s and early 80s and then returned from the mid-80s to the mid 90s. It was a dynamic and exciting area to live in: first as a student and then as a worker in the local education service. I was also active in the Irish community which, like the black community had started their lives in that part of Manchester, but by the 80s had moved out across the Greater Manchester area.
As a worker in the local careers service I noticed how employers did not want to employ young people with the Moss Side postcode and the poor response by the management to this discrimination. I met lots of black young people who were struggling to get a better life and a city council that did positively recruit more black people. As a representative of the Irish community I watched as funding organisations got the different ethnic groups to fight over the pie of arts funding. I saw it all!
The Abasindi (Survivors) Women’s Collective was set up in 1980. “The members of the Cooperative chose this name and its motto ‘Zizelewe Ukusinda’ as a tribute to the strength, resilience and competence of Black women.” At that time ideas of community involvement and self help were high on the government’s agenda as well as the inclusion of ethnic minorities in local and national policymaking.
Even though both as a worker and a political activist I knew about the Abasindi as an organisation it was one woman who was a key member of it that I had the greatest of respect for – Kath Locke. And it is the inclusion of a short biography of Kath that makes this a really important book for all other activists to read. Why has no one written a book about her?
Kath Locke was a towering personality as well as activist. She lived with her children in the heart of Moss Side on the notorious Alex Park estate. To me she epitomised the strength and resilience of the working class women to the inequities and harshness of life in this country. Added to that was her own particular story as a black woman who had experienced racism as a child and was not prepared to let her children or members of her community to have to go through the same experiences.
I felt her politics reflected a socialist view of the world. As Paul Okojie reminds us in the book; “She would enumerate the conditions for self-improvement, clarity of purpose, not keeping silent in the face of evil or injustice, social solidarity, sound organisational strategies and above all, financial self-reliance.”
The Abasindi centre was a community resource that through the work of people such as Kath tried to respond to the multiple problems facing the black community, including racism in housing, schools, the labour market, the police and from groups such as the National Front.
Challenges to this community ethos came through events such as the Moss Side riots in 1981. Seen by many people outside the area as black people rioting, for those of us living in the area it was a revulsion by all the community (black and white) of the tactics used by the police and the way they policed the area. I had black friends in the community, some of whom had been arrested, and alongside other people I helped raise money for the Moss Side Defence Campaign. During the riots Abasindi became a safe place for injured young people to seek sanctuary after being beaten by the police’s Tactical Aid Group.
Community self help was a key issue for Abasindi and this is reflected in their involvement in work with black children. They confronted issues such the underachievement of black boys and the experience of black children in the care system. Unlike other academic books that deal with these issues, in this book we hear the voices of the people who experience the racism and discrimination and how they then went on to create strategies to challenge this oppresssion. Abasindi set up Saturday schools focusing on improving maths and English as well as “tools to survive racism.” A strategy which “concerns Black children’s sense of identity, pride and belonging”.
But central to the book for me is the stories of the women involved in the cooperative. Victoria McKenzie was a writer and community worker who produced a book in Patois. As Jackie Roy recounts; “She (Victoria) had become aware that children who spoke Patois were disadvantaged in British schools and she worked to dispel the misapprehension that Patois characterised its speakers as unintelligent or uneducated.”
Throughout the book there are many similar stories which show how individuals getting together can make improve their lives. The Abasindi no longer exists and the black community has changed over the years. The black community today includes people from as diverse as the Congo, the Ivory Coast and Surinam.
I think this book should have a wider readership than the academic world: the new communities in our cities could learn lessons from the history of Abasindi as well as left organisations such as the Peoples Assembly. The authors finish the book with a message that is important for all of us; “Black children belong in the UK and we must continue to fight to ensure they have the same access to opportunity as anyone else.”
Unfortunately the cost of the book, £25.99, is prohibitively high for the people who need to know about this history, I hope that the authors and publishers can encourage libraries and educational centres to stock it.