The backbone of many of our liberation movements in the UK, US and beyond have been black women, femmes, trans and non-binary people – here are a few of my heroes who deserve endless praise.
Munroe Bergdorf (she/her)
Munroe Bergdorf is a British model and activist. She was the first transgender model in the United Kingdom for L’Oréal. The first time I heard about Munroe was in 2017 when she was dropped by L’Oréal for discussing racism in a very honest and nuanced way, a way white people weren’t, and still aren’t, ready to hear. She stated that ‘white people as a group are brought up racist’, and that “most of y’all don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour.”
L’Oréal dropping Munroe was just another example of performative allyship. A black trans woman was only being used to promote diversity and boost their sales. Munroe was speaking up for all black people everywhere and continues to do that today. She speaks on important issues such as the lack of support for queer students in the education system, racism, colourism, sexism, transphobia and so much more. Munroe not only helped me find my voice when discussing racism and white supremacy but she also continuously educates me and so many others on mainstream feminism’s lack of intersectionality. Feminism could be in mortal threat if women of colour and non-binary people don’t see it as a tool that has the power to change their lives, and Munroe reminds me of this everyday.
Emma Dabari (she/her)
I first learned about social historian Emma Dabiri through Instagram. She was speaking about cultural appropriation in a video for Dazed magazine. The topic she was speaking about deeply interested me, but what made me want to watch, and more importantly listen, to the video was her Irish accent. She sounded like me! (Although my accent is fading). This was something that really shocked me, as I don’t really see or hear many black Irish women in TV, films or in our media in general. Hearing her discuss cultural appropriation in depth made me want to know much more about her work. As a result, I bought her book “Don’t Touch My Hair”, where she writes about growing up in Ireland, racism (some centring around her hair) and feeling a lot of shame about her 4C hair. She goes through the history of African hair before slavery, during slavery and during the Black Power movements. She looks into the effects of European beauty standards on black women and the effects of capitalism on black people when it comes to self care and hair care. Emma Dabiri’s outspokenness means a lot to me personally as a black Irish historian and “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a must-read.
Marsha P Johnson (she/her)
As I write this, people all over the world are honouring Marsha P. Johnson on what would have been her 74th birthday. Johnson was a black trans woman and sex worker who was a revolutionary leader of black radical LGBT feminist thought. She was a central figure in the gay liberation movement catalysed by the 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall prompted a more assertive, even militant gay-rights movement, and resulted in the first gay pride parades in 1970. She also co-founded STAR in the same year, along with her friend Sylvia Rivera. STAR was a gay, gender non-conforming and transgender street activist organisation. It was a radical political collective that also provided housing and support to homeless transgender people and sex workers in New York. She was also an AIDS activist, attending protests and meetings by ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy organisation.
They tried to whitewash her story in the 2015 Stonewall film, where they cast the lead as a white gay man, but her determined activism, her joy, her strength and her struggle will always be remembered. “As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America,” she once said, “there’s no reason for celebration.”
Toni Morrison (she/her)
Toni Morrison died on 5th August 2019 at the age of 88, and is someone whose writings I only became aware of after it was announced that Halle Bailey would play Ariel in the new Disney remake.
Black people were repeating a particular quote from her on social media, “The function, the very serious function of racism is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Reading this quote over and over again changed the way I approached discussing race online, I don’t have to prove my humanity as a black person to anyone, ever.
When Toni Morrison wrote, she wrote for and to black people, black women in particular. She wasn’t trying to educate white people or justify our existence to a white audience. She believed that white people had a very serious problem (racism) and that it is something that white people need to deal with. She was frank about gender, race and inclusion in America when it was dangerous to do so. She may have felt fear, but to me and many other black women, she was fearless.
Olive Morris (she/her)
Olive Morris was a radical black feminist in South London in the 1970s. She died of cancer in 1979 aged just 27. In her 27 years of life, she left behind an incredible legacy of activism. When she was a teen, she was arrested, assaulted and kicked in the chest by police for trying to stop an act of police brutality against a Nigerian diplomat. The police assumed that he had stolen the Mercedes he was driving in (with his wife and children in the car), and they arrested and beat him. From a young age she dedicated her life to black liberation, socialism and feminism.
She became part of the British Black Panther Movement in 1968, and became a core member, as well as co-founding the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1974, and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD). Olive did so much in her life, and was committed to the fight against oppression in all forms.