Amanda Wilson explains why a book of letters from black female role models is still necessary.
Twitter went absolutely crazy when comedian and all-round legend Sir Lenny Henry gave his acceptance speech at this year’s MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards show.
As he collected his Paving The Way award, Henry acknowledged that he would not be where he is today without “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
He then spent two minutes and sixteen seconds naming over 50 of those giants, most of whom were black.
To some this apparently seemed a bit excessive but for many black British men and women, young and old, this speech highlighted the host of black men and women who have made a significant impact on British society.
It was the first time I had seen such an empowering speech being given by a UK-based entertainer and it was brilliant. It might have been long but it was also long overdue.
I spent my childhood in a foster home in west Sussex, a black child growing up in a white community. There was no one that looked like me when I was growing up. But when I moved to London at the age of 10 it was a different story. I was surrounded by people who looked just like me but if I’m honest, most of my influences came from America. I watched The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and A Different World and I wanted to live the life they lived.
Unfortunately life wasn’t quite the Cosby Show I hoped it would be. I left home at age 16 and spent the next few years trying to work out my place in society. This didn’t actually happen until my early 20s, when a sense of determination took me through university, and a successful career in retail.
I retrained as a teacher in my late 20s and was even more determined not to allow the colour of my skin to stop me from achieving my goals. In 2012 I founded 9:10 Publishing as a vehicle for publishing my first novel, Karaoke, Praise the Lord.
In 2014 I published Letters to a Young Generation, a collection of inspiring letters from some of today’s leading black British male figures. I did it in order to redress the absence of black male role models in the UK. In December I am publishing Letters to a Young Generation 2. Let’s face it: women have a tough time climbing certain ladders at the best of times and that gets even tougher when you’re a black female. What the next generation needs is individuals who can relate to the challenges that they are facing, simply because they’ve been there, done it and in some cases got the scars.
Each of the letters tells a different story; the women have had different experiences, some good, some not so good. Some have had to battle with accepting the colour of their skin (especially if it’s a darker hue); others have had challenges with high expectations from family members, particularly if they were of African heritage. Some have had to battle with issues faced by women of all ethnicities, such as domestic violence and eating disorders.
In Sinitta’s letter, for example, she talks about battling the stereotype that black women didn’t sing pop music. She shares how the radio industry agonised over her tracks: “They saw a black face and then heard a pop voice so no one knew what to do with my songs. Music was still segregated on the radio in those days.”
“What the next generation needs is individuals who can relate to the challenges that they are facing, simply because they’ve been there, done it and in some cases got the scars.”
I have heard of women being turned away from nightclubs because of the colour of their skin, or having to modify their name on an application form in order to ensure it doesn’t go straight in the bin.
But when I took to Facebook and asked my friends to name the most high-profile black, female UK-based person they knew, I was relieved that I wasn’t left with an empty timeline. Kanya King, Lady Floella Benjamin, Diane Abbott, Malorie Blackman, Jessica Ennis, Oona King, Naomi Campbell; the list went on. These were amazing women becoming the giants on whose shoulders many young black women can stand.
Letters to a Young Generation 2 brings together 17 of these giants; women who are making an impact in their chosen field and who understand what it’s like growing up as a black female in the UK. People like Sinitta, Apprentice runner-up Bianca Miller and comedian Angie Le Mar. Media expert Karen Blackett sums it up in her letter: “You’re black and you’re female; try twice as hard as anyone else.” She adds, “Acknowledge the situation that you are in, but do not let it define you.”
It’s so important that the younger generation have men and women able to provide sound words of advice to the next generation. What we don’t want is to have a generation of angry black men and women who resent the system they’ve grown up in. If that means making sure they understand the importance of getting a good education, giving them the confidence to start their own business and showing them the importance of supporting those around them, then so be it. When young women see Bianca Miller, Kanya King and Angie Le Mar doing great things, it can only spur them on to do the same. The women in this book are making their shoulders available for others to stand on.
Letters to a Young Generation 2 is published on 7 December.808 Views
Amanda Wilson is a deputy headteacher in a primary school in Greenwich and founder of 9:10 Publishing.