Marisa Williamson is a New York based American artist who works in video and performance. Her work revolves around questions of the African-American experience, female representation, and historical narratives. Williamson’s 2017 performance piece “Sweet Chariot” for Philadelphia’s Monument Lab created the protagonist Amelia Brown, who leads visitors throughout Philadelphia using a smart app to show videos about Brown’s journey to freedom.
It started as Monument Lab…they were doing a project where they were going to get 20 artists together to create prototype monuments to get to the question of what is an appropriate monument for the city of Philadelphia…pointing out some of the things missing, there’s only three monuments to real women in Philadelphia…
…and at first I’d been making work about Sally Hemmings (she’s the enslaved mother of President Thomas Jefferson’s children), I’ve been doing this performance work for five years or so where I was going to sites and in the costume of Sally Hemmings, not re-enactments – it’s too bland, not to unify a site such that people have an authentic experience of “the past” but instead to re-enact to disrupt and trouble these historical sites…
I’ve been really interested in how many ghosts visible, where I think their presence is felt by me. I don’t know if that sounds very metaphysical but the ghosts of the enslaved, the ghosts of freedom fighters, the ghosts of people who make it possible for me to occupy those spaces now, at museums and then in historical site…How depression or the blues might be something Sally Hemmings would know about and how to make performance work that exorcises or makes visible how Sally Hemmings might have been a kind of troubled sad person…How the colonial past would have shaped her life and how the colonial past shapes my life today, and if I could substitute myself for her in these spaces can I show people something about how the colonial past is still alive around us, so that’s what I was doing.
…and then Sweet Chariot – so they were like what do you think you’d make for Monument Lab and I was trying to get away from the Sally Hemmings work so I was just thinking a little bit about telling bigger stories. I’m from Philadelphia, so I was interested in stories I’d heard as a kid, things I didn’t know…I knew that Philadelphia was a hub for the Underground Railroad.
I thought if I could pull together some people, use the methodology I’d used to make this Sally Hemmings performance work, use that to bring together a bunch of voices from the past, I might be able to tell, learn something myself, and then tell a story about black history in Philadelphia that was a chorus of voices…
Monument Lab was like we have these sites that artists can work from, that we’d like to unearth, and Weccacoe playground (Mother Bethel AME Burial Ground) had been discovered recently…So I proposed a kind of swing set where kids would swing on the swings and then jump off the swings onto a map, the idea of the map being, represents the city…the idea of kids still playing on a solemn site. I didn’t want to lose this, the idea that you can play in the past and in solemn spaces, even as they are sacred in some way.
But then they said I couldn’t build anything…I was like what would that same project be if it weren’t physical, so I started to think about a game or something in an app…I thought about a walk, a tour. I found in the research there was this woman buried at Weccacoe burial ground, Amelia Brown. There’s her headstone has been found so it’s like ‘okay maybe that’s a character who can guide people through Philadelphia.’
… I went to visit them (developers) and they were like we do augmented realities, I was like ‘ooh that’s interesting,’ putting things in augmented reality, so that you can see things that aren’t there, using your phone. And so I think out of that I thought about a walk, a tour, putting things in front of, uncovering things hidden in plain sight.
I had heard about Octavius Catto and the idea of voting rights and vigilante violence – like he was executed in broad daylight on the street…Learning about institutions like the creation of these black churches…there’s been a bunch of churches burnt. There’d been an era leading up to the civil war when there was a lot of conflict between the Irish and black Americans, class conflicts trickling down. And there was also white supremacy, and so a lot of black institutions got burned down. And so I learned about this orphanage that got burnt down, churches that got burnt down, and I was like ‘oh I never heard about that.’
And so I tried to build connections, how could these things be a journey through disparate moments in time…one of my jobs should be to just foreground that existing archive and how to use that. So I try to keep it tight and conceptually unified…So there’s primary source, which could be a book, a song, an artist I’m going to work with, and then maybe an object or a material…I tried to keep it to three things.
A lot of things were taught to me in the process about the story, collaborating with people means that the story gets told by those involved and not always by me because I don’t always know the story.
What made you name it Sweet Chariot, is it after the song?
I was really looking for stories of people who committed to things knowing that it might not bear fruit in their lifetime. I think that’s what helped me pick stories, it was who here made the city look the way it does today and knew in their lifetime that they wouldn’t see it. They wouldn’t really see freedom themselves. And I think that Sweet Chariot that’s a kind of song about afterlife, a black spiritual legacy that has an idea of world-making, world-making in an activist world-making mentality like the things we do today can make a future worth living in…
I wanted to make a tool, what could an iPhone app be, could it be a tool for carrying us from one place to another, kind of science fiction, I mean a sweet chariot could be a space ship, a time machine.
So there was a person in there who would tell people how to download the app and give them a map and tell them where to go, where it starts. I think people struggled…my mum did the app, did the journey, and she called me, she was stuck on the last one…I think people like the videos, you can watch the videos on the site, and people can get the project when they watch the videos…but I think walking around the city, it’s exhausting, a pretty long walk.
It’s quite a bit of ground, looking for things, being on semi-covered private property to try to find something, I think it’s an uncomfortable experience and that’s something that was interesting to me, when I was doing the work I was often having to hang out for long periods of time and use spots in a park…and what it means to be black while being in nature or private property, semi-private property…
I just think that when I’m doing my research, what I am stumbling on and then how I feel when I find it is, I feel troubled, I feel like haunted, I feel unsettled, and I want people to feel those feelings. I’m definitely interested in affect, like how does history feel, how can we be made to feel something, and so I’m always looking to get at what in the story is impossible to resolve…
…we can start to understand how history is a reflection of individual choices people have…I just was wondering how can we understand the type of people people were, and so I don’t want anyone to just sit static. I think a monument where’s a statue and it’s still unmoving is not serving us as humans and helping us understand that, history is made by a series of choices and gestures by individual living people and that what we’ve inherited is not people’s static contributions, their static identities, but we’re inheriting the choices they’ve made and the challenge to make ourselves choices day by day. It’s that creative or equitable just future, so I think I’m trying to figure out how to make stories complicated and full of feeling because I think people make choices based on feelings. I guess it’s also a real, a feminist position as well. Feeling and affect and emotion are the engine that’s like the life-blood of our world, everyone has feelings and feelings are legitimate and relationships and ties to one another are what make history, rather than acts and logic and rationality, that’s my position.
…And growing up in Philadelphia I totally inherited a sense of founding fathers, had those feelings, chose where they worked, no one else lived there, just like these anterooms with white men in it and I was like that can’t be true…I was trying to tell about the history of black struggle in Philadelphia was that it’s, it happened collaboratively across time and much of it has been hidden, the landscape doesn’t reflect that history, the buildings aren’t there and you have to really look for them. Research is worth doing because when you research these things you find it, it opens up portals into stories and hidden spaces…
There is recovery, you can recover these narratives from the archives you can find a key, and that we’re all capable of constructing it again or in our own ways, so we can make a difference by practising everyday resistance and everyday gestures of love and commitment and music and poetry and dance. And also that some stories can only be understood through these art forms because they, the tragedy of them maybe defies explanation. I found that poetry was very powerful in telling these stories in ways that just telling the story wasn’t going to, couldn’t move people as much as hearing a poem about it.
Saidiya Hartman, she’s important to me as a methodology…I think the work is also about the personal being political, like you could start from a place of self-knowledge and out of that practice build an archive…if a lot of people have knowledge about themselves it becomes shared knowledge.
It’s world building…You can build a free world with people, where people can vote, you can build a world with reproductive rights, a lot of people are contributing to world building in different ways and we tend to limit, some people think they can’t, they’re not contributing at all, some people are fully aware of how they’re building worlds but yes, that’s not running for office but are interested in building a world where the past and the present are in much closer communication.
Marisa was interviewed for Archiving the Inner City by Irteza Anwar Mohyuddin.‘A clue, a starting point’: hidden histories and representations of heritage in Brixton
Mural by the R.A.D collective on Railton road commemorating the 1981 uprising in Brixton
In June 2022 project intern Adassa McDonald Dixon and Brixton researcher Miranda Armstrong took a heritage walk in Brixton and its surround, visiting sites of cultural significance and examining attempts to remember its late twentieth century history. The following conversation explores what they saw on that walk and connects it to the research project’s questions of if, how, and for what purposes the urban town is recording its past.
MA: On this walk we agreed to include visits to sites where we knew the building of interest was no longer there, such as the former site of Brixton Black Women’s Centre at what used to be 41a Stockwell Green. We thought it was still important to go to places like that because one thing this research project is engaging with is hidden history, less-discussed yet significant histories that we can’t see.
AMD: Hidden histories are also about how we commemorate and memorialise events and figures, and I expected there to be more. When you’re in the heart of a community that has such a rich history, you expect to know it, to feel it. I hoped it would be visible and it wasn’t. It felt like a treasure hunt to find these secret places. Like ghost hunting, looking for these places that don’t exist anymore apart from in the memory of some people when you ask the right questions. Much of the radical history we sought out that day, such as Olive Morris’s fight for housing rights, are fights that are still being fought probably by some equally cool central figures whose names we don’t know yet.
MA: It definitely seems to be safer to talk about past periods and past figures and past movements rather than engage with struggles in the present.
AMD: It’s very hard to think about how to completely break out of that structure. It relates to the current conversation we’re all having at the minute about decolonising things, decolonising the curriculum, decolonising the archives, decolonising academia and that means thinking completely outside of the box. And recognising the limitations of how we currently herigitise and memorialise the inner city.
MA: I think murals are a new exciting form of historic preservation, like the recent one now on the 198 Gallery by the R.A.D mural collective (pictured above). There is also a mural series done across London but also in Brixton, which I found out about after our walk called ‘You are Enough’ by the visual artist Neequaye Dreph Dsane, otherwise known as Dreph. It recognises everyday black women. The subjects have each been on unique journeys and are inspirational in various ways. I really like that even though they’re not well known at societal level they’re still seen as worthy of recognition.
Mural of educator and artist Linette Kimpala by Dreph on Somerleyton Estate (from London Calling Blog)
AMD: What’s special about that series is that it’s about real women, people who exist in the community, and it tells relatable stories. In Brixton there has been a recent new move to ‘highlight’ black culture in Brixton – but in a very commercialised way. If we compare the ‘Come in Love, Stay in Peace’ mural on Brixton Road rail bridge to the ‘You Are Enough’ pieces, the latter has a deeper sense of poignancy and relevancy to the reality of the Black presence in Brixton. People definitely have their own opinions about graffiti, about whether or not it’s considered art but I think the bridge was in itself a record, an accumulation of art that reflects a history of individuals who make up the community, like a collaborative canvas. It seems to me that it was replaced by a purchased and sanitised show of Blackness. It reminded me of what Oumou Longley calls ‘selective visibility’ in regards to Black women (see Longley 2021). I think we can speak of a selective visibility or presentation of blackness in Brixton.
MA: Yes, street art is being managed and controlled and presented in an authorised way.
One mural in Brixton that really stands out for me is Children at Play by Stephen Pusey that was created in 1982. I think for me that image represents how black and brown children in school were at the coalface of multiculturalism during the 1970s and 1980s, in a way that maybe some of their parents weren’t. They had to fight against racism in those spaces, as some were labelled, simply ignored or stereotyped. They were fighting a struggle that some parents arguably did not understand. In the book Heart of the Race (Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe. 2018), black women’s childhoof experiences of schooling in England are documented and it touches on this (p. 61-82); the rapper and writer Akala has reflected on this in his work also (Akala 2018:65-88). I think that mural is quite unique for hinting at this history a little bit, even though it is, again, a sanitised image.
AMD: I think there’s a very interesting conversation to be had about generational experiences of racism, racial politics, activism, because we’re talking about completely different time periods. My primary school years were long after the primary school years in the 1960s that people like Olive Morris and Liz Obi experienced, and yet there’s lots of experiences that apply to both; That sense of difference between what a child experiences and the parent’s experience, of having to fight battles on your own or that your parents haven’t experienced. Secondly, I’d like to talk about the whole idea of multiculturalism and integration and how we present that. I definitely think you can look at that mural as a presentation of children of different ethnicities, all playing together as a community. But a diverse community doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s integrated or harmonious.
Children at Play by Stephen Pusey on Stockwell Park Walk
MA: In the literature, it talks about how in the 90s the multiculturalism of Brixton was developed into a narrative to attract investment (Mavrommatis 2010; Lees 2016), commodifying the ethnic mix and cultures. One tagline was the ‘United Colours of Brixton’, which borrowed from the slogan of the clothing brand Benetton. It is true that Brixton is a very diverse place but it seems that there isn’t much mixing between certain groups, they rub along ‘tectonically’ without becoming truly involved in each other’s lives (Butler and Robson 2001). Representations of harmonious multiculturalism gloss over uncomfortable realities.
AMD: Commodification is a really important term for this conversation. In the commodification of blackness, there are these buzzwords that are often used: “urban”, “ethic”, “exciting” and “the interesting”. It can seem as if the most interesting parts of the city are where the minorities are, like gay clubs in soho or the black parts of South London. I was thinking about the way that we share spaces and how we designate what space belongs to whom. In the research interviews with Yvonne Taylor, she lists places she frequented as a gay black woman, and these were places known as popular and safe in communities. Those spaces don’t exist in the same way now, especially amongst the same generation of people. Many have transformed into other things that are definitely not designated to each of those groups in the same way. Does this mean that multiculturalism has improved because there are less designated spaces for minorities? Or is it the opposite, that there has been an erosion of those original communities in those spaces?
MA: Something that has come up in research interviews is the dispersal from Brixton not only in terms of residency but also in regard to the night-time spaces that served groups with less power. It’s been documented (Talbot and Bose 2007) how the licences of some black night-time venues were not renewed for dubious reasons. And there’s also the experience people have on a night out. An essay by the journalist Symeon Brown, Where do Black Men go to Dance? (2019), talks about young black men refused entry to nightclubs playing music genres which emanate working class black culture. It happens to black women too, recall the story about the incident at the London nightclub DSTRKT? There’s been this mainstreaming of black culture and music but also this continued refusal to young black people just wanting to enjoy the night-time.
AMD: I believe Yvonne Taylor also talked about the significance of spaces like that and times like that. I get the impression that during the 1980s it was about more than going out to dance, it was also about the solidarity of community building, the recognition that you weren’t isolated, and finding catharsis for the release of frustration. I wonder from a sociological perspective what the loss of spaces for black expressions of frustration and of joy and of community does for race relations in places like Brixton.
“Soul II Soul first gigged live here”: a celebratory plaque on Electric Brixton, formerly The Fridge
MA: I think that’s what is so special, even radical, about London’s Carnival now, black people taking up space and celebrating their cultures, in a place like Notting Hill, which has been gentrified for decades. For me, Carnival needs to continue for as long as possible because it is an act of resistance in that space. I wonder how aware people are of the large black community that once resided there? There is a black history tour done by the organisation Black History Walks in Notting Hill because there’s so much hidden history, which a number of plaques indicate. It could be said that plaques are not a complete act of commemoration but I think they do serve as clues, they leave a trace and they’re perhaps a starting point for conversations and reflection. I am interested in why there aren’t any markings where Brixton black women’s group met or where Brixton Black Women’s Centre was. Local women’s groups and women’s centres are largely missing from London’s landscape now.
The formers sites of Brixton Black Women’s Group (above) and the Black Women’s Centre (below)
AMD: Well now we have to talk about Olive Morris, specifically Olive Morris House. To me, that building on Brixton Hill was like a shrine to the person. It was an incredible achievement: Lambeth’s housing offices being named after a figurehead of the squatting movement which had the intention of serving the local population, a large portion of whom were black communities, including black families and black queer people. For that building not only to be demolished but to be replaced by private housing is an offence, an ultimate offence to that shrine.
MA: It does feel quite symbolic of what’s happening across London.
Private development on the former site of Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill
AMD: A paper by Oumou Longley (2021) asks important questions such as how Olive would want herself and her achievements to be represented and if we are doing her justice or an injustice. I think asking those questions is a really humanising way of thinking about how we can decolonise the archive and reimagine historically significant urban spaces.
I was also thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and the renewed emphasis on saying the names and displaying the faces of black people killed by police, for example the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murals that were created. For me, this also feels like a more humanising way of remembering. I feel like that’s what’s missing from the way that we currently memorialise people. The large absence of black people’s faces from plaques and statues kind of removes the racial element of history. The visibility of people is significant in the way they can exemplify movements.
The Bronze Woman, envisioned and campaigned for by Cécile Nobrega, in Stockwell Memorial Gardens
MA: I think efforts to recognise everyday people collectively are important too. The Bronze Woman monument in Stockwell Gardens, is a striking example of this for me. The monument is the result of a 15-year campaign by the poet and educator Cécile Nobrega (Burin and Sowinski 2014:116-117) and is an embodiment of her poem by the same name. The Bronze Woman is the first permanent display of a black woman in England. I interpret it as a tribute to black mothers, as recognition of their struggles during slavery and beyond to protect and nurture the next generation. It represents an anonymous group of women who did and continue to do the hidden labour of carework every day, important and vital work which is still largely naturalised due to the gendered division of labour and women’s excessive responsibility for care. This is arguably what the most significant commemoration displays do: recognise and make visible the difficulties, the everyday lives and the achievements of the underrepresented and undervalued.
Akala (2018) Natives: race and class in the ruins of empire. London: Two Roads.
Brown, S. (2019) ‘Where do black men go to dance?’ in Owusu, D. (ed.) Safe: on Black British men reclaiming space. London: Trapeze, pp. 145-156.
Bryan, B., Dadzie, S. and Scafe, S. (1985) The heart of the race: black women’s lives in Britain. London: Verso.
Butler, T. and Robson G. (2001) ‘Social capital, gentrification and neighbourhood change in London: a comparison of three South London neighbourhoods’, Urban Studies, 38(12), pp. 2145-2162.
Burin, Y. and Sowinski, E.A. (2014) ‘Sister to sister: developing a black British feminist archival consciousness’, Feminist Review, 108, pp. 112-119.
Lees, L. (2016) ‘Gentrification, race, and ethnicity: Towards a Global Research Agenda?’, City & Community,15(3), pp.208-214.
Longley, O. (2021) ‘Olive and me in the archive: a Black British woman in an archival space’, Feminist Review, 129, pp. 123-137.
Mavrommatis, G. (2010) ‘A racial archaeology of space: a journey through the political imaginings of Brixton and Brick Lane, London’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36(4), pp. 561-579.
Talbot, D. and Bose, M. (2007) ‘Racism, criminalisation and the development of night-time economies: two case studies in London and Manchester’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(1), pp. 95–118.Yvonne Taylor: ‘With Sistermatic, people were grateful for something fresh’
Yvonne Taylor with her records in 1992
During the mid-1980s Yvonne Taylor, 63, co-founded the black lesbian-run sound system, Sistermatic, who worked as a women’s collective of promoters. Sistermatic ran a night at the legendary South London Women’s Centre for several years, and played at local women’s centres across the city up until the early 1990s. Taylor continues to run events, including Queer Ball, a 1950s and 1960s night and Sunday Happy Day, a soulful house event that has been going for 17 years. She shared her thoughts on the socio-political importance of sound systems, the disappearance of women’s centres and her experiences of 1980s Brixton.
Please tell us about Sistermatic: what was the impetus behind its creation?
When I came to London in 1983, ‘84 I was trying to find some place to go out but couldn’t, it was not my kind of music, very white-centric. Around the same time there was a large influx of black women from the north and the Midlands, looking for somewhere they could feel less isolated. At a dinner party in Kennington with three other women of colour, an idea was developed for a party that was a bit more interesting, a bit more representative. I found myself as one of the main DJs as well as an organiser of this soon-to-be monthly women’s dance. We played everything from Janis Joplin to Dennis Brown and all in between, especially strong empowering women performers – Aretha Franklin was massive. Disco was my big thing. We were the go-to party.
Sistermatic played at the South London Women’s Centre. Can you please say a bit about the community there?
It was empowering. It afforded lots of black Caribbean women the ability to meet and realise that we weren’t on our own. For a lot of black women at that time it was difficult if you were queer and a lot of people were still under cover because it was a lot easier. Sistermatic was at the South London Women’s Centre for maybe five or six years. The centre had such an array of people attending: people from different class groups and with varying degrees of education; some were not political and came out to party, and some came out because it was a room full of women. We had black women, Asian women, women from all over the world. We had white women that came from different groups: feminists, academics, rebel dykes, punks, Greenham Common people, they were all collected in this hall that probably held about 200 women. We cooked food, we had a games room upstairs for women who wanted to play pool. It was a game change because it was the first sort of club in London where it wasn’t based on racial identity. It brought a group of women together that wouldn’t have normally associated. It became quite popular very quickly. When I talk to women about it now, they say ‘you don’t understand how much that saved our lives’.
A 1989 flyer for a Sistermatic event
Why do you think sound systems were so important in the 1970s and 1980s?
Black people weren’t going to the working men’s club with the Union Jack and the picture of the queen up. Without sound systems I don’t know how we would have survived because it was a connection to something back home. For me, it kind of brought a level of consciousness, I was listening to people like Burning Spear. The baseline in those speakers just took you over and took you to a place that you felt safe. Here we are trying to get a British identity that’s just never been afforded us. I don’t really know how our mental health would have been without it.
Do you have your own collections from that period?
I was an avid record collector from the age of 11 – that’s what I spent my pocket money on. Records were my therapy. When I think about reggae artists like Culture and U-Roy, their lyrics were just what we needed to hear as a first-generation British-born black. You felt understood. I had thousands of records I stupidly got rid of. Probably the only mistake I’ve ever made in my life was to get rid of my records.
What was London, and more specifically Brixton like during this time for black women?
In the 1980s, black women were collectively finding their feet, saying ‘right, we don’t have to put up with this, we’ve got rights’. In the Brixton area we were having to deal with not only general homophobia but also within our own communities as well. There was also a feminist perspective that was in full flow. Both right-wing feminism and left-wing feminism were jarring for a lot of women of colour, it was like, ‘I’m trying to fit my life into this very white social scene and now I’m kind of having to listen to this politics that I can’t really relate to’. We had to create room for a whole range of different women to have a proper conversation with each other. My perspective was very much tapped into the social scene but there are people out there that were much more into the political thing. Some of those people are still quietly doing their own thing, they based their whole lives around the fight. Black women and Asian women came out and were doing their thing behind the scenes of the riots in 1981. There were people in Brixton who campaigned for so much more than just the right to party. It was enlightening, I got an education.
Yvonne practising in 1992
There seems to be something about letting off steam and trying to have balance, that seems important too.
Yes. I spent my first few years in Brixton trying to navigate who I am in Brixton and how I’m perceived in Brixton, then it got to a point where I didn’t really care how I’m perceived: ‘I live here, I pay my taxes’. I could have spent all the years trying to fight off all these white people, trying to fight off black people making judgements. But in the end, it was like ‘grow up and get to the root of what the real problem is’. Really, it’s not each other.
Can you speak to the shift and decline of queer black events?
There has been a decline in accessibility to women’s spaces and a shift towards this idea of men-only clubs and women-only clubs, which diluted the whole scene. A lot of women around at the time had kids and didn’t want to get too involved in case their kids were taken away. In the 1970s police could just come round and take kids away. The assumed moral effect of homosexuality on children was an issue – so women had a lot more to lose. A lot of people just thought ‘well there’s nowhere to go’. It’s not like, as a straight person you can decide to go for a drink, and you’ve got choices. It was a lot more difficult because you had to deal with racism as well. We’ve lost some of the goodness of having black women-only spaces too, they’re rare now. Age is also an issue, just because you’ve got to 40 or 50 doesn’t mean you want to stop going out. In the queer space now there are walking groups, football teams, groups that hang out but it’s not got any cohesiveness to it.
Yvonne models a Pride T-shirt in 1992
Do you think groups and centres that existed had funding because of the GLC?
The GLC went partly because it was far too liberal, any government of the day was mostly Tories. Once the GLC went, and funding was taken away from all those kinds of projects it kind of ripped the heart out of the community. Sistermatic used to play at all the women’s centres; Southall, Southwark women’s centre, Brixton and Hackney. We even had child care at some of these parties! Anybody that was black and a lesbian or a queer woman came to our nights. Taking away the funding from all these centres it was about keeping us apart and making sure we didn’t rise up.
How important is the disappearance of resources like the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre?
The Black Lesbian and Gay Centre which was based in Peckham offered an amazing service. When they went it affected people’s ability to interact. Places like that were politicising a lot of black queer women that were really struggling with their identity, it was like an escape for them, somewhere where they could get advice, meet other like-minded women and generally just have a space where they could feel safe. A loss was felt because there was nothing to replace it.
Has the internet replaced those centres, in terms of people meeting and getting support?
It certainly has improved the way the younger generation communicates. There are Meet Up groups and WhatsApp groups now that have started to address the lack of spaces to go. For people in my age bracket, it’s slightly different. They’re feeling a bit more isolated because they’re not part of that system.
Yvonne’s first trip to New York in 1973 (above) and Yvonne in 2021 (below, photography by Georgina Piper)
Why do you think the Black and Gay Back in the Day archive project is so significant?
I think it is majorly significant because we don’t have any history apparently, and we didn’t exist, which is so not true. I think that we should be encouraging more of those women to tell their stories, especially the mothers, about how it was living in Brixton. It’s extremely difficult because people don’t really want to be in photographs or on TV. I think the other women of my time don’t realise the significance of what we’re contributing to; the future POC queer community. Stories need to be shared so that our younger people have got some sense of how we’ve evolved to be a reckoning force within the LGBT community.
What is the cost of omissions in the dominant narrative of London’s history?
There’s a generation that has been in the background for so long, who are not being recognised. There’s all this history that’s just getting erased out of Brixton and it does concern me, not just as a queer person but just as a black person full stop. We were part of Brixton, we made our way in Brixton without the help of white people because we had to, where else were we going to go and live? Only bad stories, like the riots, are remembered but there were a lot of things that we contributed. This is the time to get these stories out.
Interview by Miranda Armstrong, abridged version by Adassa McDonald Dixon
Filmmaker Menelik Shabazz talks about black activism in the 20th century and how film can promote healing
Prior to Menelik Shabazz passing away on June 28 2021, writer and academic researcher Miranda Armstrong had a once in a lifetime chat with the visionary filmmaker
Within a couple of decades of arriving in Britain from Barbados at age five, Menelik Shabazz was in the vanguard of developing independent Black British cinema. His filmography was broad and varied, capturing significant moments of London’s history as well as intimate aspects of life within African-Caribbean heritage communities. In April 2021 Shabazz joined Miranda Armstrong online from his home in Zimbabwe for an extremely rare interview. Their conversation was wide-ranging, coveringthe historical and ongoing importance of documenting our stories, the benefits of independent filmmaking and the ways in which racism in Britain has impacted on the production of work by black artists.
MA: What do you remember about 20thcentury London?
MS:When I first came to the UK everything seemed to be colourless. It went from the days of fog when you could hardly see beyond five feet and of people eating chips out of newspaper, to a London that became very multicultural and colourful. Not just with us but other cultures coming in. By the end of the 20th century England was a very vibrant place with multicultural influences, but that trend of racism was still very much there, it kind of weaved its way through.
MA: The city could be mistaken for a multicultural utopia if you’re not aware of certain things.
MS:Yes, my thought is that it’s a very deceptive place. The UK and London can do your head in. It gives a sense that doors are open and we’re all equal. Then when you get to the door it locks in your face. I think of the actress Cassie Macfarlane [who played Pat in Burning an Illusion], who was amazing in the film. You’d think she was going to move on and become an important actor of her generation, but nothing happened for her. What does that do to your head? Same with me, I thought that when I madeBurningthe doors would open for me. I use those examples to show the head spin that London and the UK can cause you as a black person.
MA: Burning an Illusion and Blood Ah Go Run were films made in the present, but you also returned to that same period in Lovers Rock, which you made during the 2010s. What is it about that period of the late 1970s and early 1980s that is so important?
MS:That period was important because we were the rebel generation, we were the generation that said no to racism, fought and resisted it, whereas our parents were more compliant. There was also realisation that most people didn’t know about our generation because the media was not covering our experiences beyond conflict or riots. I wanted other generations to know we were here and this is what we did.
MA: There were a lot of rebellions from during the 1980s. Do you think there is also some resonance of that time with the Black Lives Matter movement?
MS:Certainly, because we were making the same statement in 1981, we were saying black lives matter. When the police were arresting untold numbers of young people, the stop and search and all of that, we were saying that and so I think it’s a continuation, but we just didn’t have that term at the time. We did have more of a sense of community and collectivity, maybe because we understood that we were the outsiders, and so we had to fend for ourselves. There was also the knowledge that South Africa was still under apartheid and that there were struggles going on around the world, so it was a more politicised era in that sense. There was a simmering feeling underneath that we were being discriminated against, and the police would trigger emotions with the things they did. Those rebellions showed what we were feeling and how we wanted our lives to matter to the system.
MA: Some of your work shows the challenges that black people faced during the late 20th century in urban Britain. For you what was the purpose of capturing those moments on film?
MS:It’s very important that we document our history, and we don’t do enough of it. We’re often tied into trying to get our work through the broadcasting systems, then we end up not getting anywhere. With films like Blood Ah Go Run I wasn’t going to the BBC asking them to give me money or to shoot the [Black People’s Day of Action] march. It is there for people to see only because I decided to do it. The existence of these films highlights the need for more documentation of our story, which is very colourful, very beautiful, very sad and very uplifting, it has all elements in it. Our story is vital for us but it’s also vital for British society to know what we are about. I was very saddened that Lovers Rock didn’t get an airing on television. My feeling was that there was a reluctance to show stories of us as warm people, to show the warm glow that we have. They’re more interested in showing the conflict and the negative sides. Again, that underlined the reason why we need to tell our stories independently.
MA: Do you think independent filmmaking is the best option for aspiring black filmmakers or do you think things are beginning to change?
MS:I don’t think mainstream television is interested in changing narratives. I had that experience when I did a film called Breaking Point for ATV which was a mainstream channel. I was about 23 years old, and I was one of the first black directors to be in that chair. I went in there thinking that TV had a role to play in educating people. But they put a disclaimer at the beginning of the film which said: “this film was made by a black director about people’s feelings,” which was a terrible thing to do. The mainstream can never really satisfy our needs because our authentic voice can never really come through. That’s because it is powerful, and that is not what the mainstream media is interested in. The price is that the wider society doesn’t get to understand who we are, and we don’t even understand ourselves. (Above left, still from Blood Ah Go Run)
MA: I feel that Burning an Illusion is under-celebrated. Do you think it’s been under-recognised due to racist sexism?
MS:I think black women in cinema have had a hard time, and especially women with dark skin, which is exactly why I cast Cassie Macfarlane, she was perfect. I think even to this day there are issues around depiction of black women. Growing up, the backdrop to my consciousness was the Black Power era. I was educated by bookshops and that gave me an evolved perspective about women, the dynamics between men and women and the need for us to be transformed. That fed into Burning an Illusion. I always wanted my work to reflect the best of how we could be, to challenge viewers and to show that women are important.
MA: I’d like to talk a little about The Story of Lovers Rock. The interviews in the documentary are incredibly rich, how did you go about having those conversations?
MS:Lovers Rockwas an organic film in a lot of ways. I bought the comedy element into it because I was thinking ‘how do I make it different and not just a talking head documentary?’ It was very organic in that people just came into my orbit at that moment, Angie Le Mar, she just came into my orbit and Robbie Gee did as well, so it all kind of just evolved really.
MA: One poignant thing said was that on the Lover’s Rock scene young men sought out a close dance because they weren’t getting hugs at home. Do you think aspects of black family life need further exploration in film?
MS:Absolutely. The next film I did after that was the documentary Looking for Love, which dealt with the issues that we are confronted with: emotions, pain and healing. It explored a deeper issue, that we have a serious need for love in our community, loving of self principally. The self has been destroyed in many ways and we cover it up. Self-love and love within families is very important, but you can’t love your family if you don’t love yourself. The love many of us experience is fragmented love because that’s what has been passed down.
MA: You’ve spoken about the need for community healing, do you think film can aid healing?
MS:Definitely, because we respond to it. I was very happy to see the film, If Beale Street Could Talk. To me, it’s beautiful because it showed warmth and love between two black people, which you rarely ever see on screen. The media can play a tremendous role. We’ve come to perceive love through this westernised notion, but love is far more. That’s what we’re not taught, how it can transform your experience, how it can heal. Love is the most powerful source we have.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.
Menelik Shabazz was interviewed as part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded research project Archiving the Inner City: Race and the Politics of Urban Memory.
Miranda Armstrong is a writer and academic researcher at the University of York. She is author of the graphic pamphlet, Beyond the Myth: Single black mothers and their sons. For more information visit http://mirandaarmstrong.com.