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Black Women Organizing for Liberation

A picture of Florynce Keendy

If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

Combahee River Collective – 1977

For women’s history month I will be looking at radical Black female organizers in the UK and US. I will first look at Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy a Black feminist Lawyer who dedicated her life to supporting liberation causes using the law as well as organising on a grassroots level. Kennedy took part in plotting, planning and imagining a world free of racism, white supremacy and patriarchy whilst operating within a profession that remains white and male. I will then look at Stella Dadize, an amazing Black British Feminist organiser and thinker. She is the co-founder of OWAAD, the Organization of Women of Asian and African Descent. As a Black woman organizer and lawyer myself I see how the law remains white and exclusionary with radical activist lawyering continuing to be erased from history to favor more white liberal approaches to lawyering. The same goes for the radical Black women trailblazers who remain unsung and erased from history. Patricia Hill Collins notes that gender theories advanced as being universally applicable to women as a group but upon closer examination appear greatly limited by the white, middle-class, and Western origins of their proponents. The absence of Black feminist ideas from these and other studies placed them in a much more tenuous position to challenge the hegemony of mainstream scholarship on behalf of all women. 

This piece is to give the flowers and honour to the Black women that have gone before us who using principles rooted in Black Feminism, futures, freedom and justice to imagine a world where we could be free while using a range of organising tools – from legal aid to direct action – to support radical movements. 

Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy (1916-2000)

Florynce Kennedy was a Black feminist lawyer based in the USA.  She was among the first Black women ever to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1951, despite being initially refused admission by the university on the grounds of gender. In true Florynce fighting spirit she threatened to sue Columbia and in a meeting with administrators accused the university of discriminating against qualified black women and men in favour of white male applicants. She described the merits of her application, asked how a Columbia College student with an excellent GPA could be overlooked, and contended that it must be because “I was a negro.”’

This led to the law school changing their position and admitting her.  She was the only Black woman out of eight women in her graduating class. Kennedy like many Black people entering the legal system had an awakening as to how the Law reproduces and maintains oppression within society. Critical Race Theory ‘reveals that the conceptions of racism and racial subordination as understood by traditional legal discourse are neither neutral nor sufficient to overcome the effects of centuries of racial oppression on people of color. Indeed, the appearance of neutrality primarily operates to obscure the fact that the perspective of the white majority is embedded within this view.’

While at law school Kennedy noted that although “I went to law school thinking I would go to the courts and I would defend [Black] people,” she explained; “I would get justice for them.” She quickly learnt that “as I went through law school I even saw that the Supreme Court had a doctrine of separate but equal. And I saw that the Supreme Court had really justified slavery. It had justified all the wrong things.” It was this sharp understanding of the institutionalized nature of racism and sexism within US law that helped drive her political awakening.

In 1954 she was one of only nineteen Black women lawyers in the state of New York and due to the repeated refusal to offer legal practice roles to Kennedy from firms committed to racism and sexism she opened the first own Black woman owned law firm in midtown Manhattan. 

She took on mainly criminal pro- bono cases to gain legal experience and once her practice was built, she ended up defending the rights of Black artists (such as Billie Holiday) who had been targeted due to their politically radical art that called out the violence of white supremacy in the US. In the early and middle 1960s Kennedy went to work with Black rights organizations such as Wednesdays in Mississippi; white leftist organizations such as the Workers World Party; and Black nationalist organizations like the Organization of Afro-American Unity founded by Malcolm X. Kennedy brought her legal expertise and political knowledge to her campaign work, believing that we must work towards a society without “the racist sexist genocidal establishment.”

Kennedy also led the legal wing of the women’s movement to repeal New York State’s restrictive abortion laws. She was counsel in the case Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, a class action suit in which women insisted on their right to be heard and Kennedy helped devise the techniques that were later used in Roe v. Wade like the use of activist language in the courtroom and coupling speak-outs and demonstrations with constitutional arguments, the case helped to convince the legislature to amend the law before it was settled in court. 

In the Black Liberation Movement, Kennedy used her legal skills to serve the people as the state used courthouses across the USA to neutralize the Black movement as part of COINTELPRO. She defended many Black Panthers, Assata Shakur among them. Shakur explains why she wanted Kennedy to be her trial counsel in her autobiography: “I was now defending myself, i was entitled to a lawyer as an adviser. Everyone suggested lawyers, but most of them were white leftists. I wanted, if at all possible, a Black woman. Not just any Black woman lawyer, but someone who was in tune with the politics of the Black Liberation struggle…Flo (Florence) Kennedy. She was a Black lawyer who was very active in the women’s movement, well known on the speaking circuit from coast to coast and more renowned as a feminist and political activist than as a lawyer. She fit the bill perfectly. She was just what I wanted.”

Kennedy’s Black feminism was activated through her work with the Black Power movement and she brought that vision of racial justice and national liberation to the emerging, predominantly white, women’s movement. As one of the only Black women in the National Organization for Women (NOW), she made Black Power into a pivotal ideological influence on the radical feminist politics that was developing in New York City. She was a bridge builder within these movements, demanding that the women’s movement partner squarely with Black Power and continue to participate in anti-war struggles. 

Her experiences taught her that the law alone could not be used to liberate the masses so in 1973 Kennedy founded National Black Feminist Organization to address the anti-Blackness in white feminist movements. Kennedy as an organizer knew that those closest to the oppression they face must be the ones leading their own movements- as they are the ones who can best articulate what freedom would look like for them. She pushed Black women to form their own autonomous feminist movement that focused centrally on ending racism and sexism. 

‘Kennedy is best known for being one of the few Black feminists who worked in the predominantly white feminist movement, her theorising and activism has been neglected in histories of the movement’. – the erasure of her critical role speaks to the ways in misogynoir is maintained in white  feminist and legal literature through the privileging of Eurocentric narratives.

As Sherie M. Randolph rightfully notes Kennedy’s work not only drew on the parallels she saw between Black Power and feminism but was aimed at creating an expansive radical coalition to challenge the intersections of oppression. Flo’s inspiration and organizing skills were central to the important early demonstrations, such as the Miss America protest in Atlantic City, which drew new participants to the women’s movement.

Stella Dadize 

Stella Dadzie was born in London in 1952 to an English mother and a Ghanaian father. Growing up in the 1950’s Britain was particularly  difficult due to normalized levels of overt racism. By the age of eight Dadzie had attended at least 10 schools, as she and her mother moved around London and the south coast, because they had been evicted by racist landlords. “We’re talking about the era of ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish. And probably, they should have written on those cards: ‘No children’, too. Dazide’s radical politics were shaped by her direct experiences of racism in Britain as child and her year abroad in Germany where she learnt about Black liberation. 

While in Germany she met a group of radical Eritrean students that were highly politicized and they showed her the ropes. These groundings with her fellow students led Dadzie to further educate herself on the liberation struggles taking place in countries such as Mozambique, South Africa, Guinea-Bissau and Algeria. Back in the UK with newfound political sharpness and understanding, Dadzie wanted to help develop and strengthen liberation movements and became involved with the Black Liberator, a “theoretical and discussion journal for Black revolution.” In an interview with the Guardian she notes “We studied, we discussed the articles that were to be published, and had contact with other like minded Black activists; we would sell the paper outside Brixton tube station in other places.” But she felt like the only Black woman in a predominantly male movement. This was a catalyst that led to the forming of OWAAD, the Organization of Women of Asian and African Descent. OWAAD was established in 1978 in London and had a defining impact on Black activism within the UK. OWAAD functioned as an umbrella organization bringing together racialised groups of women across the UK, united in their fight against racism, sexism, colonization and capitalism.

OWAAD’s radical underpinnings were developed through the specific understanding that freedom for Black women would require the freeing of intersecting parts of their identity. In her book, The Heart of a Race, Dadize notes, “I think if you’re a Black woman, you’ve got to begin with racism. It’s not a choice, it’s a necessity. There are a few Black women around now, who don’t want to deal with that reality and prefer sitting around talking about their sexual preferences or concentrating on strictly women’s issues like male violence. But the majority of Black women would see those kinds of things as ‘luxury’ issues. What’s the point of taking on male violence if you haven’t dealt with State violence?”

Beverley Bryan (co-founder of OWAAD) expands on the Pan-African influences that led to the creation of Black women-specific organizing spaces in the UK. She highlights “a lot of people think Black women began to challenge what was happening in mixed organizations because we were influenced by what was going on in the white women’s movement. But I think we were influenced far more, at the time, by what was happening in the liberation movements on the African continent. There were more and more examples of Black women who were active in revolutionary struggles in places like Angola, Mozambique, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau. And those sisters weren’t just picking up a gun and fighting – they were making demands as women, letting it be known that they weren’t about to make all those sacrifices just so that they could be left behind when it came to seizing power. So although we had begun to form women’s caucuses and women’s study groups, what Samora Machel had to say about women’s emancipation made a lot more sense to us than what Germaine Greer and other middle-class white feminists were saying. It just didn’t make sense for us to be talking about changing life-styles and attitudes, when we were dealing with issues of survival, like housing, education and police brutality.” 

Stella Dadzie discussed how she was a delegate at a conference in Tunisia and was asked to deliver a paper on the liberation of Ghanaian women. “That was my first real exposure to, I’m not sure if we’d call it feminist politics, but certainly a focus on women,” Dadzie said, “I came back with a heightened interest in what women were doing, and started taking note for the first time about the emerging women’s movement in a context where, as a woman, I was already feeling quite isolated in these different organizations.” This position is further highlighted in the work of Combahee River Collective which noted the white feminist separatist approach to organising around issues of heteropatriarchy could not work from them as it would leave too many behind, particularly Black men and children. The Combahee River Collective also stated “although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalisation that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” This shows that the politics driving Black women’s radical organizing was always shaped by the specificity of our experiences that could be felt globally within the African diaspora. 

Direct Action 

OWAAD’s use of direct action can be seen in it’s protests against the grotesquely inhumane, racist sexual assault of South Asian Women through the use of virginity tests at Heathrow Airport in 1979. The British state subjected many South Asian women to vaginal examinations to supposedly determine their marital status and this process was directly linked to their visa requirements. OWAAD, alongside Awaz (UK Asian women’s collective) , led a sit-in protest to object to the racist and colonial violation of South Asian women’s bodies. For OWAAD, the institutionalized practice demonstrated the many ways the highly racialized and gendered immigration policies which targeted Black families worked to especially violate Black and Asian women.

The Brixton Defence Campaign

During the 1981 Uprisings against anti-Black police violence and harassment in Brixton, OWAAD highlighted how Black women concentrated on the task of defending our communities under siege. Black men and women had been on the frontline during the nationwide confrontations between the police and working-class communities which had swept across the country that summer. Beverley Bryan notes that “Our experiences of organizing over the past few years gave us the confidence to do so, and ensured that in many areas we would play a leading role, the fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on a lot of the leadership and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group.” The Brixton Defence Campaign co-ordinated the defence of those arrested during the Brixton uprising and supported those who continue to be victimized by the state. The Brixton Defence Campaign also worked alongside the Brixton Legal Defence Group to fight for the full legal representation of those arrested during the uprising and advocated for the dropping of all charges, asserting that the uprising was a legitimate protest against racist policing. They also organized a boycott of the state’s Scarman Inquiry into the uprisings. They continued to mobilize the community against police brutality and State oppression even after the uprisings.

OWAAD was international in its approach, drawing inspiration from the Combahee River Collective and taking a Pan-Africanist approach to organizing as Black women for liberation. OWAAD like all ‘radical Black feminist formations have never confined their vision to just the emancipation of Black women or women in general, or all Black people for that matter. Rather, they are the theorists and proponents of a radical humanism committed to liberating humanity and reconstructing social relations across the board. When bell hooks says “Feminism is for everybody,” she is echoing what has always been a basic assumption of Black feminists. We are not talking about identity politics but a constantly developing, often contested, revolutionary conversation about how all of us might envision and remake the world.’ 

Conclusion

The fight against white supremacy, patriarchy, racism and capitalism that impact us all is a transnational one.

Through Kenndey’s and Dadize’s life work we can understand what true radical, feminist and anti-racist and anti-oppression lawyering and organising looks like. This Women’s History Month I would invite you to read up on transnational Black woman organisers and Organisations that continue to face ensure from mainstreamed discourses. I invite you take a Black feminist approach to working towards fighting for liberation. As Audre Lorde notes, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.’

Endnotes 

1 Flo Kennedy, essay in “Politics of Oppression,” unpublished manuscript, folder POO, box 13, FKP.

2  Brown, K. and . Jackson, D., 2013. The History and Conceptual Elements of Critical Race Theory. [online] Available at: <http://www.elegantbrain.com/edu4/classes/readings/depository/race/critic_race_theory_def_hist.pdf> [Accessed 8 March 2022].

3 KCUR 89.3 – NPR in Kansas City. Local news, entertainment and podcasts. 2022. Remembering Black Activist, Feminist And Kansas City Native Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy. [online] Available at: <https://www.kcur.org/arts-life/2017-02-28/remembering-black-activist-feminist-and-kansas-city-native-florynce-flo-kennedy> [Accessed 8 March 2022]. Randolph, S., 2015. Florynce “Flo” Kennedy. Pg 6

4  KCUR 89.3 – NPR in Kansas City. Local news, entertainment and podcasts. 2022. Remembering Black Activist, Feminist And Kansas City Native Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy. [online] Available at: <https://www.kcur.org/arts-life/2017-02-28/remembering-black-activist-feminist-and-kansas-city-native-florynce-flo-kennedy> [Accessed 8 March 2022].

5 Ibid Page 7

6 Freedom Dreams, Robin DG Kelly, Page 137

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