Stella Dadzie was born in London in 1952 and is best known for The heart of the race: the lives of black women in Britain, co-authored with Beverley Bryan and Suzanne Scafe, which won the Martin Luther King Memorial Award in 1985 and has been republished as a feminist classic. His new book, A kick to the belly explores how enslaved women in the West Indies found ways to defend themselves. She is a founding member of Owaad (Organization of Women of African and Asian Descent), a group that emerged in the late 1970s to campaign for the rights of black women.
Tell us about the title, A kick to the belly…
The slave owner Matthew “Monk” Lewis he visited his plantations in Africa and kept a detailed diary, which included an entry about witnessing a black woman being kicked in the belly. It is a useful metaphor for the experience of enslaved black women and the attack on the core of their being. I also wanted to emphasize that they relaxed.
In what ways did women resist?
I found evidence during my investigation of court records that black women caused a serious discipline problem, from poisoning their masters’ food to knocking down tools and refusing to work. I immersed myself in the task of discovering more about these invisible women; they deserve to be better known. One of the key findings is that the women resisted at all stages of the journey. That was my main objective: to show that they were not just passive victims. A female slave, Cubah, nicknamed Queen of Kingston, was captured and deported to another Caribbean island, but managed to persuade the ship’s captain to return her to Jamaica, where she rejoined the rebellion.
You use the word “his story” in the book…
In general, the story has been told by men. History is an interesting word, literally “your story”. Women have been hidden from history, and it is only thanks to the efforts of a new generation of historians that we are beginning to hear different stories emerge. When I was doing research, I began to realize that blacks have been eliminated from history, and nowhere is this more evident than the history of enslaved black women. I certainly remember, as a child, wondering that the story wasn’t about someone like me, and wondering about it.
What was your childhood like?
I was welcomed in Wales at 18 months and returned to my biological mother at the age of four. I spent my early childhood with my white [birth] mom. We experience poverty, homelessness and racism: my mother was ostracized because she had a black son and was a single mother. We moved around London a lot as we were constantly kicked out by racist owners. There was a lot of pain and suffering. My father was the first pilot trained in Ghana and he joined the RAF and flew as a navigator over Belgium in WWII. I met him when I was about 12 years old and joined him in countries like France and Ghana. I gained a growing sense of identity by visiting Ghana. That played a big role in shaping my identity.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I grew up as an only child and didn’t meet my siblings until I met my father in France at age 12. I spent a lot of time with my head on books.
We have recently seen a new wave of resistance with the Black Lives Matter protests. What is your activism experience?
When I was 20 years old, the issues we were engaged with included anti-apartheid. I remember marching from Brixton to Trafalgar Square in ’79 or ’80 and seeing the first black cop I ever saw. I have another strong memory of attending Greenham Common and being what appeared to be the only black woman there that day.
I am almost 70 years old, so I did not participate in the BLM protests, but it was encouraging to see them all over the world. I was encouraged by the size, the perseverance and the demographics – there were more white faces. That suggests a change in people’s consciousness and taking responsibility for that history and for a behavior that must be challenged. But I also had a sense of deja vu, given that I lived through civil rights [movements] In both the United States and the United Kingdom and we feel in a way that we take two steps forward and one step back.
What books are on your nightstand?
I am a prolific reader. I just finished My sister, the serial killer, that was excellent. I loved the one by Rohinton Mistry A good balance and Khaled Hosseini’s The mountains echoed. I’ve been diving into New daughters of Africa, an absolute treasure. love Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, which deals with the partition told from a child’s perspective. I am working on a novel from a child’s perspective. I’ve been working on it for decades. As a single mother, I didn’t have much time to write.
What writers have inspired you?
I was very lucky to be a Virago reader, with a view to discussing whether the writers would resonate here, so I read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and they inspired me a lot. If I had to choose someone who inspires me the most, it would be Zora Neale Hurston and her novel. His eyes were looking at God.
What will you read next?
I am looking at a mountain of books that are there to close them. I will be reading Black tudor by Miranda Kaufmann and rereading We need new names by NoViolet Bulawayo. I also want to re-read Marlon James The Book of the Women of the Night, which is one of the most powerful books on black women’s slavery that I have ever read.
• A kick in the belly: women, slavery and resistance Stella Dadzie’s is published by Verso (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
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