Olive Morris — The woman that represented a generation of women.
Britain, as a nation has built its identity through the domination of colonial subjects. This nation found its identity by excluding women of colour from the privileges of femininity by calling them derogatory terms like “bloody wogs”. This week, I explore why black women living in 1960s — 1980s Britain felt compelled to create a safe space, separate from the British Black Power Movement (BPM). A safe space where they could express their political, feminine and social beliefs. This will act as a soundboard for me to delve into the role that Olive Morris played in radicalising black feminist organisations.
Soul power is central to the development of a black British identity particularly between the 1960s and late 1970s. Commonly used today, the term ‘black British’ surprisingly didn’t gain traction until the mid 1980s, despite the term emerging in response to the black power and black feminist movements in Britain. It was also coined in response to the popularity of Afro-Caribbean cultural institutions and practices.
Scholars such as Tanisha Ford have asserted that soul gave young adults of Afro-Caribbean descents (in this case, Olive Morris) a language that they could use to combat the oppression they faced under British society. With soul power, black British individuals of the second generation were finally given a language they could use to create hybrid articulations of African, Caribbean, African American and British expressive cultures.
An androgynous, outspoken, black femme navigating Brixton (south London) in the 1960s, the significance of Olive Morris within the Black Power Movement (BPM) is not to be undermined. As a result, this article focuses on Morris as a leading black activist and the treatment that marginalised groups faced. Why Olive Morris? For many key figures such as Stella Dadzie, Morris represented a “generation of women”. She embodied a moment of historical change, upon which Afro-Caribbean Britons were defining “new ethnicities” and black identities across class lines.
Activist and feminist, Morris’ preferred androgynous style was her way of using clothing to symbolise her militancy, it was also one of the many ways that she challenged notions of feminine propriety. The androgynous look was popular amongst women like Morris who went on to adopt a queer, revolutionary soul sister look. But of course, this is a black woman maneuvering Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, so it comes as no surprise that some of Morris’ friends and family displayed a sense of unease towards her gender performance. Nonetheless, Morris added another dimension to queering by intentionally dressing against gendered norms during this period. It’s as Ford writes, “we can read soul style as already occupying a queer, or non-normative space when displayed by black female bodies.” This is because of how the British government and media othered its black and brown population, treating them as inherently nonnormative.
Beyond that, institutions such as the Metropolitan Police participated in ‘othering’ black femmes like Morris. With her short afro and muscular physique, law enforcement found Morris’ adoption of this look to be “disturbing”. Negative notions of queerness, blackness and soul were deeply ingrained in the minds of London police officers during this time. Prior to her death, it was revealed in her personal account that Morris’ gender was purposefully misread by the police. So much so that her encounters with the police often involved them using Morris’ gender non-conformity as an excuse to punish her differently to her female counterparts but similarly to her male peers. Historically, we are used to seeing black men be targets of state violence and thus scholars and activists have centred them in stories of the anti-brutality campaigns in the 1960s. Olive Morris’ brutal beatings at the hands of the London police speaks to the sexualised nature of police violence. In addition, it would be ignorant not to acknowledge the role that colorism played in how Morris was viewed under the male gaze. To elaborate, the African-American activist, Angela Davis, also had: an afro, an athletic physique and she adopted the androgynous look. Yet, where Davis’ afro was fuller and bigger, Morris’ was what we now call a ‘teeny weeny afro’ (TWA) and where Davis is light-skinned, Morris was a dark-skinned black woman. Here, the mechanics of colorism and misogynoir demonstrate to us that, while both of these women identify as black, their experiences are not entirely the same.
Separately, this violence that was aimed at black queer women has gone largely unexplored not just by scholars, but by the media too. It is only in the last 10 years, as more black women (both in America and Britain) become targets of police brutality that scholars and the media finally give coverage to the police brutality that black women faced.
Albeit their hypervisibility in British society during this period, the voices of black women were often silenced. For example, Althea Jones was often ridiculed by the male members of the BPM organisation despite her role as a prominent leader in the movement. When accepted as an ‘active member’ of the organisation, other black women found themselves being regulated to the roles of secretaries, while the black men obtained roles on the frontline. The sexism displayed in the BPM was rife. Such sexism led to the disbanding of the BPM in 1973, this in turn saw a rise in black feminist organisations designed to aid the dual oppression that black women faced.
The argument that black men do not fight for or ‘go hard’ for their black female counterparts is nothing new or revolutionary. In fact, recent events in the last year, which have then developed into a discourse on social media channels have revealed that some black men still masculinise black women, especially black women who do not fit into hegemonic definitions of femininity. Sounds familiar to Morris’ experiences, right?
Hence, it comes as no surprise that black feminist organisations emerged in big cities such as Liverpool, Coventry, Birmingham and Manchester in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. Some examples of the organisations formed are the Brixton Black Women Group (BBWG), led by key figures such as Gerlin Bean and Morris and The Southall Black Sisters (SBS), established to meet the needs of Asian and Afro-Caribbean women. At the time, the Black Power Movement as a whole stagnated in Britain. With the rise of so many groups, there was admittedly, a lack of black solidarity as some of the men still failed to support black women in their fight against dual oppression. Nonetheless, The SBS organisation, which initially started with only 50 members in 1979, still exists and thrives today, catering to the needs of Asian and Afro-Caribbean women by challenging all forms of gender-related violence against women. So revolutionary were the black feminist organisations in Britain, that they eventually outnumbered the men. Ford convincingly argues that this reflects the emotional bonds women forged within the movement, making them independent of the men.
As established, women like Olive Morris and Angela Davis used the symbolism of soul culture to create a women centred discourse and activist strategy. Thanks to its [soul power] significance, black women were able to move through the diaspora and produce a cultural politics that would be critical to the making of a post-colonial black identity. One of the ways they did this was by challenging cultural politics and sharing ideas on black womanhood; conversations in BBWG meetings would centre around hair grooming — the Afro marked their bodies as naturally beautiful. Vivienne Coombe (a black social worker) produced a pamphlet Afro Hair & Skin Care, that would inform and instruct foster parents on how to care for black girls’ hair in the 1970s. Further examples of how black women used their femininity to challenge British imperialism can be seen in the way they ‘daringly’ flaunted their blackness and womanness in a nation that was self-defined as imperial. Yes, the whites branded it ‘daring’ when black women simply existed in their own right. This mentality is not entirely surprising when we remember that Britain founded its identity through the domination of colonial subjects.
When remembering Olive Morris and her brand of activism, it is vital that we interpret her actions within the political and intellectual context. We should consider the tactical training that the Black Power Movement Youth League gave teens and young adults like Morris and how this would shape them. I say this to say, although feminist scholars and activists recognised and spoke about Morris’ heroism, they often did so with little historical and cultural context on how she challenged norms on femininity.
The Jamaican-born activist, who died in 1979, aged 27, is celebrated each year on June 26th — the anniversary of her birthday. June 26th is now known as Olive Morris Day in England. All things considered in this article, Morris should be situated within the cultural and political crosscurrents in Brixton’s soul geography, in a similar way to her female counterparts are in the U.S.
I didn’t want to mansplain too much in this article, so I have included some historical definitions in the key words list below. I got you!
“Bloody wogs” — this derogatory term was short for ‘holliwog’,a male, blackface minstrel doll. By referring to black women as ‘wogs’ white people (the police in this context) were essentially erasing the gendered identities of black women, as women.
- Ford, Tanisha C. ‘We Were People of Soul’, in Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Style (2015)
- Angelo, Anne-Marie. ‘The Black Panthers in London, 1967–1972: A Diasporic Struggle Navigates the Black Atlantic’, Radical History Review (2009)
- Bourne, Jenny, Race and Class: The Colour of the Struggle, 1950s — 1980s, special issue of Race & Class, (2016)