Panel 3: "Historical reflections on knowledge (production) of disability and race"

Flipped webinar (9/Jul/21): 'Intersectional Approaches to Disability and Race' (here)

The uncaring arm of the state: The Black British women’s movement and mental health activism in the archives

Kariima Ali

PhD student in History, University of Roehampton

There is an extensive oral and archival history of intersectional activism by the emerging British Black women’s movement of the late 70’s. While this was instrumental in shaping current discourses on racial health disparities within psychiatric service, it has been marginalised in the history of ongoing service-user/psychiatric survivor movements. I’m arguing that a meaningful engagement with this history of Black feminist mental health activism provides insight and possible learning outcomes if we are to continue fostering a community-oriented praxis.



Black women’s movement


The late 1970’s saw the election of Margaret Thatcher to prime minster coincide with the emerging Black women’s movement, one that would shape Black feminist theorising and activism in Britain for the decades to come. Many of the women that led the movement were already active in existing anti-racist groups such as the British Black Panther Party and the wider anti-colonial student movement. Finding themselves within a political landscape that didn’t directly address their embodied experiences of state violence as Black women, they, echoing the Combahee River Collective’s spirit across the Atlantic, emphasised building a movement that recognised oppression on all fronts. The Organisation of Women of Asian and African descent (OWAAD) was formed in 1978 and acted as an umbrella group providing a network for Black women across the country to form their own community-based organisations. The discrimination they were facing as ‘politically Black’ women within the health services, as both workers and patients, provided the foundation for much of their activism. The Peckham based ‘Black Women and Mental Health’ collective, as part of the Brixton Black women’s group (Peckham and Brixton are two neighbourhoods in South London), were instrumental in establishing a Black feminist voice within Mind’s (a mental health charity in England and Wales, founded in 1946) national campaigns on mental health, alongside many others such as the Black health workers and patients group, who emphasised centring the colonial legacy of psychiatry itself.


Much of the archival material and oral history found at the Black Cultural Archives details the activism and political scope of the Black women’s movement from the 1970’s and 80’s. From periodicals and journals such as ‘Black Sista: A Camden Black Sisters Newsletter for Members’ and the Brent Black Mental Health Journal to issues of FOWAAD (the newsletter distributed by OWAAD across their networks in the 1980’s). They campaigned on various urgent health and other issues, such as the disproportionate number of Black women facing carceral violence and forced psychiatrisation under the Mental Health Act (1983), ‘sin bins’, and the state of education for young Black kids across the country. They were instrumental in the campaigns for adequate health services following the aftermath of the New Cross Massacre and the Brixton uprisings of 1981. A tragedy and injustice that defined the relationship between Black communities and state institutions, such as the police and psychiatric services, for the proceeding decades. Most importantly, it exposed the institutional racism inherent within this country, while at the same time inciting mass unity, and support for the families and communities affected.


Among the archives is Stella Dadzie, Beverly Bryan and Suzanne Scafe’s seminal book ‘Heart of the Race’ published in 1985. As founding members of OWAAD and Brixton Black women’s group, they interviewed women within the movement, creating an anthology of their activism including the ways they engaged with politically radical transnational movements globally. They described the National Health Service, at the time, as the “uncaring arm of the state” (p. 179), discussing the trauma that ensues when racist stereotypes about Black women resulted in state violence through forced psychiatrisation, writing “… although we face the added pressures of being Black and female, Black women have no particular monopoly on mental disorder and our exposure to stress is not, in itself, sufficient to explain our over-representation in psychological assessment centres, prisons, psychiatric wards, and mental institutions” (p. 190). They were critical and explicit in tracing the institutional violence they faced as being exacerbated by their intersecting identities as Black working class women, and that this intensified their “… negative dealings with the welfare, psychiatric and custodial agencies in Britain” (192).



Returning from the Archives


Much of the work by women within OWAAD and their networks was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the current critical discourse on the intersection of race and mental health: think of their critique of the increase in cuts to mental health care, the overrepresentation of young Black women within prisons and psychiatric institutions and the increased use of the Mental Health Act (1983) in the forced detention of young Black men and women in the wake of the Brixton uprisings. Notably, they emphasised that every aspect of the welfare state from schools, to hospitals and social work were critical in their capacity to magnify, what was to become, the prison industrial complex. So much of their  activism in the form of mutual aid and community defence campaigns, is an explicit demonstration that politics can arise from ordinary spaces and from the everyday refusals taken on by Black women and girls.  Much of the political demands articulated by Black women activists in Britain from the 1970’s onward is still debated today on panel discussions, in articles, within academia, online etc., particularly in response to the rise in the last few years on discourses focusing on intersectionality within and outside universities and activist spaces.


The marginalisation of this history is representative of our current racial capitalist episteme, particularly, in this moment of widespread austerity and a global pandemic, whose death toll is increasingly racialised. Emphasising the legacy of a continued grassroots struggle allows us to counter and resist the violence and erasure the state is invested in, this is especially important considering recent debates and pushbacks from right wing politicians and media outlets on the usefulness of terms and concepts, such as ‘institutional racism’ or ‘identity politics’, as a political locus to organise for change. In order to do this we have to frame and engage the archives, those in the BCA (Black Cultural Archives) and elsewhere, as an explicit part of a lineage of resistance that can aid in creating and informing new forms activist practises as well as helping us understand the past and show us how these women forged solidarities across racial, political and national lines and were still able to theorise and cultivate a politics of care and refusal, which already included a sustained critique of the psychiatric system and its violence.


Through the archive, then, we can confront the way a distinct antiracist Black feminist politics intervenes into current political moment, and recover alternative histories of mental health activism.