Beverley Bryan: the British Black Panther who inspired a generation of women | Black Lives Matter movement
In the mid-60s, Beverley Bryan was a prefect at Lavender Hill secondary modern in south London. One of her responsibilities was to stand at the school gates and scribble down the name of any student who was late. One such girl was Olive Morris, who would become one of the country’s leading anti-racism activists. Bryan, meanwhile, would follow in the younger girl’s footsteps, becoming a British Black Panther, a founder member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group and, in 1985, the co-author of the seminal book The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain – which helped educate generations of women about the struggles and triumphs of Black women in Britain.
“She was always very fierce,” Bryan says, over a video call from her home in Jamaica, of her friend Morris, who died in 1979. “She was always a strong person, a strong personality.” Bryan and Morris had much in common – both were born in Jamaica before emigrating to London as young children – and they quickly became friends who reminisced with a laugh about their early dispute.
After finishing school, Bryan went to teacher training college in Keele, Staffordshire. By the time she saw Morris again, her friend’s life had changed. In November 1969, 17-year-old Morris came to the defence of a Nigerian diplomat, Clement Gomwalk, as he was being arrested and accused of stealing his own Mercedes. Morris was brutally assaulted. When Morris saw Bryan in 1970, she told her she had a plan – to join the British Black Panthers. “The way Olive was tackling it was by being part of an organisation that was campaigning against police harassment,” says Bryan. “And so I joined, too.”
This Black power organisation was unaffiliated with its US counterpart, but had the same principal aim – to serve its local community. Bryan spent her free time running one of the group’s Saturday schools – offering supplementary lessons in maths and English – to combat the racial discrimination rife in education and to teach children Black history. The Panthers would pick up the children from their homes, to ensure the school also functioned as a free childcare service. But just as vital as the political side of the movement were the parties and gatherings. “The Panthers weren’t just about the politics, but also young people interacting,” says Bryan. “We found purpose in the work we were doing, but we also found pleasure.”
The group’s peak came in 1970, with the trial of the Mangrove Nine – a group of Black activists who were charged with incitement to riot after a peaceful protest against police racism. After 55 days at the Old Bailey, all nine were acquitted. The trial made history by generating the first judicial acknowledgment of racial prejudice within the Metropolitan police. The Black Panthers Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones-LeCointe were among the nine.
The threat of police violence was felt throughout the trial, says Bryan, especially at protests in solidarity with the defendants. Bryan gathered reports of the trial and helped to organise volunteers to attend the public gallery. She also handed out the group’s newsletter, Freedom News, which documented the case. To try to outmanoeuvre the threat from the police, women formed a picket outside the court. “We felt that the police were quite vicious and that they would arrest you for anything,” Bryan says. “They were less likely to arrest a group of women, especially if they had their children with them. I remember at one picket there was a baby.”
For Bryan and other organisers, the verdict came more as a relief than a celebration. This was just one trial, albeit one that had a happy ending, as portrayed recently in Steve McQueen’s series Small Axe. But other, less well-known trials – the Oval Four, the Brockwell Three, the Railton Four – did not. “A lot of people had their lives shattered by their encounters with the police,” Bryan says. “The behaviour of the police was seriously bad – and still is.”
Bryan was born in the district of Fairy Hill in Portland, Jamaica, on 18 August 1949. In 1950, her uncle – a “quite adventurous” police officer – migrated to London. Her parents followed in 1953, settling in Battersea, while Bryan and her siblings remained in Jamaica. She was happy at school and living with her grandmother, her cousins, and her younger sisters; she remembers looking forward to the exotic parcels of Colgate toothpaste and Palmolive soap that her parents sent from England. But in 1959, when she and her siblings were finally able to relocate, she could not wait. “The idea of going to England? Of course you want to go to the land of Colgate!” Bryan laughs. “I knew I was going to the land of my mother and father. It was all an excitement – getting a new dress and your picture taken.”
Her parents worked difficult manual jobs – her father on the railways, her mother often in factories – but Bryan’s childhood in London felt comfortable to her. “Any kind of material lack that there was, I didn’t experience it. I was in a good space with my family,” she says. Neighbours, however, may have seen their situation differently. Bryan has a vivid memory of a bag of secondhand clothes being left on her family’s doorstop. “It really suggests that whichever neighbour left it there obviously felt that we were very poor,” says Bryan. “They felt that we needed help.”
As a child, she loved reading, as well as visiting Battersea library. It was through books that she came to think deeply about race – what it meant to be Black and, more specifically, what it meant to be Black and a minority. She was 15 before she read her first book by a Black author, Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Next came the works of Richard Wright, the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr and eventually Malcolm X, all of whom sparked in her a desire to explore and interrogate what Blackness is – and not just from the African American experience of her reading.
In sixth form, Bryan joined the West Indian Students’ Centre in Earl’s Court, a hub for students in London who were part of the Caribbean diaspora. Among them were the poet Kamau Braithwaite, the novelist Andrew Salkey, and the political activist and former chair of the Notting Hill Carnival Board Ansel Wong. From this came the Black Arts Workshop, led by Wong, which was a space where Black students used poetry and spoken word to counter poisonous stereotypes, cultivating positive images of what it meant to be young and Black in the UK.
From 1965 to 1967, Bryan and its members travelled across the country to perform in youth clubs. “In a way, it was the beginning of slam poetry!” Bryan says. “We were a group of young people interested in Black arts, Black consciousness, and we were beginning to get this idea that Black is beautiful and Black is powerful.”
Yet Bryan always knew what she wanted to do – teach. After training college, she moved to Brixton so she could work in a Black community. She was offered a job at Santley primary school on the spot when she visited the school – and given no chance to change her mind. The vast majority of her young students were Black and Bryan was determined that her teaching would revolve around a curriculum that made them feel proud of who they were. “I wanted to give my students a kind of self-defence against the negativity they would encounter,” she says. “I wanted to give them Black stories, Black culture and Black history as a way of affirming that you come from a history of proud people.”
As a child, Bryan had read books with characters such as JCT Jennings and Billy Bunter – English public schoolboys whose escapades were so divorced from her experiences in London that they felt like “another world, like reading fairy tales”. Bryan’s classroom, on the other hand, was filled with stories from southern and west Africa, with posters of political activists, such as Angela Davis, adorning the walls. When working on her pupils’ literacy, she used books with Black protagonists, such as Emanuel and his Parrot, while history lessons revolved around figures such as Marcus Garvey and Amílcar Cabral.
“The main reason why I chose a Black curriculum was because, when I think about my own experiences, if people called you names, rather than say: ‘I’m not Black,’ you could point to what Black people had achieved,” she says. Recently, there have been calls to “decolonise” the curriculum, by including the history and culture of different communities in the UK; on visits to London, Bryan says she sometimes bumps into former pupils who point out: “You were doing these things back in the day, Miss!”
In 1973, when the British Black Panthers were disbanded, Morris, Bryan and Liz Obi, a fellow Panther, formed the Brixton Black Women’s Group, so that they could continue to organise and improve the lives of their community. Whereas the Panthers was led by a central committee, the Brixton Black Women’s Group had no such hierarchy. “We saw ourselves first and foremost as a collective,” Bryan says. The group needed a place to meet and organise. Since Olive was involved in the squatters’ rights movement, she found them a squat – which later became the Saabar bookshop, one of the first Black-owned bookshops in south London.
A central part of the group’s legacy is the publication in 1985 of The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, which documented the struggles, and victories, of Black women in Britain. Fifteen women from the group were approached by the feminist publisher Virago. Bryan was keen that it would not only be an educational resource, but also “tell the stories of Black women” for their own sake. “We saw the book as being written for Black women, but we didn’t want anybody to be excluded from reading it,” she says.
Although many women from across the group contributed, Bryan was attributed as a co-author, alongside Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, almost “by accident”. “We ended up with our names on it because Virago told us that, if anybody wanted to sue, they couldn’t sue something called ‘the book collective’. They had to have some names on the contract, so the three of us put our names on it.”
Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and bell hooks had written of the complexities of being Black women from an American perspective. The Heart of the Race was important because it vividly captured in detailed anecdotes the lives of an array of Black British women – the obstacles faced within work, education, healthcare and welfare – while uplifting African-Caribbean culture and identity. “What surprised me was that it’s been read by so many people, by academics and university students, but also that it’s something ordinary women would take up and read,” says Bryan. “Our experiences are a part of us, and for us, but they need to be understood by everybody.”
Bryan admits she had no idea what impact it would have. In 2018, it was relaunched by Verso with a new foreword by Lola Okolosie. At the launch, many women told Bryan how they had passed their copies down to younger generations – exactly as my mother did with me. “I am very proud of it,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of things, but I feel like it was one of my best contributions. And I didn’t even realise it at the time.”
In 1979, Morris died of cancer, aged 27. In recognition of her phenomenal contribution, Lambeth council renamed one of its offices Olive Morris House in 1986; her birthday was celebrated as a Google Doodle last year on what would have been her 68th birthday. But to Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe, she was also a fellow “sister in the struggle”; the book’s dedication promised to keep her memory alive.
Despite her work to fight for equality in the UK, Bryan always knew she would return to Jamaica. “I never felt fully settled,” she says. “From my teenage years, I always felt that one day I was going to go back.” The police violence she witnessed played a role in her decision, in 1992, to relocate with her husband and sons. “If you have two boys and you see them growing up in England; it’s very dangerous, being a young Black man in the UK,” she says. “The idea of worrying about them when they’re out on the road – whether they’re going to be stopped by the police. Those kind of things were still there.”
Bryan took up a teaching post at the University of the West Indies and became an authority on Jamaican Creole learners of English. She also travelled to teach and promote literacy in other Caribbean islands such as Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent. It was a continuation of her work decades before in Brixton, she says. “I was in a privileged position when I returned to Jamaica, being in a comfortably middle-class profession,” Bryan says. “But one should always recognise what you can do with your privilege and the work to be done.”
The global Black Lives Matter protests last summer were partly a result of a gradual awakening, says Bryan – a distinctive re-energising of anti-racism movements that have been heartening for her to witness. “It’s young people coming in now … wanting to put their own stamp on the movement, making it not ‘Black is beautiful’ or ‘Black power’, but ‘Black Lives Matter’, which I think is very important,” Bryan says. She reminds the young activists of today that there may be disappointments – and gains may be provisional. “There’s no time to be congratulating yourself, whether it’s knocking down a statue or some rule being changed. This system has been built up over a long period of time, so it will take time to really chip away at it.”