Stella Dadzie: 'Women resisted slavery at every stage of the journey'

‘I’m working on a novel from a child’s perspective’: Stella Dadzie in north London, 7 October 2020
‘I’m working on a novel from a child’s perspective’: Stella Dadzie in north London, 7 October 2020. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
‘I’m working on a novel from a child’s perspective’: Stella Dadzie in north London, 7 October 2020. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

The feminist writer on racism in her London childhood, her new book about female slaves, and the part Ghana played in shaping her identity

Last modified on Tue 24 Nov 2020 14.52 GMT

Stella Dadzie was born in London in 1952 and is best known for The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, co-authored with Beverley Bryan and Suzanne Scafe, which won the 1985 Martin Luther King Memorial prize and has been republished as a feminist classic. Her new book, A Kick in the Belly, explores how enslaved women in the West Indies found ways to fight back. She is a founder member of Owaad (Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent), a group that emerged in the late 1970s to campaign for black women’s rights.

Tell us about the title, A Kick in the Belly
The slave owner Matthew “Monk” Lewis visited his plantations in Jamaica and kept a detailed diary, including an entry about witnessing a black woman being kicked in the belly. It’s a useful metaphor for the experience of black women under slavery and the attack on the core of their being. I also wanted to emphasise that they kicked back.

In what ways did women resist?
I found evidence during my research of court records that black women caused a serious discipline problem – everything from poisoning the food of their masters to downing tools and refusing to work. I immersed myself in the task of discovering more about those invisible women; they deserve to be more widely known. One of the key findings is that women resisted at every stage of the journey. That was my main aim – to show that they weren’t just passive victims. One slave, Cubah, dubbed Queen of Kingston, was captured and deported to another Caribbean island but managed to persuade the captain of the ship to return her to Jamaica, where she rejoined the rebellion.

You use the word “herstory” in the book…
On the whole, history has been told by men. History is an interesting word, literally “his story”. Women have been hidden from history, and it’s only thanks to the efforts of a new generation of historians that we’re beginning to hear different stories emerge. When I was researching, I began to realise that black people have been airbrushed out of history, and nowhere is this more apparent than the story of enslaved black women. I certainly remember, as a child, being puzzled that history was not about anyone like me, and wondering about that.

What was your childhood like?
I was fostered in Wales at about 18 months and returned to my natural mother at the age of four. I spent my early childhood with my white [birth] mum. We experienced poverty, homelessness and racism – my mother was ostracised as she had a black child and was a single parent. We moved around London a huge amount, as we were constantly getting thrown out by racist landlords. There was a lot of pain and suffering. My father was the first trained pilot in Ghana and joined the RAF and flew as a navigator over Belgium in the second world war. I got to know him when I was about 12 and joined him in countries like France and Ghana. I gained a growing sense of self from visiting Ghana. That played a strong 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 rejoined my father in France aged 12. I spent a lot of time with my head in books.

We’ve seen a new wave of resistance recently with the Black Lives Matter protests. What is your experience of activism?
When I was in my 20s, issues we were engaged with included anti-apartheid. I remember marching from Brixton to Trafalgar Square in ’79 or ’80 and seeing the very first black police officer I’d set eyes on. I have another strong memory of attending Greenham Common and being what appeared to be the only black woman there that day.

I’m nearly 70, so I didn’t take part in the BLM protests, but it was heartening to see them around the world. I was heartened by the size and persistence and the demography – there were more white faces. That suggests a shift in people’s consciousness, and taking responsibility for that history and for a behaviour that needs to be challenged. But I also had a sense of deja vu, given that I lived through civil rights [movements] both in America and the UK and feel in some ways we take two steps forward and one step back.

What books are on your bedside table?
I’m a prolific reader. I just finished My Sister, the Serial Killer, which was excellent. I loved Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. I’ve been dipping into New Daughters of Africa, an absolute treasure trove. I love Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, which is about partition told from a child’s perspective. I’m working on a novel from a child’s perspective. I’ve been working on it for decades. As a single mother I didn’t get much time to write.

Which writers have inspired you?
I was very lucky to be a reader for Virago, with a view to discussing whether writers would resonate here, so I read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and was very inspired by them. If I had to pick out someone who inspired me the most it would be Zora Neale Hurston and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

What will you be reading next?
I’m looking at a mountain of books which are there for lockdown. I am going to be reading Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann and rereading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. I also want to reread Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, which is one of the most powerful books about the enslavement of black women I’ve read.

• A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance by Stella Dadzie is published by Verso (£14.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply