On a Saturday towards the end of Black History Month, Shoreditch Town Hall in East London was taken over for a day by black women of all ages as they came together for the second annual Black Girl Fest. The festival which is dedicated to celebrating black women from all backgrounds, hosted an array of workshops and panel talks, and had halls filled with market stalls displaying Black owned businesses promoting their products. From the keynote speech delivered by singer and television presenter, Jamelia, to the spoken word and music performances in the evening, Black Girl Fest made sure it was all about promoting a positive, inclusive environment for all the Black girls and women that walked through the venue’s doors.
The sentiments of many like myself were summed up perfectly by Rachel, an artist from London, who told me how significant Black Girl Fest was to her: “There is nothing I love more than seeing black women winning and excelling and everyone showing support for each other, and then connecting with people that you’ve never met before. There’s just this sense of community and unity and we’re so visible and present. If society’s failing to recognise that, we can just call on to each other to recognise these things within ourselves so we don’t need the mainstream. We’ve got each other’s backs.”
It was this feeling of empowerment and encouragement that contributed to the energy of the day. This feeling in the atmosphere also fit in perfectly with the festival’s theme which was “growth”, of which there was plenty of opportunity to do and learn with such a broad spectrum of topics covered in the sessions. From education, literature, sexuality, hair and beauty, technology, finance as well as health and wellbeing, there was something for everyone. Speaking to Ebubechi, a Medical student, it was interesting to see the contrast in the sessions that attracted us both. Whilst I was drawn to the panels and workshops on media and journalism, Ebubechi was excited for the sessions focusing on decolonising education and contraception. When I asked what made her come to the festival, she said:
“Black women are so amazing and we so rarely have a space where we’re the complete focus and are allowed to be proud of ourselves without having to accommodate for everyone else. So many people that I have been inspired by have talked about this event or were involved last year and I knew I definitely had to come.”
Just like Ebubechi, I came to Black Girl Fest to feel the warmth and energy that comes from being in a room with other Black women, in a space primarily for us and created by us. A safe space like this gives Black women the opportunity to not only celebrate, but to also create and engage as we learn from one another. It also allows us to see the many dimensions that make up the multi-faceted Black woman. As a Black woman, who is also Muslim and lives with a disability, it was encouraging to see other Muslim women like myself in attendance, as well as a workshop and panel discussing disability and accessibility. When you live at the crossroads of multiple marginalised communities, it’s very rare that all aspects that make you the person you are today are encompassed in such an event, yet Black Girl Fest made sure of that.
In a society that continuously excludes and marginalises Black women, and whiteness is still very much treated as the default, many still fail to understand why we need such spaces of our own. Nonetheless events such this festivals allow us to reclaim spaces that we are equally deserving of, a fact I was reminded of when talking to Theophina, a finalist student:
“I just think that black women have such an empowering energy around them and so to be in one place where there are so many of us and to collectively put our magic, our grind and our hustle together is going to be really amazing, empowering and exciting.”
Theophina is just another example of a Black woman creating a space for others like herself in an environment where they don’t feel fully included. Noticing a gap in the creative scene at her university, she launched and is the Editor-in-Chief of Onyx, a creative magazine which showcases the voices of students of African and Caribbean heritage at her university. Much like Paula Akpan and Nicole Crentsil, the co-founders of Black Girl Fest, she took matters into her own hands and gave a platform to those that were underrepresented to share their art and words.
For any Black woman that struggles to fit into spaces in the world outside the venue walls, they came into a space, if for just a few hours, that felt accepting and affirming. There was a sense of belonging and the ability to be unapologetically ourselves, assisted not only by the discussions being had, but also the range of Black owned businesses present that day. One of the business owners in the marketplace, graphic designer, Shahira, and founder of her own brand, AfroGlory Designs had this to say:
“Having attended Black Girl Fest last year (not as a vendor), it was absolutely amazing and I wanted to be here again this year. I felt as if I was swimming in a sea of Black energy and I saw how well the stalls did, and as a maker I thought it would be a great opportunity for my business. I’m just living off the energy here today the same way I did last year, except this time I’m actually providing something for all these girls and women. It fills my heart seeing little children’s faces light up when they see my products. That’s why I’m here.”
In a time where the Black British experience is often clouded by the African-American experience and culture, it’s important to have an event like this where Black women in the UK are able to have the conversations on issues and topics that affect our communities, and celebrate our influence in today’s society. For those of us that struggle with identity issues, whether it be due to being mixed-race or not knowing whether you identify more with your British or African/Caribbean heritage, this event was definitely a moment where you felt fully embraced for all the strands that make you you. As Jamelia said that morning, “It’s important we occupy spaces like this.” In a world where people continuously try to attack and put down Black girls’ excellence, it truly is necessary that we continue to invent safe spaces like this to express ourselves on such a platform.
Written by Aisha Rimi