by Demi Armstrong
The closest word that I can think to describe this feeling would be hope or perhaps inspired because she was. Althea Jones. An inspiration. I stood there in awe, the room packed with people just like me, we were equal, the same. A room filled with a community unified by oppression and the strength to strive despite such a reality. It was hot, the heat of rage and rebellion, the heat of bodies crowded into a room, a sea of different shades of dark, light. Different hair textures, the common smell of coconut oil and shea butter. Jones never claimed to be a leader but she was and she did lead us. “When we’re gone, our stories will be all that’s left.” The room fell silent.
We all dispersed, it was dark by the time we left and as I stood outside breathing in the cool London air. I felt empowered, I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t be. Even though I’ve been in the Black Panthers for almost a year, coming to every meeting, protesting, I don’t think I’ll ever get over this feeling. I was standing with my usual group. We knew each other from school, and grew up on the same street. Most of our parents were immigrants. After my dad came back from the war, my parents left Jamaica and moved to Brixton. They thought since Pupa fought for their great king they’d accept us. There’d be opportunities. Nevertheless, no one seemed to care. My mum used to tell me that the only patience I ever had was waiting 42 weeks to come out, if I’d been born before they immigrated we might have stayed in Jamaica. There I stood going on about how amazing it was to have a fierce and confident woman like Althea as the leader of such a prominent movement, and from the corner of my eye, I caught Olive Morris, self-assured as always, looking at me, amused.
Olive had an interesting face, she was beautiful but not in an obvious way, her hair was short unlike mine, she had thin precise eyebrows, a muscular build and a glowing smile. I think it might’ve been her smile that made anyone entertain her vision. Olive Morris’ vision. She seemed like a romantic. She had me in a corner, she’d correct me, arguing that a woman might be leading us but the Black Panther movement doesn’t promote women’s rights. She then spent the next hour telling me that black feminism shouldn’t be repressed for the good of the movement. I didn’t like how she said ‘movement’. She talked of gender and racial equality, immigrant rights, she moved from Jamaica when she was nine with her family in the 50s, she was only 16. People thought she was an idealist, “don’t dig up in doubt what you plant in faith.” She was poetic. I later heard that she was involved in a police incident with a Nigerian diplomat.
It was intriguing though, black feminism. I think I’ve read about it, the rise of it when people migrated to the UK after the war, similar to what my parents did. But there weren’t any black feminist groups that I know of, only some woman’s movement, full of middle-class white women from what I’ve heard. Either way, I was curious and asked around. Some of my friends didn’t know of any movement and didn’t care to, others sucked their teeth and sent me to the next person, who knew someone, who knew of someone, who knew of someplace. Finally, I spoke to a younger girl. I had seen her around, she was fairly light-skinned and I reckon she could’ve passed if it wasn’t for her hair, an incredible Afro, it gave her confidence beyond her age, she gave me an address. It was 20 minutes on the bus and I turned up in Chelsea. The buildings were tall, the streets were wide and the road wider. Across the road, women were funnelling into a small hall, the rhythm of low heels on boots and flats belonging to the younger women and heels that created the illusion of elegance and sophistication on women closer to my mother's age. Their skin was fair and their hair smooth, there was less variation among them. I stood tall, proud and followed.
The Women's Liberation Movement. The atmosphere was different here. Calmer? No, more assured, defiant. They spoke of what they had achieved, financial independence for married women, legalising abortions, strikes and Secretaries of State. All the women sat, approving, assertive, there was an air of authority. But not her, she wasn’t sure of herself as the others, she was in awe. She was fascinating, she wasn’t necessarily pretty, she was like Art I suppose. Her face was defined and there were lines by her eyes, shadows of laughter, her mouth was small, her lips were thin and pink, she was wearing lip gloss. Her hair was down, not at all styled and her dress was dark, hiding stains. She looked tired but her eyes were bright and inspired, she was new, well, I was new, but not in the same way. This entire concept was new to her. Then her eyes lit up, her back straightened and she leaned forward. The woman at the front, her name was something like Sheila, Sheila Rowbotham, she couldn’t have been older than 25. Sheila talked of plans for a conference. I’d always thought the word ‘conference’ sounded so intense, advanced. She went on about demands for equal pay and job opportunities for women. The women became more vibrant. This was what moved them. All the while, I stood at the back observing this movement. But I kept turning my attention back to this woman of fascination. As the meeting ended and women began to shuffle about, her eyes caught mine. I turned to leave panicked, flustered. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to meet her gaze once again. She was like art, but up close it felt as though there should be a rope between us. We stood there for a while, she was searching for the reason for my attention, my presence. She was calm, my hands stopped fidgeting and I smiled. She smiled, she had a graceful demeanour.
At first, it confused me, her comfort talking to me. But she later explained that the other women were intimidating, familiar with each other. I quickly developed a similar comfort in her presence, I told her about Olive Morris, her vision and her smile. It fascinated her, I think, in the same way, I was fascinated by her. We went to her house, it was close and she wanted to continue talking to me, asking questions about the Black Panthers, she’d never heard of them, never! Likewise, she answered my questions about the women’s liberation movement, well as much as she could anyway. She didn’t want to stay out because her daughter was with a neighbour. She wanted to get back. We arrived at her house, it was bigger than I had expected, it was quite picturesque, light spilled through the windows, bright flowers were in every room and there were children’s toys scattered all across the floor. Her daughter had her petit features but her hair was darker. There were family photos on the wall of who I assumed was her husband, they looked happy.
We talked for hours. Her name was Mary and her daughter was called Susan, after her aunt. Mary was married at 20 which was old for her small hometown and she had Susie when she was 21. Her husband, James, died when Susie was three, her eyes swelled with tears so I didn’t ask how. After she lost her husband she had to find a job for the first time. She had been a housewife, but she still struggled to provide for Susie. Then her neighbour, the one who Susie stays with sometimes, told her about unequal pay between men and women. She had been surprised, I tried to not look too shocked that she didn’t already know, why would she? So she decided to go to a Women’s Liberation Movement meeting, for the first time, today. We sat in silence calmly. I liked sitting with her, I felt at peace when I was with her. I glanced over as she was drinking her tea and realised that while she was, in truth, fascinating, she was also very pretty, gorgeous. She turned and met my gaze, I thought I felt my heart stop, and she smiled at me.
We met often for coffee or tea, she came to my apartment sometimes, we’d talk about work, ourselves, Susie and updates from our meetings. We became best friends, as time passed I couldn't remember a time without her. This year has felt almost mythical, I’m almost worried that one day I’m gonna wake up. Knowing no different. I became Susie’s auntie, but truly, Mary she became the single most frequent thing I thought about.
Mary told me about national conferences at the Women's Liberation Movement that were held with hundreds of people to discuss critical change. It was a wonder. Then one day, a beautiful day, I was walking to Mary’s house for lunch when I saw a figure frantically running, bounding towards me. Suddenly, Mary had wrapped her arms around me and was squealing about some Equal Pay Act that the government had passed and how it will take 5 years for anything to happen but at least it was a start. It took me a while to register what she was saying between her frantic, broken thought process, and my head spinning. My head was filled with thoughts of only her. When she finally let go, she stood close to me and all I could do was stare into her eyes. They were aqua, crystal, clear, I was searching for any indication of what she was thinking. After a while of being trapped in a world inhabited by only the two of us, we walked to her house talking about the future. After lunch, we played with Susie, then talked for hours. It had gotten late, later than I usually would stay. We were sitting on Mary’s couch, Susie had gone to bed and we had traded our favourite books. As we read, I couldn’t help but keep glancing up at her. She looked angelic against the glow of the fire. She smiled, I think she could feel me looking and I instantly looked away. In turn, I could feel her eyes on me, I looked intently at my book. She got up and asked me if I wanted something to drink, I nodded subtly and followed her to the kitchen.
It was quiet and with only the light of a few lamps I could only see a slight figure, I reckon I could easily recognise Mary by only her silhouette. As we stood in the kitchen drinking tea, Mary put her tea down, looked at me seriously and began to fidget. She was nervous? “I… I think I love you more than I ever loved James.” We stood in silence. I couldn’t breathe. I stepped closer. What am I doing? I traced my fingers through her hair and she placed her hand on my waist. I felt my heart stop. Her lips met mine and my thoughts were only full of her again.
It was the morning, I had to leave early to get back to Brixton in time for work. The sun was just reaching the horizon. I walked in a daze. I could only think of her hands. I decided to take the back lanes behind the houses, it was quicker. I could only think of her lips. The only other people around were a group of men staggering home. I could only think of her warmth. I think they were shouting. I could only think of her smile, framed by her lips. Are they shouting at me? Her lips. I hear footsteps trailing behind me. Her lips. I turn to meet their stares. Her… their stares, hateful, I had been ignoring them, so what? Suddenly, abruptly, I was torn from my world consisting of only her, only Mary. Dragged into reality, drowned in hate. It's ironic. Mary had talked about the second wave of feminism, equality and respect between men and women. I must have smirked at this thought because the men became enraged, angrier, and impulsive. I think I saw a blade, maybe a knife, something sharp. My vision was blurred by my tears, streaking my face. My head was filled with thoughts of only her. Then… nothing.