Culture

The New Handbook for Black British Women

We spoke to the two friends who wrote, 'Slay In Your Lane', the book they wish they'd had growing up.
26 June 2018, 12:46pm
Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené. All photos courtesy of Fourth Estate

It all started when Liz called Yomi after a particularly bad day at work.

Becoming increasingly tired of the micro-aggressions they faced on a day-to-day basis, friends and co-authors Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke – who both grew up in London – decided that "when life gives you lemons", you should write a book tearing those lemons apart. "It was 22 years of just existing as a black girl, turning into a black woman, and trying to navigate the world in different ways," says Liz, who's come with Yomi to meet me at VICE's London office.

That book – written when Yomi, a journalist, and Liz, who was working in marketing, were both 22 – is Slay In Your Lane. From health and dating to matters of the workplace, the book touches on every part of black women's lives. The pair included stories from the lives of other black women they interviewed, as well as experiences from their own lives, like when Yomi was told she was "the prettiest black girl in this club".

"There were a lot of suppressed memories that I really think I forgot," says Yomi, referring to a story from when she was still in primary school that she hadn't told Liz until they began writing the book. "We were auditioning for Grease, and I didn't get the part, and a white girl got the part of Sandy. But they made me sing Sandy’s songs because the girl couldn't sing."

Liz laughs at this: "It's just mad."

"I wasn’t going to put it in, but she couldn't believe it!" Yomi says.

Yomi and Liz – who are both of Nigerian descent – grew up in south London, a diverse area, surrounded by peers who were going through similarly unfair situations. However, they’re well aware that not every black girl in the UK has the same kind of experiences as them. Being a black girl raised in a predominantly white area can often feel alienating; it's difficult to find peers who relate to you in the same way – peers who aren't followed around hair shops by shop assistants, or looked at in the same way – while none of your white friends are welcome in certain clubs.

Liz and Yomi want their "black girl bible" to give these girls a source of representation. "I do hope it will give a voice and a name to a lot of the experiences that people have, and also things that they're going through," says Yomi.

Yomi Adegoke

Slay In Your Lane is a prime example of how straightforward it should be to provide representation for young black girls. Liz and Yomi wanted to bring in other black women who are excelling in their careers to tell their stories, so made a list of 200 professional black British women (if they can do it, TV execs and newspaper editors have no excuse), which they whittled down to just 39 who work in a range of different industries, from Malorie Blackman to Jamelia to June Sarpong.

"It wasn't just the role models who are visible, the ones that you grew up with," says Liz, "but also role models who are in institutions that you never realised. The British publisher at Vogue, Vanessa Kingori, and Karen Blackett, who is literally a media powerhouse – these women are making strides, and you wouldn't necessarily see them because their roles don't require you to see them. But here we are showcasing them, because it's important for you to see that. They’re not just doing well for black women or women, they're doing well for a white man!"

The pair made the decision not to self-publish the book – "We wanted it to be high quality. A lot of the time, when things are 'black', people feel like they don't have to put effort into how it looks or feels, like, 'It's just a black thing,'" says Yomi – which proved to be the right path to take: when they took it to auction, there was a nine-way bidding war between publishing houses, and interest beyond that.

Would it have had the same level of interest if it was pitched a few years back? "If it was 2015 – diversity wasn't on the agenda like it is now," says Yomi. "Late 2016 was when diversity started to become a conversation. The Good Immigrant [by Nikesh Shukla] was out by that point, and it really started a conversation. Reni [Eddo-Lodge]'s book [Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race_] had been commissioned, so the conversation was beginning. When we went to auction, _Black Panther was in the works, Hidden Figures was coming out, things had started. It began in America and was starting to bleed into the UK, so it was really lucky timing."

Elizabeth Uviebinené

As Yomi points out, the conversation really has massively evolved since even five years ago – and a book that acknowledges this, talking to the longtime experiences of black women while recognising this new context, is vital.

A few months ago, for instance, Maya Jama – a British presenter of Somali and Swedish heritage – came under fire, and later apologised, for tweets she published in 2012 which insulted dark skin black women. The tweets were branded colourist, and social media users were divided on whether or not she should be forgiven – as, on the Twitter of 2012, this type of conversation wasn't unusual.

"We have a weird conversation over here [in the UK] when it comes to colourism and proximity to whiteness and relative privilege," Yomi explains. "Even with Meghan Markle – to most black women, Meghan Markle is great, stunning and lovely. But to me, as a dark skin, big lipped, big nosed woman, how does this white-passing biracial women who doesn’t identify as black affect my lived experience?"

The UK also still has a long way to go in terms of the representation of dark skin black women compared to dark skin black men. "The version of blackness in this country that is cool is from the black, male experience. That's why all the artists that we are looking at – Not3s, Skepta, Giggs or whoever – they're all black men," says Yomi. "Black women in this country in popular culture and the mainstream media are generally invisibilised."

Adegoke and Uviebinené believe that Slay In Your Lane is the perfect opportunity to change the way the world sees black women, which is why it's recommended reading for people of any race. The pair want to break down the stereotype of the angry black woman in Britain. They want you to know that black womanhood isn’t a monolithic experience, and that they can define womanhood for themselves. "We can be really happy and we can be really sad," says Yomi. "We aren't always strong, but we can be when we want to be."

Slay In Your Lane is published by Fourth Estate, and is released on the 5th of July.

@nanasbaah