Why Hackney Is the Perfect New Home for UK Black Pride
Photos by Alex Rorison
UK Black Pride started in 2005, when the online social network 'BLUK' (Black Lesbians in the UK) decided to take their community offline. Co-founder of Black Pride Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah, also known as 'Lady Phyll', recalls leading two buses of black lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans women to Southend-on-Sea, setting up badminton, volleyball, and a £300 marquee, with a jerk pan grilling chicken, seasoned and marinated with recipes passed down for generations.
Over a 14-year life span, Black Pride has grown from an ensemble of black queer women, to a 7,500-person strong annual celebration of black British LGBTQ+ lives – with attendance expected to near 9,000 this July. What's more, this year's iteration of Black Pride's geographical expansion and journey finds the event moving from Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens to Haggerston Park in the borough of Hackney. As a life-long south London resident, who only needed to walk for 20 minutes to reach Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, I'll be pouring one away on the earth Black Pride once stood on to mourn the local area's loss.
On Monday I attended Black Pride’s takeover of Hackney Town Hall, where Lady Phyll was in conversation with the Mayor of Hackney, Phillip Glanville. Before the event started, I caught up with the two of them to discuss Black Pride's move to Hackney and how the borough was preparing to inherit an event I had come to view as my 'Black Gay Christmas'.
Vauxhall, which is drowning in queer history and cultural presence, from the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, to monthly black gay night 'Bootylicious' hosted at the Union Club, had always seemed a fitting location for Black Pride. I wondered what, beyond capacity concerns, motivated the relocation. "When we look at the diversity of Hackney, when we look at where our communities are based, it made absolute sense to come to Hackney," Lady Phyll said. "We have the support of the mayor, the support of the local authority, the support of the community and grassroots groups in and around Hackney, it just makes sense that we're here."
This is, of course, no shade to Vauxhall – it's not that it now lacks the appetite or fitting cultural landscape for Black Pride. Rather, in finding a home that can accommodate more people, Hackney's social and cultural environment is fertile ground for Black Pride to blossom and grow. "It feels like we were building for this moment," Glanville added.
And there is so much evidence of this – over the past two years Hackney Council has presided over the launch of the Hackney Pride 365 festival, celebrating the history and presence of the borough's LGBTQ community. The initiative has also seen Pride picnics, hosting families and 'found' queer families for food and summertime activities, as well as the growth of the Young Hackney LGBT+ Youth Group in Dalston.
Hackney Carnival, the second biggest UK carnival outside of Notting Hill, for the first-time last year hosted the ‘Faggamuffin Bloc Party’ sound system, entirely led and run by black queer people. As a cultural space, Carnival celebrates liberation and homecoming; providing this sanctuary, especially for queer Caribbean people, to celebrate their sexual and gender identities is testament to how Hackney's community pioneers a confident and radical queer occupation of social and cultural space. As Glanville told me me, and the above shows, "it seems only natural that UK Black Pride would want to come here – it fits within that broader programme that the council is supporting".
Mayor Glanville is also proud to tell me about the work of Hackney Museum: "We've got a community museum that is really the archive of all of the stories that the borough has. And it's always had queer stories, radical stories at its heart, but what it didn't possess was the collections to back that up. So we went out into the communities and said, what stories do you want us to enhance? What can you tell us?"
As a young black gay man, I feel personally invested in the archiving of black British LGBTQ+ people's organising activities. Capturing oral histories, collecting old magazines and photographs, writing down stories and putting these on display is community work. Community work is memory work. It's crucial for me to know that Black Pride started as a collection of black queer women, who in turn drew the blueprints for mobilisation that allow me to enjoy the freedoms, spaces and knowledge I have today. Hackney's history of black LGBTQ+ organising runs back through time like a long and rich tapestry. Hackney Museum, for example, is currently exhibiting 'Women on Screens', sharing radical images produced by the Lenthall Road Workshop (a community screen-printing and photography space in Haggerston between the 1970s and 1990s).
As these images show, black LGBTQ+ organising groups used these services, which offered vital resources such as mental health support, advice. Through that exhibition I learned that the 'Theatre of Black Women' established in 1982 in Dalston by Bernardine Evaristo, Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall, was home to 'Chiaroscuro', one of the first British plays to speak to the black lesbian experience, written by current Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay.
Lady Phyll remembered a sizeable presence of black British LGBTQ+ organisers in the 80s and 90s: "You had people like Linda Bellos, Femi Otitoju, who was the very first black woman who ran the lesbian and gay switchboard. Then you had Veronica McKenzie who produced an actual documentary about the Lesbian and Gay Federation… there was a black-led movement, there was a community of people. You've had queer groups that have run here; black feminist groups, in Hackney."
Mayor Glanville also recalled how such spaces and groups were operating and trying to survive under a hostile political environment. "We're talking about a time when the National Front was on Kingsland Road. So this was about that sense of resistance, and re-telling that story in our museum – championing it – but also celebrating where we're at now, creating those safe spaces for people to celebrate their identity."
Speaking to other Hackney residents at the Town Hall event on Monday, I heard how some were convinced of UK Black Pride's potential to transform the social and cultural landscape of Hackney. "Black Pride is coming home," said Rose Frimpong, co-founder of the queer events collective ‘Dreams’. "People that are in the area, that can't come out or are usually a bit more hidden, can feel freer now. It means that Hackney is also being recognised for the diversity it's been trying to promote over the years. I'm just proud that it's in Hackney."
Singer Jermain Jackman agreed, noting how his work co-chairing the Hackney Young Futures Commission, a consultation with over 2000 young people in Hackney aimed at improving their lived experiences, will benefit from this move. "I'm collaborating with organisations like UK Black Pride to ensure that the voices of young black queer people are heard in this commission, and that the recommendations put forward improve their lives too."
"We in Hackney need Black Pride more than ever, and I can't wait for more of us to come out this July," resident Bekke Popoola told me. "The black community has always been strong here, but has faced a lot of adversity – so imagine when you're black and queer, it's much worse." Bekke believes that having the event at her doorstep could be a further move towards encouraging local residents to embrace the LGBTQ+ people within their own families.
You don't have to see the relocation of UK Black Pride as a purely logistical decision. It's important to see how the event has found a spiritual home in Hackney, whether it serves as Black Pride's home for the next five, ten, 15 or 20 years, and even if it moves back south one day. Lady Phyll and Mayor Glanville both referenced their friend Doctor Ronx, who says "you can't be who you can't see." Visibility matters. Institutional legacy matters. Witnessing each other in our community spaces, in our libraries and community archives, reminds us that we don't need permission to take up space, that black British LGBTQ+ people exist and have always existed. We resist and have always resisted. We are proud, and have always been proud.