Writer Danielle Dash shares why she will forever admire the radical and courageous activist Dr Altheia Jones-LeCointe.
We should all know Dr Altheia Jones-LeCointe. In a perfect world, the British Black Panther (BBP) leader and community organiser would come to mind as easily as Angela Davis and other famous resistance leaders.
However, Britain’s contribution to global structural racism and the suppression of black liberation efforts leads to the erasure of important historical figures like Jones-LeCointe. The combination of her race and her gender make it easier for history to forget the important work Jones-LeCointe did to advance anti-racism legislation – not only for black people, but specifically for black women.
Born in Trinidad in January 1945, Jones-LeCointe travelled to Britain to complete a PhD in biochemistry at University College London in 1965. In London, she became concerned with the mistreatment of black and Asian people by the authorities and worked as a teacher and organiser for the Universal Coloured Peoples Association.
When the organisation’s leader, Nigerian poet Obi Egbuna, was sent to prison as part of concerted efforts by the government to squash dissent by civil rights activists, Jones-LeCointe rose to become a leader of – and the brains behind – the British Black Panther movement. She reenergised the group, and her position created much-needed visibility for black women.
Five years after her arrival in Britain, Jones-LeCointe became more visible than ever. By the late Sixties, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill called The Mangrove had become a centre for London’s black community, attracting intellectuals, creatives and campaigners.
And so naturally, it was targeted by police under the pretence that it was a “hub of drug activity”. The restaurant’s owner filed a complaint with the Race Relations Board in 1969 regarding the police harassment The Mangrove had been subjected to.
“I know it is because I am a black citizen of Britain that I am discriminated against,” he wrote.
In 1970, Jones-LeCointe organised a demonstration to protest police mistreatment of The Mangrove. The demonstration was vastly over-policed, with 200 officers deployed for 150 demonstrators, and violence erupted. Jones-LeCointe was arrested along with eight others, who collectively became known as the Mangrove Nine.
Of the nine, only Jones-LeCointe and Darcus Howe made the decision to represent themselves in court. Their aim was to tackle head-on the prejudice that had seen the national press depict their civil rights movement as nothing more than a violent gang of troublemakers. After what was at the time the longest trial in British history, the Mangrove Nine walked free, with the presiding magistrate Judge Clarke acknowledging “police wrongdoing and racial prejudice.”
Despite Jones-LeCointe’s revolutionary work, her story was ignored when the time came to tell the story of British people’s contribution to the black liberation movement. John Ridley’s drama series Guerrilla, which aired on Sky Atlantic last year, starred Idris Elba and Babou Cessay and was inspired by the political activism of BBP members Darcus Howe and Farrukh Dhondy. But a black woman who looked like Jones-LeCointe was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Freida Pinto, a beautiful Indian actress, was cast as the lead alongside Elba and Cessay.
The creators of Guerrilla sent a message by centring Pinto in the story of British black power. Intentionally or not, they told women who look like Jones-LeCointe that it doesn’t matter what our achievements are: we are not worthy of starring in our own stories if we don’t have a proximity to whiteness.
You see, when Bette Midler recently tweeted (and subsequently deleted) her version of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s misguided 1972 song Woman Is The N***er of the World, I was sad but not surprised. For centuries, the world has been taught that black people are men and women are white. Society regularly forgets black women exist – going so far as erasing us and our contributions from history. That’s exactly what happened with Jones-LeCointe’s representation on screen.
I admire and am thankful to Dr Altheia Jones-LeCointe because she did the work of dismantling the racist patriarchy at a time when doing so jeopardised her freedom. She paved the way for black women like me, who look the way we do and have the voices we have. She showed us it was possible to stand up to oppression – and succeed.
Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.
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