It all started with a phone call. One of those hurried, huddled in the loos, too pissed off to give a toss if the person in the neighbouring cubicle is a colleague ones that you make to a best friend on your lunch break, after a particularly trying day. Elizabeth, my best friend since university and now, surreally, my co-author, was a 22-year-old graduate in her first job since we’d left university, working in marketing for a bank in Canary Wharf. And that day had been more than trying. She was fed up of being fed up, feeling stuck on a career treadmill at full speed. She was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless onslaught of unspoken rules and secret codes for getting ahead that she hadn’t learned at school or even university.
“Thriving” was something she had always prioritised – it was our favourite word when we were at the University of Warwick. Since first year, she had pored over self-help books – Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss, Dr Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade and, most crucially, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – to help her do just that. She took something from them all, but Sandberg had a single chapter in her follow-up book, Option B, covering black women’s experiences in the workplace that Elizabeth devoured. She wanted it expanded – and she wanted me, as a writer, to do it.
It didn’t take long to decide that, with her marketing expertise and my journalistic background, we should do it together. But, as much as we were book novices, we were very much life novices, too – aged 22 and 23, in our first-ever jobs – still finding our feet and tripping up every so often. We needed the book for us to read, more than anything – how could we advise black women on how to “slay in their lanes” when we were asking ourselves the very same question? So, we decided to ask those who had, by interviewing 39 of the countries most inspiring and accomplished black women.
Through the process, a lot of beliefs I held have been shattered and others strongly confirmed. When pitching the book to publishers, many asked us how we could be sure our demographic would support it. Our answer was simple. “Black women are the most supportive people on the planet,” we shrugged. And, while that has been proven daily by continued messages and social-media posts, nothing illustrated this better than with our interviewees. We had little to no contacts pre-publisher and went to extreme lengths to secure our time with them – popping up at events we knew they’d be at so we could accost them in person (this secured our interview with June Sarpong, who we met at the Afro Hair & Beauty Live show), skulking in Instagram DMs like thirsty guys, nudging the most tenuous links for the contact details of a potential interviewee’s agent’s cousin’s brother.
Through our conversations with these women, we realised just how much we had brushed off, laughed off and written off that had haunted us in ways we never realised
Many agreed to be interviewed before we had even confirmed a publisher. Once we got past the women’s representatives, whose emails were often curt and short, we were met with unbounded enthusiasm from interviewees and embraced by these hugely busy and high-profile women. Women we had looked up to since childhood (and the new girl crushes we found along the way) were inspiring, not just because they were successful, but because they were warm and so willing to entrust us with their stories. We were taken aback by how open and honest they were about their experiences. Most of them are at stages in their careers where they no longer necessarily fear the backlash that often comes with frankly discussing race, but the risk of repercussion was still present.
Before we knew it, interviews became much like therapy sessions, with the women often saying that they had simply never been asked questions about their experiences as black women in interviews before. Talking to them made me realise just how starved of representation black women in Britain are. We are desperate for an articulation of an experience outside of the white British one and outside of the black American one. So many of the women’s own role models were, like ours, from the States, and so many felt they could only look to family for an example of black Brits achieving. Not because the successful black Brits didn’t exist when they were growing up, but they were simply invisible. Regardless of generation, we often all cited the same handful of idols – Sade Adu, Angellica Bell, Floella Benjamin, Naomi Campbell. Many are even in the book – Jamelia, Malorie Blackman OBE, Sarpong. So few are allowed to flourish in certain spaces that the same few define childhoods for decades.
And that was something I didn’t necessarily anticipate. While it would be simply dishonest to say nothing has changed over the years (if it hadn’t, there is no way this book would have been published with a mainstream publisher, let alone subject to a nine-way auction), what struck me most was how much has stayed the same. Seventy-three-year-old publishing legend Margaret Busby OBE, who was both the first black female and youngest ever publisher in the UK, spoke of the same problems in the publishing industry as 56-year-old former children's laureate Blackman. We came across them ourselves, too – an enthusiastic bidding publisher said they thought the idea was great, but may be better suited to the public if it was more broadly aimed at women of colour, and not black women. Fifty-year-old space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was still finding herself the only black, female face in her field, as was 27-year-old beauty entrepreneur Florence Adepoju – for all that there was to be excited about, there was still much that needed changing.
When pitching the book to publishers, many asked us how we could be sure our demographic would support it. Our answer was simple. “Black women are the most supportive people on the planet,” we shrugged
Through our conversations with them, we realised just how much we had brushed off, laughed off and written off that had haunted us in ways we never realised. Their anecdotes were as horrific as they were hilarious – Blackman regaled us with the tale of her selling the rights to a book she had written, about a trio of female friends – two of whom were black. When she went to watch the adaptation they had all been recast as white boys. Dr Clare Anyiam-Osigwe told us about her white alias, “Nina Fredricks”, who she used to secure meetings with people who had previously rejected her on LinkedIn. She lived on page three of Google Images, was blonde haired with blue eyes and entirely fictional. The stories they shared made us come to terms with our own equally harrowing memories: a Django Unchained-themed slave auction at our university; school rendition of Grease that cast me as Rizzo and a blonde classmate as Sandy, but had me sing her parts because she was tone deaf. A fling who shut down Elizabeth articulating why he had upset her with an eye-roll and a “don’t give me the black-girl chat”. At the time, a kiss of the teeth was suffice. We simply didn’t have the energy or time or language or confidence to engage with what had happened.
But that’s exactly what these women, through this book, will provide. We hope it will give us, and the thousands of other black women in this country, the ability to come to terms with what it means to be a black woman in Britain today – the good, the bad and the atrociously ugly. Not only the ability to come to terms with, but the ability to, as Elizabeth had always wanted to, “thrive despite of”. I often say you cannot “slay your way” out of systemic racism. You simply can’t will yourself out of oppression. But the words of these women, who have achieved so much when facing the very same hurdles, is priceless. We hope they’ll validate many experiences, through their practical advice, words of encouragement or just the simple realisation that these things aren’t imagined or a “chip on a shoulder”.
And if there is one thing I learned through putting this book together, it is how important that validation from peers truly is. To be part of providing that to black women and girls is something that I never imagined I’d have the chance to do, and I couldn’t be more proud.