We continue to remember Olive Morris — a ROC 2.0 reboot

Image: Olive Morris in China, Olive Morris Collection, August 1977, Lambeth Archives, IV/279, 1967 – 2009.

BY THE REMEMBERING OLIVE COLLECTIVE 2.0

This blog post is part of an upcoming issue of Feminist Review that explores theories of the archive within feminist, queer, crip, decolonial, and diasporic studies. The issue, which brings academics, artists, and archivists into conversation with each other, will launch in Summer 2020. Blog posts in this series can be found here.

It is striking that in the popular discourse, some lay and professional historians still want to think of history as a linear process, rather than considering the cyclical nature of power, identity and how structures adjust to historical circumstances.  Popular recognition of marginalised communities tends to want to celebrate the ‘arrival’ of Black people, women of colour, people of colour, people living with disabilities, sexual renegades and LGBTQA+ populations as having ‘made it’ based on their absorption into capitalism as a marketable demographic, or tokenising month-long celebrations of difference. This is, after all, how we are encouraged to think about history: special moments rather than sustained movements.

Contemporary approaches to our collective genealogies and archiving, though, radically challenge this linear notion of progress through conscious collecting practices. An increasing number of public history initiatives, community archives, and oral history projects are mobilising against the idea of archives’ and archivists’ alleged neutrality. In what archival theorist L’ael Watkins-Hughes (2018) calls, ‘the reparative archive’, archivists and community members collectively working with archives, participate in a form of social justice work that seeks, ‘…a change in the traditional praxis of the archival  profession; it is a conscientious effort to begin one’s work with the philosophy of inclusion from the margins’.

The Remembering Olive Collective (ROC) has, since its founding in the early 2000s, sought to document the life and activism of Olive Elaine Morris (1952-1979). Olive was an active member of the Black Panther Movement, fighting racism in the criminal justice system, housing, education, and unemployment and supporting anti-colonial struggles internationally. She was an activist for squatters’ rights and helped many families in South London. She was also a founding member of Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) campaigning on issues affecting Black women and of the Black Women’s Cooperative in Manchester and Manchester Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. Olive was a staunch advocate for justice and equality who was central to the campaign to abolish Sus (‘suspected persons’, or stop-and-search) Laws.

Olive Morris, before the work of ROC, was acknowledged in 1986 with the naming of 18 Brixton Hill House, a local playground in the Brixton area of London and a paragraph in the book Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe. Both Olive Morris Gardens and Olive Morris House no longer exist, despite a petition effort. Her friend and fellow activist, Liz Obi, did much for the historical and community record to keep Morris’ memory alive. Obi was then joined by artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre to form ROC as a community art project and public history effort that gave Morris’ work and the causes she championed prominence as central to Black women’s, Black British, British, and women’s history through archival collection and curation.

ROC’s output was prolific for the short time the group organised in London in the mid-to-late 2000s. Composed of over thirty members including artists, activists, academics, archivists, curators, cultural theorists and community workers of varied generations and cultural backgrounds, the group’s activities included:

  • Heritage Lottery-funded oral history and archival processing training from Lambeth Archives, the eventual repository for the Olive Morris Collection. As noted on the ROC blog, ‘In 2009 ROC launched the Olive Morris Collection at Lambeth Archives. The collection comprises 30 oral history interviews with those who knew Olive and were involved in the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. All the interviews were recorded and transcribed by ROC members. The collection also holds Olive Morris’ personal papers and photographs, donated by Liz Obi’. 
Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre (left) and Liz Obi (right) at the Remembering Olive Morris blog launch. Photo by Lucía Pizzani

According to Jon Newman, Archives Manager, the Olive Morris Collection is, in relation to its size, ‘the single most-heavily consulted collection’ in the Lambeth Archives. He continues that the Olive Morris Collection:

….has become a go-to collection for a generation of undergraduates and post-graduate students studying British black history…in many cases they are clearly being pointed to it by their tutors. Also, it has been picked up by a lot of publishers and media companies and an image of Olive Morris has become a sort of visual shorthand for black resistance in the UK.

  • A blog hosting content documenting Olive Morris’ life and activist work across a number of social movements. The website, like the archival collection, also documents Morris’ international travels, which were instrumental in broadening the scope of her black nationalist feminist socialist analysis.
  • A 2009 exhibition at Gasworks, a contemporary visual art space in London. The exhibition, Do You Remember Olive Morris, took its name from a short video that Lopez de la Torre made to determine how much people on Brixton’s streets knew about this under-heralded legend who did so much for Black people in Britain. Anticipating much of the work we see today around community archives as generative practice, the Gasworks exhibition and activities activated Morris’ educational and activist philosophies by connecting them to contemporary struggles.

In addition to using the gallery space to showcase the archival materials, other activities included a bicycle tour of places important to Morris’ legacy, Calypso and Soca performances that highlighted the influence of Morris’ Jamaican heritage (because Morris was a notoriously fun person, even while demanding social change), a talk on housing that examined both past and contemporary issues that inspired Morris’ critical role in the UK squatters’ rights movements, and presciently, a conference on, ‘Documenting Migration’, which looked, ‘…at the ways in which records and documents of migration are kept and used by official bodies and by migrants themselves, and their importance in framing public opinion and policy’.

  • As part of the exhibition and Lottery grant, ROC members Kimberly Springer and Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre also co-edited an anthology of personal and archival writings about Morris’ intellectual and activist engagements in London, Manchester and internationally. A number of Morris’ compatriots, including Stella Dadzie, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Neil Kenlock, made contributions and ROC members shared how her legacy lives on in their activism.

ROC’s work concluded in 2011 with The Olive Morris Memorial Awards. The Awards were created as an opportunity to celebrate Olive Morris’ spirit as she lives on in the work of a new generation of young women activists. The application process and report-back expectations were kept as accessible as possible, in recognition of the extensive labour that young black women activists do every day on behalf of others. Six women between ages 16 and 27 received a cash award to use how they saw fit. In the same year, Olive was selected to be part of Liverpool’s, International Slavery Museums Black Achievers Wall, in celebration of Black Achievers past and present. Despite the work of the group ending in 2011, ROC members continued to campaign, write, create art, publish scholarship and dream in Morris’ image.

ROC 2.0 is a next generation vision of the original formation. It is an ad hoc, international group dedicated to preserving and sharing Olive’s memory. Demonstrating what social movement scholar Verta Taylor (1989) calls, ‘abeyance’, or organising ‘between times’,  ROC members, Liz Obi, Natasha Mumbi, Nazmia I. Jamal, Chardine Taylor Stone, Zinzi Minott, Dominique Z. Barron, Kelly Foster and Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski reconvened a gathering in June 2015 for a memorial rally in Brixton. The reconvened group of ROC members and supporters demanded a public facing memorial, but also participated in the creation of new memories and materials about ROC’s existence for activist communities and the archive.

Rally to mark Olive’s birthday, 26 June 2015 opposite Olive Morris House, Brixton Hill. Photo by Wasi Daniju  (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0).

[Audio from 2015 Rally

]Audio recording from the 2015 rally.

ROC 2.0 was re-established to ensure that Lambeth Council and real estate developers Muse honoured their agreement to visibly mark the building’s history as the physical plant to Olive’s memory. The work is more than simply memorialising and, in fact, symbolically continues Morris’ work for anti-racism, education and supporting anti-colonial struggles. ROC 2.0 responsibly stewards the archival collection, which entails periodic reviews of the Collection’s condition and content and making sure that it is available to the public for research. For example, ROC 2.0 recently assisted the New York Times with researching and developing Morris’ long-overdue obituary for its Overlooked series. This research support and fact-checking allows us to participate in managing a sustainable model for co-creating an archive of new narratives about Morris, Black women, Black people and our histories.

We are currently continuing ROC 2.0’s work in the form of:

  • installing a memorial cornerstone on the site of Olive Morris House, as part of Lambeth Council’s redevelopment plan, which was slated to demolish the building and develop residential housing and commercial space (notably, not low-income, social housing). ROC 2.0 also secured an agreement to allocate funds to ensure Morris’ legacy through the cornerstone and a reissue of the Do You Remember Olive Morris? Publication.
  • a 10th anniversary re-issue of the book Do You Remember Olive Morris? with plans for a French translation. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the words and voices of Morris’ contemporaries and activist daughters accurately discuss the movements, historical realities, state-sanctioned discriminatory practices and sustained resistance embedded in ROC’s activism.
  • administering the Olive Morris Memorial Award for young activists. Though activism is growing and taking distinct forms amongst new generations of young people, they still face their commitments being undervalued or dismissed. ROC 2.0 is dedicated to letting young women know, ‘We SEE you’.
Cover for the first edition of Do You Remember Olive Morris? Cover design by Inua Ellams

Despite various debates over ‘protecting’ our Black heroes, it is presumptuous to assert that ROC 2.0 has been uniquely bequeathed that duty by history or Morris’ family to guard her legacy. We do, however, actively maintain contact with her family to be sure we are acting according to a shared understanding of what Olive was about and how her legacy takes shape.  We, of course, see stewarding, acting in service to, Olive’s legacy as an honour. But, as with many Black, brown and Indigenous ancestors, attempts to honour, use or co-opt Morris’ image and the archive create larger-than-life myths about her. ROC 2.0 is adamant about maintaining accuracy around Morris’ legacy, but deeply opposed to myth-making, aggrandising and hagiographies that otherwise flatten Morris into a two-dimensional figure with a megaphone. Morris was, for instance, one of the first figures featured on the alternative currency, The Brixton Pound (B£). The B£ was one of the first groups to consult with ROC about including Morris on the local currency. We took on the role of ensuring accuracy in her representation and connected the B£ group with Morris’ family, since that is where intellectual property rights around Olive’s image should rightly reside.

Olive Morris’ history created the conditions for our present and future as Black women. In that spirit, we are pleased to be able to direct activists, researchers, journalists and content producers to the archive, the oral histories and the ROC blog. The archive is for use. ROC 2.0 fosters connections between who Morris was in her lifetime, who she aspired to be, the kind of world she wanted to live in, and today’s struggles.

ROC 2.0’s current members are Dominique Barron, Kelly Foster, Liz Obi, Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski and Kimberly Springer. The group is always looking to reconnect with ROC members and can be reached at rememberolivemorris@gmail.com. The group’s website is: https://olivemorris.org/.

References

Hughes-Watkins, L., 2018. Moving toward a reparative archive: A roadmap for a holistic approach to disrupting homogenous histories in academic repositories and creating inclusive spaces for marginalized voices. Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies, 5(6). Available at: https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/jcas/vol5/iss1/6 [last accessed 23 June 2020]

Taylor, V., 1989. Social movement continuity: The Women’s Movement in abeyance. American Sociological Review, 54(5), pp. 761-775. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/2117752 [last accessed 9 April 2020]

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