Diane Abbott: “To be a Black woman today is challenging – but there has never been a better time”

On the day that I speak to Diane Abbott, it’s another busy Monday afternoon for the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP, who I’m able to grab 40 minutes with amid her jam-packed schedule.

The faint noise of sirens can be heard in the background as we begin the interview and she stares eagerly with her eyes framed by tortoiseshell glasses, as she speaks to me while rocking her signature shade of deep purple lipstick.

“When I look back at some of the things that have happened to me, what I like about myself is that I’ve stuck with it,” she says proudly.

While this Monday is just like any other for Diane, we are also speaking just a few weeks ahead of her 67th birthday and the release of an authorised biography, which will explore her influence within politics and how she serves as an inspiration – particularly to young Black women – across the UK.

“To be a Black woman today is challenging but there has never been a better time,” she declares.

Diane was born 27 September 1953 in Paddington, London to Jamaican parents who came to the UK in the 1950s.

“They were a very working-class Jamaican family but what you’d call respectful working class,” she affirms. “Daddy was a factory worker and mummy was a nurse before she had my brother and me.”

Growing up in 1960’s London, Diane found herself straddling two different worlds, as she was immersed in the Jamaican culture that permeated her upbringing to the stark contrast of British schooling, where she was the minority.

“At home, it was a very tight-knit West Indian community. When relatives came to England for the first time, they would often stay with us, so I grew up hearing about Jamaica,” she recalls.

“But then at grammar school, I was the only black child.”

This was Diane’s first time experiencing navigating the world as a Black girl in a predominately white space – something which she’d continue to experience alongside the discrimination that can come with that.

“I didn’t identify it as racism at the time but looking back I can see some of my experiences were framed by the fact that I was black in an all-white school.”

“For instance, at primary school, I was quite a bright child,” she tells me.

“One of the things I was good at was writing essays and at primary school, I was praised for them.”

Diane later attended grammar school, where one particular incident remains etched in her memory: “I had my first English lesson and we were given an essay for homework and then the following week the teacher read out the grades and she didn’t mention my name.

“So I put my hands up and I said “My essay?” and she gave me a very stern look and said, “I will speak to you afterwards.” 

When the lesson was over, Diane claims the teacher accused her of plagiarising the essay – an accusation which shocked her.

“I didn’t know what to do or say because I never had that experience of being told that I had copied something – especially when writing essays was my pride and joy,” says the former Shadow Home Secretary.

“For the remainder of that year in that class, I consciously didn’t write using the words I knew or as well as I was able to write because I didn’t want that humiliation again.”

These barriers are something that many Black British children face due to racism which can exists within the British school system, along with the microaggressions that comes with that.

“There are all sorts of microaggressions and when I was younger, I didn’t understand what it was but now I know it was race,” expresses Diane.

PERSEVERANCE

Despite this negative experience, Diane still flourished within education, later attending Newham College, Cambridge where she studied history.

After university, the budding politician became an administration trainee at the Home Office in the late seventies, a Race Relations Officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties from 1978 to 1980, and worked as a researcher and reporter for Thames Television and breakfast company TV-am.

While her career continued to excel, it was during this time that Diane began to take a key interest in politics and was also elected to Westminster City Council in 1982 where she served for four years.

“As a young woman in my twenties, I was really interested in the politics of race and what was happening in the Black community and I got involved with various campaigns, including the ‘Scrap Sus’ campaign against stop and search,” she shares.

“I would find myself with Black colleagues going to lobby MPs and after a bit, we realised that all the MPs we were seeing were white.”

When Diane questioned why there were no Black members of parliament she was frequently told it was because no Black people put themselves forward. 

This ignited a fire within a young Diane as she – alongside Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng – put herself forward for various constituencies.

IMPACT

“I was working for a trade union at the time and I remember my assistant Pat saw a little ad that Hackney North wanted people to apply to be a member of parliament,” recalls the Cambridge graduate.

“I put myself forward for a number of constituencies and lost and I was getting a bit fed up but Pat said to me ‘I have a good feeling about Hackney’.

“She got my CV, drafted a letter for me to sign and she sent it off to Hackney North Labour Party and I was invited to the selection process.”

Diane was later shortlisted and invited to the final selection process where she delivered a speech which surprised everyone.

“The closing lines of my speech were a verse from Maya Angelou’s I Rise: ‘Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave’.

“Everyone was in shock. I had support in the constituency that I won, but the key people didn’t support me,” she discloses.

“I hadn’t gone into the meeting expecting to come out as a parliamentary candidate which was amazing.”

As she became an officially parliamentary candidate running for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane recalls that many still didn’t expect her to win.

“The whole point was I was the first Black woman to run, I was a very left-wing Black woman and people thought they wouldn’t vote for this Black woman with her braids.

“I wanted to win but I didn’t expect to, so actually winning on the night was amazing.”

REPRESENTATION

2020 marks the 33rd anniversary of Diane’s historic victory – something she reflects on with immense pride and happiness for the changes that have come since then.

“I’m very proud that we have more Black female MPs now. For a long time, I was the only Black female MP or I was the only one of two and there is this issue sometimes in the older Black community, that they don’t necessarily take Black women seriously,” she admits.

“It’s not the same now, but when I started out, it was that as a woman you weren’t taken completely seriously and that was a challenge.”

The challenges for Diane continued over the years, yet she continued to persevere. From balancing single motherhood with her parliamentary duties; standing strong in her views despite media scrutiny and the onslaught of online abuse levied against her by racist and sexist trolls – Diane has had her fair share of obstacles over the years and yet she continues to ‘rise’ just as she recited the words of Maya Angelou all those years ago. So how does she do it?

“I’ve always thought being an MP is a privilege and I’ve never been one to complain,” she says.

“I protect myself by limiting my exposure to social media – which is difficult to do if you’re in public life.

“I don’t really go on Facebook. I do tweet but I don’t look at a number of my mentions and stuff like that.”

And during Diane’s downtime, she has a couple of shows she enjoys watching to unwind.

“I’ve been watching shows like Afua Hirsch’s series African Renaissance and I also love that show A Place In The Sun where people go overseas to look for a property. I suppose it’s because my secret ambition is to buy a house in the sun.”

Well if anyone deserves to put their feet up and enjoy time in the sun, Diane is certainly up there on my list.

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