“Without diversification, the mainstream press will rot.”
(Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Quoted in White, 2021)
On 31 March 2023, after almost a decade in publication, gal-dem closed its doors. Its closure represents the fragility of independent journalism in the digital age – the financial struggles, the competition with mainstream media and the struggle to keep up with algorithms. Its life, however, reflects the hungry appetite for Black, female-led publications.
- Think back to 2015, gal-dem emerged as a reaction to increasing hostility towards Black and Asian, LGBT+ and non-British communities.
- Think back to 2016, when gal-dem published its first physical issue during the rise of Trump politics, the far-right, Brexit and its aftermaths.
It was a response to its surroundings, but it begs the question: do we even need physical publications anymore? Is there a need for Black media these days? For myself, a lot of my information comes from social media. With a scroll through my timeline, I can get a good idea of general news and the opinions of the populace, all in under five minutes! Information is international, it is wide-reaching, and reactionary, but it is fleeting. What publications do is ground this information in a physical space. They are places of empowerment, platforms for discussion and sites of socio-cultural discourse.
Image: Issues of gal-dem, Courtesy of: Serendipity Living Archive
gal-dem empowered “people of colour from marginalised genders” (Bugel, 2023) to talk about what they wanted on their terms. Their absence now only highlights those that can afford to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of modern information. The larger editorials are still here. Top magazines like Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Elle grace their covers with Black faces, but is that enough? Once you open onto the contents page, how many articles are written for Black women and non-binary people? How many are written by them? The demand for representation has barely been met, and though Black editors now sit in the highest seats, structural change will be slow, almost non-moving (Testa, 2021). gal-dem set the pace for large editorials. It was one of the few publications that could comfortably say that it met the demands, and the gap left in its wake grows ever larger.
With each Black-owned publication that gets shut down, our voices slowly disappear from the narrative, and we have suffered a long, painful history of erasure. Women, especially Black women, are treated in public spheres like passive subjects whose work is frequently stolen or removed entirely (Asare, 2021), with the pattern doomed to repeat itself unless Black independent media is given the support it needs to fill the gaps. gal-dem was a drop in the ocean of independent Black media, with the likes of the West Indian Gazette by Claudia Jones and Race Today by the Race Today Collective coming before it. One I want to highlight now is the newsletter Speak Out, produced by the Brixton Black Women’s Groups (BWG) across the 1970s and 1980s. Founded by prominent Black female socialists like Olive Morris and Beverley Bryan, the BWG used its publication to share cultural, political and social news from the ground, producing newsletters and articles that covered current events, ranging from social activism like the ‘Scrap Sus’ campaign, to reviewing popular Black feminist literature like bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman (Miller, 2023).
It offered a space for and by Black women in the Brixton area to share their ideas during a time when racist violence was reaching new heights across Britain. Thatcherism ignited a new breed of racism that bled into the press to present Black communities as a social problem, and its effects can still be felt (Gordon and Rosenberg, 1989, p.18). Moments in Black British activism, from the 1981 Black People’s Day of Action to the 2011 protests following the murder of Mark Duggan, were used in newspapers to describe Black communities as violent rioters and looters, contrary to the truth of their movements. We need platforms for our own voices before we lose the chance to tell our own story, now more than ever.
Image: Cover of Speak Out! No.4 from Miller, M. (2023) Speak Out: Brixton Black Women’s Group, London: Verso, p.207. Courtesy of Milo Miller
Think of historical Black women – Dido Belle, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Saartjie Baartman to name a few – whose stories have been told through the eyes of another. How close can we truly get to the heart of their stories, when they only exist in someone else’s private diaries, someone else’s portrait or someone else’s caricature? Our cultural moments, from our short-comings to our achievements, will be historicised. Whether we like it or not our history will be told, and it is up to us to decide whose voice will be loudest. Magazines like gal-dem speak on our experiences. That magazine you swear is a coffee-table book – that just ended up as a glorified coaster once you bought it – is vital to understanding contemporary culture. Museums and heritage organisations are already collecting objects that represent the story of COVID-19 (Museum of London, no date), and gal-dem provided the much-needed Black, female and non-binary perspectives. How will we remember COVID-19 from these communities without hearing it from the communities themselves? BWG provided a deep, personal insight into the effects of racism from the perspective of Black female socialists living in 1980s Brixton, an experience so particular to its context that their stories may have been lost to time if not for the preservation of Speak Out. Without it, we may end up losing valuable pieces of history that those who document it will need.
So, how do we move forward? As consumers of physical and digital media, we have some control over how publications like gal-dem and Speak Out are safeguarded, and it starts with our engagement. Vote with your wallet – as the saying goes – and let them know you are there. Subscribe to newsletters, be part of their online communities, share digital articles and buy their physical prints.
Here is a list of 5 independent, Black, female and non-binary owned publications that you can support:
- Aurelia – Founded by Kya Buller in 2018, Aurelia provides an online space for ‘personal writing’ about anything from literature to art, social issues to self-identity, all from the perspectives of Black people and people of colour from marginalised genders.
- Thiiird – Producing an annual magazine and podcast, Thiiird was created to empower the voices of the marginalised. Founded by Rhona Ezuma in 2017, it explores art, fashion and culture from an intersectional perspective.
- Skin Deep – Connecting the creativity of Black artists and artists of colour with activism and social justice, Anu Henriques founded the magazine in 2014 to provide a unique, media-based platform for creatives and social discussion.
- Cocoa Girl – We must not forget the voices of black children. Created to provide a Black-centred magazine for young people, Serlina Boyd founded Cocoa, producing Cocoa Girl and Cocoa Boy, in 2020.
- BlackInk – Part of Serendipity’s collection of publications, BlackInk was created in 2020 to connect international voices across the African and African Caribbean diasporas to discuss arts, heritage and culture.
This list is incomplete, there are many periodicals, online journals, blogs and publications that need the footfall – physically and digitally. It is up to all of us to empower the voices of Black women and nonbinary people and safeguard their publications as part of our collective cultural heritage. While gal-dem’s closure dominates its present image, its impact is hard to ignore. Its reach, its support, and its legacy in the digital space cannot be contested. Though it may show the fragility of Black-owned publications in a white-dominated landscape, this is not the end. The more we support, share and document magazines like gal-dem, the harder it will be for our voice to fade into obscurity.
Asare, J. G. (2021) ‘The Erasure of Black Women’s Contributions: From Past to Present’ Forbes [online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/10/08/the-erasure-of-black-womens-contributions-from-past-to-present/?sh=5545fe063fd8 Accessed on: 15/12/202
Bugel, S. (2023) ‘Gal-Dem, magazine for women and non-binary people of colour, to fold’ The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2023/mar/31/gal-dem-magazine-for-women-and-non-binary-people-of-colour-to-fold Accessed on: 07/12/2023
Gordon, P. and Rosenberg, D. (1989) Daily Racism: The Press and Black People in Britain, London: Runnymede Trust
Miller, M. (2023) Speak Out: Brixton Black Women’s Group, London: Verso
Museum of London (no date) ‘Why are we #CollectingCOVID?’ [online] Available at: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/collections/about-our-collections/enhancing-our-collections/collecting-covid/why-are-we-collectingcovid Accessed on: 15/12/2023
Testa, J. (2021) ‘At Top Magazines, Black Representations Remains a Work in Progress’ New York Times [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/02/style/fashion-magazines-diversity.html Accessed on: 07/12/2023
White, N. (2021) ‘The Black British innovators creating their own media platforms in the face of industry’s race problem’ Independent [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/media-racism-meghan-harry-oprah-b1814786.html Accessed on: 07/12/2023