Beverley Bryan loved reading right from childhood. It was through reading books from authors such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright that she came to know more about race, particularly what it meant to be Black and a minority. She followed it up with sermons from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
As she became acquainted with these works, she was inspired to know more about Blackness than ever before. And she did precisely that, eventually becoming a Black women’s activist, an educationist, an author, and a member of the British Black Panthers (BBP).
Born in the district of Fairy Hill in Portland, Jamaica, on August 18, 1949, Bryan’s parents were part of the Windrush generation, the generation that arrived in the UK before 1973. Between 1948 and 1973, the mass exodus of Afro-Caribbean peoples to the United Kingdom occurred. Due to the casualties of war, more inhabitants of the Caribbean were encouraged to migrate to countries under British jurisdiction. Out of this was born the Windrush generation.
From Jamaica, Bryan and her family settled in the Brixton section of London, UK where there was a large and growing Caribbean community. While her father worked on the railways, her mother worked in factories making sure there was enough to feed the family. Bryan graduated in 1968 from Keele University, a high school in London, and since she wanted to become a school teacher, she enrolled in London University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Master of Arts in Language and Literature in Education, and a Ph.D. of Philosophy degree in Language Education by 1976.
Between 1965 to 1967, Bryan traveled across the country with a group known as the Black Arts Workshop, whose members were Black students who used poetry and spoken word to debunk racial stereotypes. Bryan traveled with them to perform in youth clubs but since she wanted to teach, she moved to Brixton after training school and got a job as a primary school teacher.
Being in a Black community with most of her students being Black, Bryan’s curriculum was also Black; she taught Black stories, Black culture and Black history. “The main reason why I chose a Black curriculum was because, when I think about my own experiences, if people called you names, rather than say: ‘I’m not Black,’ you could point to what Black people had achieved,” she told The Guardian recently.
While teaching, Bryan became an active member of the BBP founded by Nigerian playwright and political activist Obi Benue Egbuna in 1968 in London’s Notting Hill. Between 1961 to 1964, reports said that the Black population in Britain grew from 300,000 to 1 million, and that resulted in more racial and class problems. Indeed, racism was deeply embedded within British society amid stories of police brutality against Black people. What’s more, Black people were being racially profiled and targeted by authorities.
Even though it was not an official chapter of the Black Panthers, the BBP was the first Panther organization outside the U.S. Adopting the Panther’s symbols of berets, military jackets, and raised fists, the BBP organized demonstrations, produced Black Power literature and fought racism and police brutality in Britain.
Bryan joined the BPP after a friend told her about it. As a member of the Panthers, Bryan ran one of the group’s Saturday schools where she offered supplementary lessons in maths and English to teach children about Black history while helping fight the racial discrimination that was common in education, the Guardian said.
As the BBP continued to fight racial discrimination and oppression just like the Panthers in the U.S., the police continued to harass them. The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant on All Saints Road in Ladbroke Grove, London, was repeatedly raided by police, prompting a protest march by locals. Nine leaders of the BBP including Jones, Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese were falsely charged with riot and affray after the protest march.
Their trial made headlines following their appeal for an all-Black jury and their decision for three members to self-represent in court. At the end of the day, the jury acquitted all nine defendants. And for the first time, a judge publicly acknowledged that there was “evidence of racial hatred” within the London police, according to BlackPast.
Amid the threat of police violence during the trial, Bryan gathered reports of the trial and helped to ensure that volunteers were gathered to attend the public gallery. She also distributed the group’s newsletter, Freedom News, which documented the case. What’s more, she joined a group of women that formed a picket outside the court. The women knew that the police were less likely to arrest them, especially if they had their children with them. And that’s exactly what they did, Bryan told the Guardian.
Despite the Mangrove Nine being acquitted, Bryan said there were other cases involving Black people that did not end well. Also, police brutality continued and so when the BBP were disbanded in 1973, Bryan and other women in the BBP decided to go on with their political activism by forming the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Bryan and the group focused on issues of women within the British Black community and in 1985, she co-wrote with two other members of her group, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, a publication that highlighted the challenges and triumphs of Black women in Britain.
But while working to fight for equality in the UK, Bryan said she “never felt fully settled”. That, alongside police violence in the UK, influenced her decision to return to Jamaica with her husband and sons in 1992. After her arrival in Jamaica, she began teaching at the University of the West Indies, starting as a Lecturer in Educational Studies before being promoted as Senior Lecturer in 2002, and then to Professor in 2011.
With her expertise in Jamaican Creole literature and language, she published a book in 2010 titled Between Two Grammars: Research and Practice for Language Learning and Teaching in a Creole-speaking Environment. The author and Black women’s activist also worked at the Jamaican Ministry of Education as an adviser in primary education and literacy improvement.
Now retired, Bryan is still very much sought after in not only her native Jamaica but in the UK and elsewhere for her inspiring lectures particularly on women and the lives of Black people in general.