Conversations this year have, by necessity, become more intentional than ever. The silence and stillness of the pandemic – which emptied streets, rolled cars into garages, quelled the chatter of local supermarkets – was both soothing and terrifying. No longer would you sit for hours making small talk with your favourite hair braider. No longer would you bump into a friend at the shops. Control over conversations reigned, at a time when the virus was taking over the rest of our lives.
Even George Floyd’s death was prefaced by a conversation of sorts – one in which there was an inherent danger. “Let me see your hands,” Officer Thomas Lane said to the 46-year-old, on approach. “Hey, man. I’m sorry!” was Floyd’s response. And so began his killing. News of his death, as with those of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery, all killed this year, splintered into the hearts of the global black diaspora and beyond.
In the quiet of the pandemic, the deliberateness of our conversations, intended to spread knowledge and spark fire, meant the streets were filled once more. As part of the Black Lives Matter protests, we courted danger and more death, to demand that those who hold power defund the police and consider the part they play in maintaining the structures of white supremacy. Since then, so many people have turned to black friends and thought leaders to ask them about anti-racism; to reap from our lived experiences or our learned knowledge. It has been both frustrating and valuable. It is difficult to know where it has left us as the year draws to a close.
What we don’t want now is for any of these conversations – intentional or unintentional – to completely stop. With this in mind, for a black-led media organisation such as gal-dem, collaboration with Guardian Weekend magazine on an all-black version of its annual conversations special feels like a strong way both to continue the relationship we developed after our groundbreaking takeover issue in 2018, and to mark this extraordinary year.
The people we feature within this issue have not been limited to focusing on the stressors and strifes of this period – not least because, though the world’s eyes were focused on the black community in 2020, death at the hands of the state has been a reality we have faced since the time we were first racialised.
But instead, when our eight conversationalists got together – model and activist Munroe Bergdorf and comedian Lolly Adefope; writers Brit Bennett and Jackie Kay; boxer and Strictly star Nicola Adams and singer Mel B; actors Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James – there was a lot of laughter; mutual fandom; recognition of shared experiences; reflection on the limits of political leadership, and an astute dissection of the ways in which their individual industries are evolving.
A recent study from Women in Journalism UK found that black women are not only missing from front-page bylines, but are not being heard as experts quoted in stories, either: black journalists still make up just 0.3% of the UK journalism industry. So we are thrilled to celebrate the writing of three incredible young talents, Amna Mukhtar, Zakiyyah Deen and Olivia McDonald, respectively winner and runners-up in our young black writers competition, judged by the gal-dem and Guardian teams alongside Queenie author Candice Carty-Williams. We had more than 100 exciting, candid entries on the theme of conversations from 16-21-year-olds all over the UK. We set the stage for the competition back in October, with a free Guardian Masterclass on memoir-writing hosted by columnist Nesrine Malik, in which she expertly broke down the importance of structure and form to an engaged audience of aspiring young writers.
From a rumination on the harsh lines drawn between queerness and faith, and an exploration of a mother’s foray into radical honesty, to the humour and love to be found in a serious diagnosis, these young people bring us from the personal to the political and back again. The overall winner, Amna, will get three months of mentoring from gal-dem. We can’t wait to see what they all do next.
I have never been prouder to be black. My community, those I know and those I don’t, have moved with such care and thought and anger this year and – despite everything, despite the pandemic – made sure the conversations that needed to happen took place. I hope you get as much as I do from the ones in this issue.
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is editor-in-chief of gal-dem, an online and print magazine sharing the perspectives of women and non-binary people of colour.