How Black Activism in the U.S. Influences Advocacy in the UK

Woman smiling wearing colorful attire
Cherrelle Skeete, actress, founder of Blacktress UK

Cherrelle Skeete is the founder of Blacktress UK, a support and advocacy nonprofit for Black actresses in Britain. Of Caribbean heritage, the graduate of the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama belongs to a growing group of Black British actresses who are making their mark in film and TV worldwide. She has appeared in the long-running British series, Call The Midwife, and perhaps most famously as Rose Granger Weasley and Young Hermione in the  West End version of Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince. Most recently, she appeared in the Amazon Original Series, Hanna, as CIA analyst Teri Miller. 

Skeete spoke to about developments in Britain in the wake of a white police officer’s murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, in Minneapolis in May. How have events in the US following George Floyd’s death affected your countrymen?

Skeete: What a lot of people here realized was, it is easy to point to America and say they have problems and ignore our issues around racism and the way that Black people are treated here. The way that racism works over here is very quiet and done in a very covert way. It’s neglect through omission. A lot of these institutions are putting out statements on social media and Black people are screaming back: “look at situation after situation that you’ve ignored, yet you have the nerve to say ‘we’re a more tolerant society.’” A lot of these institutions, like my drama school, have been called out. So there’s a lot of grassroots organizations like Blacktress and other initiatives that have had to step in and actually do anti-racist work in that space in a short period of time. What do you see as the long-term impact of this movement for British creatives?

Skeete: We’re in a time of remembering and reclaiming. Part of that involves shaping the way that we reform and take ownership of our cultural identity. Now is the time more than ever to be picking up [works by Caribbean poets] Derek Walcott, Miss Lou, and Staceyann Chin. Everything is cyclical so when we reconnect to our literature we can examine ourselves as well. We need to work on our internalized racism that we’ve absorbed and perpetuate on ourselves. As a teen you formed a dance group that became a touchstone for your community. Where did you get the confidence to do so?

Skeete: I grew up in Birmingham, which has a tradition of arts and politics and grassroots organizing and they all intersected. I grew up in a culturally rich community with leaders who were active politically and were business owners. There were many spaces run by Black people, specifically Jamaican people, so for me, artistry was normal and organizing was normal. We were part of a number of community dance groups and decided to form our own, which we modeled after The Powerpuff Girls. Then people started asking us to teach other dance classes and we went from three people to over thirty dancers and suddenly we were running a dance theater company. If I didn’t come from Birmingham, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that or even Blacktress UK now. What did you learn from that experience?

Skeete: I learned that you don’t need permission. We’ve been taught that art is not ours and we need permission to step into it, when it’s always been ours. We just did it and then figured things out along the way. Talk more about the cultural richness with which you grew in Birmingham.

Skeete: There was a huge Pan-African community in Birmingham and a huge Rastafarian community. Roots reggae artists from groups like Black Uhuru came from Birmingham. We had a Muhammad Ali Center there and we held an annual Marcus Garvey Day at Handsworth Park, which is like your Central Park but smaller. It was such a big thing in our community that I believed when I was a young girl that it was a national holiday. Bob Marley visited Birmingham when he came to the UK and Malcolm X visited Birmingham as well, so there is a very rich Pan African art movement that came from Birmingham. How was Blacktress UK conceived?

Skeete: My artistry always sat within grassroots organizations, because it’s the way that people have been able to understand and galvanize themselves, and feel empowered to see themselves. Blacktress UK came out of many intergenerational conversations with Black actresses. It’s the passing on of knowledge in a world that feels so uncertain for any actor, but then there’s the layer of being a woman and Black.

I’m privileged to have gone to a prestigious drama school and to work professionally in this industry. I also have access to other successful women in the field. It was about sharing that and creating a space where we could come together and help each other navigate how we’ve been socialized into whiteness, maleness, misogynoir, and on top of that just the industry itself. It’s giving actresses the confidence to do things like uphold the integrity of a character in the face of a director or writer who might not understand your interpretation. How does Blacktress UK go about fulfilling this mission?

Skeete: We meet regularly to share our knowledge. We have peer-led mentoring and we make sure we’re putting women in spaces of leadership. We have Black women leading our Spark workshops, for example. The goal is for creativity and wellbeing to be held in equal measure, and to inspire action and make systematic change, such as lobbying for policy. I am on a board now where we’re working on putting together anti-racist practices at a drama school here. What impact did your Harry Potter casting have? 

Skeete: When the casting was announced, my Black friends were crying. Others didn’t want that casting because they felt something was being taken away from them. Interesting, because, well, this is a fictional character. They were offended that a Black girl was playing this character and even now, when you Google, it takes a while before you’ll see my picture. But she was played by a Black girl and she is played by Black girls all over the world now. We keep in touch with each other.