As has sadly become the norm for this blog, it’s been ages since I’ve written. I have nothing but time on my hands, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and yet it’s been months since I posted an update or – God forbid – an actual review. Recent developments have changed this, however, as today I will be posting two mini-reviews/book recommendations.
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have already seen my post about the BLM movement and the reading I plan to do in order to educate myself, but I’ll post what I said here for those of you who didn’t see it. I put up a picture of the following books:
. Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch
. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
with this caption: ‘These books represent a small fraction of the literature I plan to read this year, in order to try and become a better ally. I’ve signed petitions and donated to protest organisations, but these actions alone are not enough. I have to educate myself further and understand that allyship is never arrived at, but a continuing practice.’
To date, I have read Akala and Hirsch’s books, having just finished the latter today. I wanted to write this post to recommend both, as they are not only incredibly insightful in showing what it’s like growing up as a black person in Britain, but also because both books are written in such an engaging style. Akala’s book is a blend of autobiography and history, while Hirsch uses her background as a jumping off point to explore a wide variety of topics, from race and class to the perception of black bodies.
From the first time he was stopped and searched as a child, to the day he realised his mum was white, to his first encounters with racist teachers – race and class have shaped Akala’s life and outlook. In this unique book he takes his own experiences and widens them out to look at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today.
Covering everything from the police, education and identity to politics, sexual objectification and the far right, Natives will speak directly to British denial and squeamishness when it comes to confronting issues of race and class that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain’s racialised empire.
I’m going to start this recommendation/mini-review with a confession. I have seen this book in bookshops on a number of occasions and, while I was intrigued by the cover art, I never felt any desire to pick it up. I made the assumption that this would probably be a dry historical tome concerning the 19th century, particularly with relation to the subjugation of POC. This was something I didn’t feel comfortable reading about, and so I never picked this book up. I was wrong in my assumptions about this book, as Akala’s style is both hard-hitting and even humorous at times, and his writing was so engaging I finished the book in a couple of days.
Perhaps more importantly, I was right about being uncomfortable with the material. But that is necessary. As someone who has a very privileged background reading about Akala’s experiences made me appreciate, even more than I usually do, just how privileged I am. I have been able to have so many of these experiences and advantages in life partly because of the colour of my skin – the very fact that when I lived abroad, for example, I would be referred to as an expat, rather than an immigrant, my presence generally welcomed rather than being regarded with suspicion. But this is not about me, and my privilege. I have to use my platform to amplify voices that need to be heard, and Akala’s is one such voice. From being stopped and searched as a child, to his racist teachers deliberately putting him into a different class as they couldn’t cope with his intelligence, he explores an array of difficult issues both in his own life and throughout history, from the legacy of colonialism to the way history is taught in schools, and so much more.
Akala’s Natives directly confronts British denial and awkwardness surrounding issues of race and class which, whether we feign ignorance or not, are at the heart of Britain’s imperial legacy. This is a book for our times, which demands to be read.
Your parents are British.
Your partner, your children and most of your friends are British.
So why do people keep asking where you’re from?
We are a nation in denial about our imperial past and the racism that plagues our present. Brit(ish) is Afua Hirsch’s personal and provocative exploration of how this came to be – and an urgent call for change.
Afua Hirsch similarly uses her life experiences as a lens through which to examine Britain’s denial of what it has been and continues to be. Her experiences growing up were radically different to Akala’s as she grew up middle-class, and yet her life has been anything but easy. She finds it difficult to fit into either British or black culture, and her early life experiences include being chased out of a posh shop as ‘girls who look like her must be thieves’, and struggling to pronounce her own name. Feeling an outsider in her own country she attempts to work out who she is and where she belongs by living in Senegal and Ghana, but her experiences there only serve to complicate her search for her identity.
As well as exploring the different stages of her life, Hirsch links these to wider issues, from slavery to stereotypes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants, from the impact of class to the treatment of BAME people by the legal system. Her writing not only gives you a greater sense of the history that led to Britain’s present day identity crisis, but it’s also a hard-hitting social and cultural analysis. Perhaps most urgently, Hirsch also examines the forms of racism that are particular to British society. Polite denial of race – ‘I don’t see colour’ – and insistence that she doesn’t come across as black given her background and education at Oxford – these kinds of statements and so many others only serve to perpetuate inequality and hinder meaningful discussions.
Hirsch’s Brit(ish) was called ‘a book everyone should read: especially comfy, white, middle-class liberals’ by Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller, and I couldn’t agree more.