|Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala||Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch|
After the death of George Floyd and the increased interest in the Anti-Racist movement last year, I saw a lot of lists of recommended books posted on social media. In fact, I shared several of these lists. For readers in the UK, these lists included the same several books. Amongst them were The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Both of which I have read previously, you can read my review of The Good Immigrant here.
However, the two books from the list I want to focus on here are Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala. And Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch. Whilst it may seem odd to write two book reviews at once, am I doing it to encourage you to read both books together. Also, both books are written in a similar style, a combination of personal memoirs and researched historical events. Each author interweaves their personal experiences and history to discuss the issues of Race and Class for mixed-race children growing up in London in the 1980s. As a result, I see both books as having many similarities and ideas. Reading them together helps form a complete understanding of the historical issues of race and class in Britain.
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire
Firstly, I will talk about Natives, as I think you should read this book first (mainly because Hirsch references it in her book). If you are unfamiliar with Akala, he is a rapper, historian and activist from North London. His career started as a rapper (following in the footsteps of his sister Ms Dynamite). However, he then set up the Hip Hop Shakespeare company, working with schools, encouraging children to read more Shakespeare. He also lectures on a range of subjects like Precolonial African history. I highly recommend his talks on both Hip Hop/Shakespeare and African History, both of which can be found on his YouTube channel (linked below).
In Natives, Akala describes himself as growing up financial poor by UK standards but culturally rich. Living in social housing in North London and having free school meals (something that is seen as a measure of working class in the UK). However, he had external sources of knowledge from the traditional schooling system in the form of a Pan-African weekend school. As well as regularly attending plays at the Hackney Empire where his stepfather worked. Akala is of mixed-race heritage, his father is from Jamaica, and his mother is Scottish. Early in the book, he recounts a heart-breaking tale of when he realised his mother was white and his reaction.
Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch is a journalist and TV presenter. She is also of mixed-race heritage; her mother’s family are from Ghana, and her father is German. Both her parents are second-generation immigrants, and this is something she is discussing in the book. Hirsch grew up in Wimbledon, a middle-classed borough in South-West London. The borough is famous for its annual Tennis tournament. She attended a private school where she was one of a handful of Black students. After high school, she studied at Oxford University. Then trained to be a barrister and eventually started working as a journalist.
On paper, it might seem like their upbringing were very different, growing up on opposite ends of the social class spectrum. However, when reading their books, you can see that they both experienced much of the same prejudice. They both encounter racist attacks on the playground at school. Racial stereotypes found them as teenagers on the streets of London. Akala was stopped and searched by the police. And Hirsch was asked to stay away from a posh boutique. Although they were from different social classes. Their race was the same, and so was the racism they experienced.
Several themes are discussed in both books, notable how each book frankly discuss how the British media portray Black people. As well as ideas of Black beauty or sexuality and the effect this had on the author as teenagers. Interestingly, both authors refer to a media story from their childhood involving a Black sportsperson. Hirsch remembers when the Williams sisters first competed a Wimbledon as the press comparing them to men. And the effect this had on her as a teenage girl. Whereas Akala talks about Linford Christie, winning an Olympic gold medal and the presses obsession with his lunchbox. Akala clearly remembers seeing Christie cry on television afterwards about the coverage and this effect on him.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of both the books is the sections that deal with the authors searches for their own identity. Both books feature a recollection of family vacations to the country of their grandparents’ births. Akala recalls two vacations, firstly a trip to Jamaica with his grandmother. And secondly, a holiday with this mother to the Scottish Outer Hebrides islands to say with his uncle. Whereas, Hirsch talks about her teenage trip to Ghana with her grandmother. Perhaps the most interestingly in Brit(ish) is when Hirsch talks about her post-graduate travels to Africa. A time when she searched for a connection to her Black heritage. Something she felt was missing from her childhood in the UK.
As a Londoner myself (although I am from West London). I loved reading about the experiences of other people of colour growing up in this city, even if they were very different from my own experiences. In recent years, I have developed an interest in British history involving people of colour. Looking to fill in the blanks from my traditional education. So for me, I loved the historical context interweaved into these personal memoirs. Both books have created a window into the Black British experience making them a must-read for anyone wanting to widen their Anti-racist education.
Recommended Reading (and Viewing)
- Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
- African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power (BBC iPlayer)
- Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson (BBC iPlayer)
- Akala’s African History at the Oxford Union (YouTube)
- Hip Hop & Shakespeare Akala x TedTalk (YouTube)
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