Iesha Small
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Five British Books for Black History Month

October is Black History month in the UK sometimes it can be very US-centric. Here are 5 great books I’ve read that explore the Black British experience.

It’s always slavery. Slavery and Martin Luther King.

I’m 38 years old and I was educated on the outskirts of South-West London at a predominantly white grammar school. My secondary education was happy and I loved school. I can’t really remember if we ever did anything for Black History month but I do remember a few of my History and English lessons. My over whelming sense was that the only time Black people were ever covered at school was in relation to slavery or being oppressed in some way. I don’t remember being especially offended by it- it just bored me- oppression didn’t represent the totality of my life experience. On the rare occasions that there was someone positive it was an American figure like Martin Luther King. Interesting and definitely to be respected but it didn’t really speak to me.

It’s always slavery. Slavery and Martin Luther King. Click To Tweet

With a few exceptions I noticed a similar pattern in the curriculum of many of the schools I’ve worked in. Things have moved on a bit and there is definitely a move towards more rounded representation but I did note that overwhelmingly African-American figures usually from the civil rights era were the ones most cited.

In many ways 2018 has been The Year of The Book for me. I’ve finally finished my own, and by happy coincidence been a contributing author on two more[1]. Part of the process of becoming a better writer has involved me reading many books. I have reclaimed reading for pleasure and read or listened to a variety of books on various topics. Recently, I realised that I had, for no particular reason, read a spate of books that spoke specifically to the Black British experience.  I realised they would be brilliant for anybody who wanted to become better informed during Black History month. I started reading these books equipped with my personal lived experience of being Black British and a decent level of general knowledge and education. However, I’m definitely not an expert and wouldn’t say I’m especially knowledgeable about history or politics. I definitely learnt a lot by reading them.

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, Reni Eddo Lodge

This is an excellent book.  The author is a female, British millennial with a background in journalism. It is meticulously researched and gives an excellent overview of the contemporary history of Black British people along with the UK’s own parallel (in some ways) to the US but less well known civil rights struggle. Despite the weighty content it is an easy read and I zipped through it. It’s also easy to follow on audio book. The title is provocative with striking book cover design and because of my own life experience I deliberately chose to read in on kindle the first time I was reading in it public. I’ve spoken to a number of people who have read Why I’m… of various races who agree that it’s nuanced and thought provoking. The sections that really stood out for me were the ones about The Police and the experienced of mixed race children. If you only read one non-fiction book to try and understand the current Black British experience this will be an excellent one to start.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, Akala

If Akala were from a different background he’d probably be more widely described as a polymath. He self describes as an artist, writer and historian. My first introduction to Akala was via music. He is a London born rapper of roughly my age and I downloaded his Double Think album. It was a fascinating concept album based on George Orwell’s 1984. In hip hop circles he is known for his legendary and highly skilful Fire In The Booth freestyles*. Since then I’ve followed his career on and off and most recently went to see him at a concert in an abandoned church in Shoreditch. He raps about many things including global politics, philosophy and is uncompromising about race. I’ve always found that particularly interesting since his concerts are nearly always to predominantly white audiences.

I’ve never read any of Akala’s writing and I ordered Natives because I had a free credit on Audible. It. Is. Phenomenal. The most obvious comment would be that Natives is the male compliment to Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race I actually don’t feel that’s the case. When I read it, the first book that immediately sprang to mind was Andrew Marr’s A history of modern Britain. Like Marr, Akala puts the current British reality in context against historical events whilst also acknowledging the major role that the existence and collapse of the British Empire played in shaping current attitudes. Akala does this through a Black British lens.

This book, for me, clarifies why the US Black, specifically African-American, experience has parallels but should not be conflated with the Black British one. I feel the Black British experience is actually closer to other Black people living in European countries with former colonies such as France, Spain and Holland while the African American experience can probably be better equated to Afro-Brazilians but of course language is a barrier. Natives is a fascinating read, the other thing it’s really about is class. I’ve not yet read Chavs: the demonization of the working class by Owen Jones but I’d imagine they would work well as complementary books.  I’d highly recommend the audio book of Natives, read by the author. For anybody unfamiliar with colourism in Black societies (specifically post-colonial ones) around the world this has an excellent section on it.

Ditch Martin Luther King and use one of these as the basis for one of your Black History Month Assemblies. Click To Tweet

Slay in your lane, Yomi Adehoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené

The authors of this book are two young millennials. This is a book for anybody who wants to read about practical feminism from a young Black female perspective. It’s the book that I wish somebody had given to me when I first graduated and was navigating the working world. Slay in your lane is the book I will share with my own daughters when they are in their late teens or early twenties. If reading Natives and Why I’m… leave you feeling informed but overwhelmed by the sheer scale of some of the racial inequalities in the UK then Slay In Your Lane is here to help. Adehoke and Uviebinené outline some of the issues but in each chapter they also present solutions for everyday people, along with a healthy dose of humour. Alongside their own thoughts and solid research they present interviews and insights from successful Black women in all walks of British life. If you listen to the audio book you will hear some of these interviewees in their own voices. I was especially excited to hear that the foreword was read by one of my own professional roles models, Karen Blackett, Chief Executive of Mediacom.  I saw Karen speak in person at a TedX Aylesbury a few years ago and was completely blown away.

 

Black Britons have our own unique experiences and complex history which is intertwined with and has helped shape mainstream British History. Click To Tweet

Noughts and Crosses, Malorie Blackman

Malorie Blackman is a former children’s laureate. I’ve been consciously widening my reading recently and listening to much more Young Adult fiction. Every now and again my 8 year old son would wander in when I was getting changed and hear me listening to this book. I still remember the first time he asked me what it was about.

“Well a young boy and girl fall in love with each other but their families don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“One’s a nought and the other is a cross.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s set in a world where the crosses who are all Black are all in power and the noughts who are all white are targeted by the police and have rubbish jobs and worse schools.”

“Oh that’s weird. In our world white people are normally in charge.”

He said this very matter of fact and then walked off to play with his train track. Noughts and Crosses is, like all good YA books, well-paced and gripping. Race is the backdrop but it’s really about our individual choices and whether individuals’ actions and personal relationships are powerful enough to overcome societies’ scripts for us.  Complementary books are Across the Barricades (set in Northern Ireland) and Romeo and Juliet. Noughts and crosses is an excellent companion book to the chapter in why I’m no longer talking to white people about race about white privilege. I did not expect the ending.

Hold Tight, Jeffrey Boakye

Jeffrey Boakye is an English teacher who loves music, specifically Grime.  I read his book Hold Tight while nodding and laughing then going to Youtube or my personal music collection to listen to the soundtrack of my teens and twenties. In 1994 or 1995 I bought a cassette tape and gave it to my PE teacher and the end of a lesson to ask if we could use it during our next aerobics lesson. It was Jungle Hits volume 1 and it kicked off with the iconic Jungle anthem “Incredible” by General Levy. My teacher gamely listened and came back the next week saying she’d enjoyed the tape but it was probably a bit too fast for our aerobics class.  I was reminded of this event when reading Hold Tight because Boakye mentions Jungle as a precursor to Grime.

This book outlines why I originally fell in love with Grime in the early 00’s. Black Brits are mainly immigrants, we listened to pop and rock and rave but we also grew up listening to music from our parents and grandparents homelands. For me that was reggae and dancehall alongside US influenced soul and hip hop. There were British versions of all of these things but they never entirely felt like our own. Grime is a uniquely Black British music form and Hold Tight outlines its history, birth and evolution with skill and humour. Hold Tight is a celebration of a Black British art form while also touching on millennials and masculinity. It’s done in the form of a play list and has an imaginative and humorous use of footnotes that I’ve only ever seen rivalled by Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.[2]

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Vashti Harrison

Ok so this is a 6th book but it’s not by a Black British author so the title of this blog still works. I’ve included it because all of our children (currently, 5,5 and 8) love it. Each double page has a one page bio of the woman profiled alongside an illustration of her. My daughter, S often requests it at bedtime and our son G often just picks it up to have a look. Unusually for books of this type by American authors it has a number of British examples.

What next?

The US is our only existing world superpower and we have a shared language so it makes sense that African American narratives often dominate Black History Month in the UK. However Black Britons have our own unique experiences and complex history which is intertwined with and has helped shape mainstream British History. Have a read or listen to one of the books above to find out more or share this list with somebody responsible for curriculum in your school. Or ditch Martin Luther King and use one of these as the basis for one of your Black History Month Assemblies. Better still use some of the content and add it to the normal curriculum.

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[1] Digital Dilemmas: Transforming Gender Identities and Power Relations in Everyday Life,  (contributing author), Palgrave McMillan (2019)

What is Masculinity? Why Does it matter? And other Big Questions (contributing author), Wayland, June 2019

[2] I especially love the FooterNoterPhone in those novels.

*Already linked Akala’s first Fire in The Booth in the main article but have to add this one too.

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Five British Books for Black History Month