My fourth 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity with this bright and provocative take on British culture, race and politics. I bought this with my Book Token Splurge in June 2020 and rather aptly, today and yesterday I placed my orders for this year’s Book Token Splurge (the reason I do this mid-year is because I happily receive a lot of book tokens at Christmas and birthday but then also a lot of books. By June, the TBR should have calmed down a bit from then, and there is room for some newcomers! I look forward to reporting the results of this year’s Splurge soon.

In the meantime, I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books!

Akala – “Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire”

(18 June 2020)

I was not born with an opinion of the world but it clearly seemed that the world had an opinion of people like me. I did not know what race and class supposedly were but the world taught me very quickly, and the irrational manifestations of its privileges forced me to search for answers. I did not particularly want to spend a portion of a lifetime studying these issues, it was not among my ambitions as a child, but I was compelled upon this path very early. (p. 5)

As the quote from David Olusoga on the front of this book says, it’s “Part biography, part polemic”. Akala was born in the 1980s and grew up in Camden, London, with Scottish/English – Jamaican heritage and he talks about how this heritage places him in British society, about which parts of it he relates to, about the experiences he had and the choices he made growing up – not all good ones, and he holds his hands up to that – while relating all this to wider society and politics, both in the UK and globally. He’s confiding and provocative, talks about his mum and guns, and accurately predicts things that have happened since publishing the book (including the government seeking to divide and conquer by reporting on race when they should be thinking about class, as we’ve seen in the recent report about school achievement of “poorer White children”.

It’s not a solemn or dry tome: there are witty asides and it keeps moving, taking a conversational tone while being backed up with the references and statistics we all need when we’re reading bits out and people go, “But what about ….?” or we think that ourselves. He even puts in quotes from White people for those of us who crave those (I hope I’ve got past that sticking point but he makes a valid point in mentioning it; he also does it in an amusing fashion). He makes his privileges and advantages clear: having a mum who, although White, with all the difficulties that brought to their relationship, was radical and politically active and made it her mission to be educated about Black issues and history, and a pan-African Sunday school as well as a fierce older sister who mocked him out of rapping in an American accent when he was starting out in music.

As well as this biographical information and stories of how his identity and life experience was honed by coming up against a mainstream culture of police suspicion and racist teachers, Akala very much looks at wider cultures and societies. He shares the radical history of Haiti’s anti-slavery revolution and Cuba’s aid to South Africans trying to end Apartheid as well as a searing indictment of Britain’s seeming obsession with claiming William Wilberforce single-handedly ended slavery, and that we ended it out of some noble or caring motive. He’s also very clear about the intersection of race and class, and about how class in Britain conspires to divide and conquer and keep many people down.

The chapter about the relationship between American and British Black culture is fascinating, and I love that he takes a provocative pop at those Americans who have criticised Black British actors for coming over and taking all the jobs / Black British people for not being spirited enough (oh, Maya Angelou!) in addition to earlier interrogating White British love for Mandela / hate for Castro and his own feelings about Barack Obama (not a massive fan). He’s certainly not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Bringing things up to date by talking about the growth in West African as opposed to Caribbean originating Black populations in Britain and the changes in perception by the rest of the world, the book ends by a consideration of what would happen to a child born into matching circumstances to Akala’s but in 2018 not 1983. He is reluctant to see much positive there but does admit that movements happen and people have power, and ends up by exhorting his readers “to choose whether to act or do nothing” to help bring about the positive outcome he fears might not happen.

I value this book for its honesty and the information it provides which is definitely extra to the history I learned at school, and its insight into modern British (mostly urban) culture. I’m very much looking forward to reading Afua Hirsch’s “Brit(ish)” to read about a female experience contemporary to this male experience as several people have indicated to me this is a valuable pairing to read close to each other.

This was book number 4 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!