Aha – see the plethora of post-it notes in this book back at the beginning of the month! This is my latest readalong with my best friend, Emma – we’ve been reading it since October, and I have now created a category so I can find all the books we’ve read together easily (of course I now can’t remember what they all are). Anyway, we enjoyed this look at Hirsch’s discussion of her dual-heritage experience and her call for open discussion on race and heritage; published in 2018, I had been aware of it since then but only bought it in July 2020 (it went unavailable for a bit when all the Black Lives Matter booklists came out) – I’m happy to say I have read and reviewed all the books I bought in that batch!

Afua Hirsch – “Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging”

(20 July 2020)

Perhaps Sam is right – I have no idea what it’s like to be a dark-skinned black man. And perhaps he’s also right that it’s a strange thing to do, to write a book about being black. But I’ve written from this perspective only because it is my perspective, not because I think my identity is more important than anyone else’s, or that people from my background have more to say than those from any other. It’s just my experience. But I do believe that, as an example of an intense, unrelenting search for a kind of Britishness I can belong to, my experience may offer an insight into where we are headed as a nation. (p. 23)

This provocative and personal book opens with Hirsch gathering with a group of friends, having just returned from a couple of years living in Africa, having gone there to “begin the journey into my new, African identity” (p. 3) but, like herself and her friends in the UK, not quite finding herself fitting in. Her boyfriend Sam, who grew up in Tottenham, is shocked by her privately educated, Oxbridge friend circle, not taking the opportunities his friends would have grasped to generate wealth: “He sees musing about belonging and identity as a luxury for someone who is pruivileged enough to not worry about where their next meal is coming from” (p. 6) whereas she sees him as having the luxury of a solid heritage behind him, of knowing who he is. Interesting stuff that prefaces what is to come.

I have to say here that the gulf Emma and I felt between ourselves and Hirsch wasn’t one of race particularly, but of education and background. We’ve found it easier somehow to read about working or middle-class people than someone who will go off to Ghana and immediately run into someone she knows from Oxford who is running an NGO (both of us went to university in London, although we come from solid middle-class backgrounds; I can only think this dislocation is a product of the class-ridden nature of the UK and Hirsch writes in depth about the intersection of race and class here).

Anyway, she goes on to discuss lots of different aspects of British culture while outlining her own experiences in Africa and the UK and her family background (we both got a bit confused by all her grandparents and their stories, possibly because we read it in half-chapters over an extended period of time). She covers the history of black people in the UK, the relationship between Empire and now (although making the point that none of her ancestors were related to enslaved people in Africa or the Caribbean, when talking about reparations), the unpleasant history of racial stereotyping and putting people in actual exhibitions, the fetishisation of black women’s bodies, the racism of feminism, colourism, claims of colour-blindness and post-racism, the actual segregation we claim didn’t happen, and socioeconomic aspects around race in Britain among other topics. She also interviews Tommy Robinson of the EDL, to get balance, which we found faintly shocking.

She does dart around topics and returns to family issues, which gives a very dense (but very valuable) book that uses her journalistic skill and passion about the topic to show points clearly and deeply. And what can we actually do? At the end, she does call for “addressing the root causes of prejudice and the unfairness at the heart of our national identity” (p. 316) rather than simply “tinkering” with quotas and projects. She asks us to begin a conversation to start that process, and of course this book acted as a gateway to many of the others that have been written and published since. I thought this book was going to give me a mirror to Akala’s “Natives” in terms of gender; it also gives a contrast in class, and it’s important to read several of these memoir/analysis books from different authors to remind us that race is not monolithic.