My 20 Books of Summer project is going well (intro post here), and I’m now reading my fifth and sixth books from the pile. This one, my fourth, was a Christmas gift from Gill, who always picks something interesting from my wish list (James Ward’s “Adventures in Stationery” was from her, too) and it’s an interesting pre-George Floyd publication, timing which I think might have affected some aspects of the book.

And there’s a bonus review at the end! It’s a book of photos I can’t really count as something I’ve “read” as such, but very enjoyable.

Jeffrey Boakye – “Black, Listed”

(25 December 2020, from Gill)

I used to think that being black was all about balance, or lack of, or compensation for, but it’s not. If you hadn’t worked it out yet, this whole book is about distance. Ideological distance, physical distance, the distances that create difference, and the paradoxes whereby you can be intimately linked to an identity that is out of reach. My proximity to Ghana is precisely that: a paradox. It’s an inherent part of my black identity but culturally distant, leaving me, a black British Ghanaian, hovering in some kind of identity limbo. (p. 74)

Based cleverly on a list of descriptors that are used of Black people, this book entertains and educates, is provocative in its way and has some interesting points to finish with. The descriptors are arranged into topic areas such as official descriptions (Black British, POC, BAME), personal descriptors (white-sounding forename, nationality), then historical and derogatory terms (I’m going to stop listing them now, for fear of the wrong people finding this post, although those wrong people would benefit from reading this book!), loaded terms applied by White people, internal descriptors, terms of endearment and internal insults, all applied by Black people other Black people, outlaw accolades which have positives and negatives, and finally political words (conscious, marginalized, woke). Each section is a mini-essay with personal reactions, historical information and examples drawn from popular culture.

As a Black British man of African heritage who grew up in Brixton and went on to achieve in White spaces, often the only Black person in the room, worried about appearing to be a sell-out, this acts as a sort of fractured memoir for Boakye, as he mulls over the uncoolness of being African in a culture that celebrated the Caribbean and America more, and his move into White spaces, including a description of his living room. There’s a lot about class here, laid out very clearly: Black people are expected to be working class, “If we take this as a euphemism for disadvantaged” for example, and are really concentrated in cities, especially London, while being a much smaller minority than that in America.

Boakye interacts with books that were out there when he was writing this in presumably 2018 (it was published in 2019) such as Akala’s “Natives” and Reni Eddo-Lodges “Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race” as well as works like Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s “Americanah“. He talks about women’s experiences as well as men’s, although with some trepidation:

I’m scared of writing this one (“Bitch”) because I really, really don’t want to get it wrong. It’s like taking an engine apart and trying not to get your hands dirty; I don’t want to get any misogyny on me. (p. 347)

and makes sure that he quotes women and research by women, and he also covers gay men’s experience (but not gay women’s or trans people’s), again, quoting gay men and research. He reaches the nascent #BlackLivesMatter movement in the Conclusion, praising how it had woken people up to structural racism and prejudice and talks about how the uptick in publishing and advertising featuring Black writers and families might be to do with economics but is still positive. In this section he mentions his copy-editor’s views on Generation Z, which was refreshing to see!

But it’s only at the very end that he says one tiny thing that he thinks “might make some readers bristle” (basically the idea that White liberals and leftists seek to “prove [their] understanding of blackness” (p. 393) but that “liberalism itself still exists within a paradigm of white dominance” (ibid.) and then at the very end describes how he’s tried to take a light touch in the book but all these descriptors “could have exploded at any moment” (p. 394) and how he’s gone from tour guide to war journalist, “and now I’m realising I’m a civilian under attack, and we’re all in the firing line” (ibid.). I wonder if in a post-George-Floyd world he’d have been more open about this and more provocative – I’ll have to have a look at what he’s been doing more recently (I basically need to get and read his “I Heard What You Said,” about education, soon).

But an entertaining and educative book that will make you think and will teach you some new things, even though other books have gone over similar ground in some respects since. The arrangement of the pieces is genius and really helps this one stand out. Highly recommended.

This was number 4 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 11/41 – 30 to go (and I must remember to photograph the pile at the start of next month!).

Bonus Extra Book

Matthew Pinner – “Dorset in Photographs”

(12 June 2022, gift)

Paul from HalfManHalfBook very kindly sent me this one, as he’s a resident of Dorset and it’s my ancestral home. It’s a lovely collection of photographs, arranged by season, with the same subjects (Corfe Castle, Swanage, etc.) cropping up several times with different light and weather conditions. It’s a super book but I don’t think I can count it in my “Books read” totals as there is literally no text apart from a paragraph at the start and the captions. I did enjoy it very much and it took me back to a few places as well as introducing me to some I don’t know.