Another NetGalley book and this completes the set of books I had from there that were published in January, so one achievement unlocked for the month (see my upcoming State of the TBR post for what’s come in, however!). I must have seen this one on one of NetGalley’s emails and was drawn to the idea of a composite biography of several different people, all shedding light on Grant himself’s life.

Colin Grant – “I’m Black So You Don’t Have To Be: A Memoir in Eight Lives”

(31 October 2022)

I sailed through life easily, because my uncle, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the year I was born, had endured a gauntlet of prejudice on my behalf, being racialised by a country that only saw his blackness. “I’m black,” he’d say to me, “so you don’t have to be”.

Grant takes eight different people – family members plus one medical school colleague and one man in the community and hospital who is living with severe mental health issues – and tells stories of his interactions with them, then giving us a composite portrait of his own life from many different angles.

We meet his difficult and demanding dad, about whom he’s already written a book, running through life from Grant’s youth to Bageye’s death and funeral, his mum, and in particular her return trip to Jamaica after many years away, his enterprising and uncompromising sister, who recreated herself and ended up a Ghanaian princess rather than the daughter of Caribbean immigrants living in Luton, and his uncle and mentor, quoted above, who provided him with the title of the book, pointing out that the first wave of his family and their friends did the hard work, to allow him and his generation to, for example (shockingly to them), move to Brighton, allow their children to address them by their first names and enjoy eating lentil dishes.

Many of the characters are prickly and difficult, and there are some challenging scenes, particularly in the chapter on Charlie, his White activist medical school friend, with whom he bonds over dissection class … The final chapter takes us through to his children and the way in which they embrace the Caribbean heritage he’s not been so keen on, and the lessons he’s learned from them:

There’s a Caribbean exuberance, sense of mischief and search for rapture in all of them that is heartening to see: I feel more Caribbean in their presence. And though they recognise the disadvantages that British society imposes on blackness, they do not expect to be stymied by it.

This completes what is a humble and self-effacing – and fascinating – journey through recent Black British history, complete with its still-existing institutional racism (his experiences at the BBC are horrible but not surprising, maybe, having read around this topic a fair bit; his realisation that getting into the BBC, which felt like the end point, was in fact the start of a new process reminded me eerily of the new immigrant characters in “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times“).

Thank you to Jonathan Cape for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “I’m Black So You Don’t Have To Be” was published on 26 January 2023.