Everyday racism and a search for identity
Colin Grant illustrates the so-called racial blindness in Britain as depicted by the author through a powerful hybrid of memoir.
"England is an island but not I land," say the Rastas. They may have been born in Birmingham or Bristol but they don't believe they belong in the UK. The same feeling course through every fiber of Afua Hirsch's being. The daughter of a black Ghanaian woman and white English man, Hirsch recalls how, in going to work in Senegal as a young adult, she "had left Britain to leave being British".
An investigation into a nation's identity and the barrister turned journalist's lack of a sense of belonging, Brit(ish) is a hybrid of memoir, reportage and social commentary. But it is also a quest to articulate and complete a personal identity by looking to Africa for answers, and this has taken place down the ages.
One of the most notable "Back to Africa" movements, which flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was Marcus Garvey's attempt to establish a colony in Liberia and founding of the Black Star Line steamship company.
Such movements were predicated not just on the dream of physical reunion - of black people restored to the motherland after the profound wrench of the transatlantic slave trade - but also on the need for psychological repair. Unlike those "stealing away" on the Black Star Line, Hirsch is not the product of slavery.
A reprehensible relative on her mother's side was a Dutch slave trader who set up camp at Elmina, western Africa, the point of enforced departure for many of the enslaved to the New World. Though such an ancestral lineage complicates matters, the same Back to Africa current fizzes through Brit(ish).
It is heartrending to read how, after two violent incidents on the African continent (she was attacked alone in Senegal, and then with her husband, Sam, in Ghana), her dream of belonging dissipates "into the heat like a desert mirage".
Hirsch combines candor with self-deprecating humor: she is challenged by hair difficulties ("Being black is like having beauty special needs"), and Sam teases her that writing the account constitutes a degree of privilege. "What kind of black person feels they actually have to write a book about being black?" he asks.
But Hirsch is also inserting herself into history. The arrival of Caribbean people on the Empire Windrush in 1948 forced white Britons to see, perhaps for the first time, a history that had been hidden from them or packaged in a flattering way.
When, as a schoolchild, Hirsch was taught history, she would emerge from lessons on William Wilberforce with the impression that the British only took part in the transatlantic slave trade so they could later abolish it. Hirsch's focus is not the more violent racism she has suffered; the story of the man who took off his belt threatening to thrash her following a racist spat is only given a sentence.
Rather it's the many micro-aggressions that draw her attention. At Oxford University she was a self-consciously alien presence, irritated by porters who insisted she show her ID as she entered its colleges, while her white student friends were not stopped.
At Sky News she becomes a source of irritation to a jealous colleague who on Hirsch's appointment tells her: "Don't take this personally but you can't get a promotion around here if you're white these days." Brit(ish) is the work of a confident social guide all too used to "collecting examples of blatant racism in the mainstream press". Only rarely does her compass go awry.
Hirsch's visit to a seedy swingers' party held by the Black Man's Fan Club, for white women (and their watching partners), is not the most subtle route into the complicated myth of black male hypersexuality. More powerful is her argument that there has been a failure of imagination among a generation of progressives, who have steadfastly absolved themselves of racial bias, convinced that they don't "see color".
The book's critique of the vicissitudes of black life calls to mind one of its more potent precursors, Paul Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack. Thirty years on from that academic work, it's a depressing indication of continued British prejudice that Hirsch tells - with justified anger - similar tales of the miseducation of black boys and attempts to degrade black female sexuality.
The power of her writing matches that of other important black writers, among them Gilroy and, going back two centuries, the American abolitionist John Brown Russwurm, who proclaimed: "Too long have others spoke for us [such that] our vices and our degradations are ever arraigned against us, but our virtues pass unnoticed."
The reviewer is an author.
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