The Brit(ish) problem filtered through the darkest of fairy tales
Jonathan Cape, 318pp, £16.99
In his Nobel lecture, Isaac Bashevis Singer argued that storytellers might have the best chance of anyone to “rescue civilisation”. Afua Hirsch must be up there with the best of the rescuers because she has produced a dazzling book of stories; dark as the darkest of fairy tales, stories of mistaken identity, of robbery and murder, of slavery, injustice and cruelty of such magnitude that the extent and weight of Brit(ish), her book on race, identity and belonging, is almost unbearable. But all these stories are true and Brit(ish) is, despite everything, a hopeful book.
The book is divided into eight packed chapters, covering topics such as “Class”, “Bodies” and “Origins”. Brit(ish) deals in black history, politics, identity and Africa – in particular Senegal and Ghana – but its beating heart is Hirsch’s personal memoir. Chapter one, “Where Are You From?” begins in affluent Wimbledon, where Hirsch grew up. Her parents “scrimped and saved from immigrant beginnings” to provide a middle-class lifestyle, including 11 years of private education for their daughter. But school friends and neighbours were white, the characters in children’s books were white and Hirsch with a white father and a Ghanaian mother felt “at odds with” her “environment” especially because, “Most of the well-heeled residents of my suburbs would prefer to say that they don’t see race at all ... but since there was no such things as race then there was no space in which it could matter.” Later on she concludes, “The era of racism without racists has been the story of my life.”
In 1961, when my mother decided to christen me Martina after St Martin de Porres (patron saint of mixed-race and healing, among other things), one woman expressed her surprise that my mother “would call her child after a black man”. When she told me this story, it was the first time I realised that racism was scarily alive. I’d read about slavery in books but I thought the battle was won. And shocking as this story was, I still assumed this kind of ignorant prejudice was on the way out. I thought everyone was moving away from racism. Not so. I moved from Ireland to London in 1988 and I am still learning about racism’s subtleties and my own blindness. As Hirsch quotes Benjamin Zephaniah, “Time has moved on and racism has evolved.”
In the chapter entitled “Class”, discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, Hirsch says that “I know that black people are treated like criminals because of my own experience of being treated as a suspect by shop security guards.” In Wimbledon where racism supposedly didn’t exist, Hirsch as a youngster was followed around shops on the local high street. Far worse was the day her school friends told her not to worry, they didn’t consider her black. “This act of kindness is one of the most traumatic things that ever happened to me. It taught me that being black is bad. It taught me that seeing race has sinister consequences.”
When I mention fairy tales, I am thinking of Bluebeard in particular – a story about looking and not looking. Most people prefer not to look; they don’t want to see the contents of the bloody chamber. It’s easy for white people not to look but you have to be very brave to look as hard as Hirsch does, compelled, magnetised from a young age. Here is a sense of someone who is writing not only to make sense of the racism she directly experienced or the widespread racism she has observed, she’s writing to save her own life and the lives of others.
Saving lives might sound dramatic but it’s literally as well as symbolically true. In the “Class” chapter, Hirsch discusses the endless stop-and-search harassment suffered by black men and the too-frequent incidents of young black men dying at the hands of the police.
You really would want to be blind not to know what’s going on, although some people manage to be more concerned by the understandable protests that follow. On July 17th, 2017, Rashan Charles, a 20-year-old black man, died on the floor of a Dalston shop less than five minutes from where I live with my daughter. The video footage released online is too hard to watch – a slender child-like figure struggling on the floor under the full force of the adult policeman who pursued him. Hirsch describes the heart-breaking case of Mzee Mohammed, who died tragically in similar circumstances in 2016.
Up lifting and tragic
It is impossible to do justice to the scope of this book. Hirsch has a wide experience of battling with aspects of race and identity in her work as a human rights barrister and as a journalist. The book teems with fascinating and uplifting as well as tragic stories – people she has interviewed, her friends’ stories, the coincidence behind her meeting with Sam, her partner, a second-generation Ghanaian from Tottenham.
Despite or perhaps because she doesn’t feel quite British or Ghanaian, Hirsch has a particular gift for describing both countries. This is writing that really shines. The sounds and smells of Africa come alive with vividness and force and she has an architect’s eye, too, so that even the view from a carriage on the District Line leaps off the page.
The chapter “Origins” provides a dense, eye-opening slice of history – Britain’s relationship with slavery and the colonisation of Ghana. If we’re in any doubt about the continued abuse of Africa, Trump’s recent remarks about “s**thole countries” should make us think again. Hirsch’s cool, clear-eyed views in this book are a gift we can’t ignore.
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her books include Petrol and The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems
Floral tributes for Rashan Charles, whose death in east London caused anger in the local community. Left, Afua Hirsch, whose book on race, identity and belonging, is almost unbearable.