TOMBOY BOOKCLUB!!!! Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire!

Hello everyone! With the recent descent of Trump and his white supremacist cronies in the US mid-terms ( may they sink ever lower) and the higgeldy-piggeldy MESS that is Brexit, Windrush and Grenfell swamping the UK with arguments over who is or is not allowed protection under ‘great’ Britannia’, it seems appropriate to talk about this book now. Today’s post is all about Akala’s first novel Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’- I know he has also released graphic novels- i REALLY wanna read them- but I mean in terms of non-fiction hardbacks.

Natives is clever, to say the least. It boasts pages and pages of educational anti-colonial, anti-racist facts and footnotes, and you can tell that it has been a passion long in the making, articulately put together to tackle some great issues of race and class for not only Great Britain, but the entire history of the world: Apartheid and segregation, education and prison systems, white supremacy and imperial history are amongst some of the topics Akala touches upon. His aim with this book is to analyse the way race and class both intersect and feed off each other in conflict with the white state and upper classes, and how these historically institutionalised concepts affect a singular life in the making.

Akala uses the story of his own life to examine the workings of history and politics around him, and how these forces have shaped who he has become. Some people may feel he is boasting by constantly asserting his own past and achievements into the narrative of global history, but I disagree. All the auto-biography included is relevant to the intellectual arguments he makes, his own experiences generating courses of study to analyse the fates of so many working class black boys in the country. Life shown in contrast against the statistical hardship of so many others (not that Akala himself has never known these struggles himself) only makes his achievements more commendable, and indirectly highlights the need to implement what Akala’s book is trying to equip us with and inspire: the knowledge and urgency to ensure that more such rigorous insights can be written by more people who know first hand the effects of state racism and violence onto a child’s future.

It reminded me of another book about race I read earlier this year, ‘Brit(ish)‘ by Afua Hirsch, in which she also recounts the difficulties of forming an identity as a mixed race child in the UK whilst unearthing and lambasting historical racism. However, I will say that though using the same method of analysis of auto-biography these two authors’ early lives could not be any more different. With Hirsch growing up confused, but ultimately sheltered in her posh Wimbledon neighbourhood, whereas Akala’s past is definitely not privileged in any sense of the word as we would expect in the UK; yet he has a surer sense of his identity with close ties to others from the Caribbean and to young boys in similar shoes as his own. Hirsch’s book is also amazing!!!!! It shows a different environment to Akala’s, which actually enforces the point which Akala is trying to make: it doesn’t matter how high up the ladder of capitalist achievement a black person can go or is born into, they will still be ‘Othered’, still be stereotyped somehow.

This definitely isn’t a book you can rush through, it’s one you have to think over before going to the next page; maybe that’s just me, but there’s so many facts and ideas about so many topics that it would seem negligent to simply graze over them without properly trying to understand the point at hand. This is a perfect book to start learning about key concepts and issues underpinning race in Great Britain- but Akala also uses his mixed Jamaican heritage and travels across the globe to give nuanced opinions about how race and class operate differently and arbitrarily for each country depending on it’s history and geography. I think his most powerful writing comes from critiques of the UK education and Prison systems, where argument is always founded on fact and long-meditated analysis fed by numerous theorists (who he references in the back- great for people looking for further reading once they’ve finished this book!).

The lens isn’t just focused on the effect of racism and classism on black and brown people though, Akala also turns arguments back on whiteness itself. Deconstructing what is the ‘default’ identity for governments and culture to build around, and showing its true nature: not ‘default’ at all, but a highly constructed, conceptualised and insidious weapon of Capitalism to pit man against man (or woman)  despite their similar material circumstances. This is a scathing attack, and a brilliant one. As the title may suggest, it isn’t the thugs or hooligans who we should be most worried about (still, fuck the bigoted scum bags) but the ‘powers that be’,  that create the ideas and conditions in which racism can grow unchecked. From teachers defending the KKK as America’s crime fighting vigilantes (the part where he talks about his teacher arguing that the KKK stopped crime by killing black people is horrendous, but when out against the backdrop drawn from history sadly not that surprising), Nelson Mandela as an upholder rather than complete destroyer of apartheid in South Africa, to the police who end up asking him for advice on how to tackle ‘black crime’ (his critique of ‘the idea of ‘black-on’black’ crime is unquestionably good) after trying to arrest him- no authority figure is safe from Akala’s most effective weapon: his brain.

To conclude, I am going to quote a section of the book where Akala is highlighting the double edged sword that is white supremacy; at once giving it’s wielders a sense of superiority, yet completely negating any sense of individual strength of mind they could have by centring superiority on the assumed, and false, inferiority of others.

If you care about ending inequality, this book is for you xoxoxoxoxoxox

“…The long and short of it is that the master makes himself a slave to his slave by needing that domination to define him… We talk about white privilege but we rarely talk about the white burden, the burden of being tethered to a false identity, a parasitic self-definition that can only define itself in relation to blacks’ or others’ inferiority…”

TOMBOY BOOKCLUB-DARK DAYS!!!!

I’ve never had the chance to fully study all Baldwin’s work, and have only read ‘Another Country’ and a few of his essays (Another Country is soooo good, very gripping and it covers a wide range of characters whose stories interweave). But, yesterday I read one of his essays in the Penguin modern series compilation of his works- ‘Dark Days’; by the way, I throughly recommend these books as treats for yourself and/or others! They are only £1 and can help you discover authors like how you can sample food at the supermarket or how they spray perfume on you to test it in shops. They aren’t in depth or full represetations of authors’ work, but really good to carry when travelling or to dip in and out of when you’re busy! ANYWAYS- I haven’t gotten round to reading the whole collection yet, but the essay I read seemed very relavent to now, despite it actually being written in 1965. It’s called: ‘The White Man’s Guilt’.

It is a highly thought through and intelligent work, and it is amazing to me how one man can see and interrogate such small parts of human behaviour into political frameworks. The essay explores how history affects the present way we interact with each other, and in particular how black and white people feel in conversation. How whiteness percieves and reacts to conceptions of blackness when faced with real life people. Baldwin highlights a frantic guilt in the white man/woman; always defending themselves when they haven’t been attacked, either personally in conversation, or physically by the police who they so vehemently defend. Always pointing blame in another direction, feeling deep down there is an imbalance in the world and never wanting to admit it- because once you state the truth (not the glorious history the people in charge want to push) and its repurcussions, who wants to be the one held responsible, to clean up that vicious mess?

It reminded me of another brilliant book I’ve read recently about race relations under some strange cloud of repressed/mutilated guilt, which allows for discimination/murder/ poverty to carry on largely unchallenged. Afua Hirsch’s book, ‘British’ is a memoir/ evidenced portrayal of racism in Britain- and it effects on African ex-colonies- across history. Hirsch’s book is rooted in Uk (And also Ghana), whilst Baldwin was writing about America, but the similarities of what they delineate are strong. Both point to the stupidity of white people denying they see colour, and therefore denying they see history. By denying colour, you deny people their bodies, pride in their ancestry, and pride enough now to untangle the brutality that a one-sided history has created. Or, the cowardice of seeing colour but not the truth of the story that colour tells: when white british people are proud of their country without knowing a thing about Empire and slavery, or red neck Americans fighting for immigrants to ‘get out’, when their whole country was literally built by immigrants coming over and killing Native Americans.

Returning to Baldwin, he doesn’t only talk about how white people are harmed and constrained by a history they do not yet understand how to be accountable for, he also talks about the pain that this warped history has had on black people. He explains how, if your history is dominated by negativity and shame, always condemning the contemporary individual as symptomatic of inherited ‘wrong’; to blame victims for their own suffering, after a while it’s those lies that become how you view yourself and your people. Black people come to believe that what white people won’t say is true- the akward glances denoting a distance, the silences meaning an unwillingness to just let people be people. They fill the empty gaps left from the tatters of pillaged history with their own present suffering to try make the picture whole.

My favorite image that Baldwin uses in this essay to descibe the effects of history on a person in the present is that of a butterfly pinned by a nail. The nail is history: factual, hard, produced by some distant machine, and almost impossible to escape from. The butterfly is us: a creature ruled by change and frail beauty, that is supposed to fly and be free but cannot whilst that pin is stuck there. Baldwin’s prose is already poetical in describing his politics, but this image just really sticks with me. I think it summarises perfectly the predicament white people have stuck themselves in, unable to escape their materially comfortable, yet pscyhologically wrecked history. Emotionally stagnant, condemning themselves for what is unchangeable; with white people dowsing themselves in guilt, defensive anger or complete ignorance. People who refuse to even look at the nail, let alone remove it, are equally as in pain as those who acknowledge its presence every second whilst doing nothing proactive to ease the wound.

The fact is, history can be changed because history is always under construction. I don’t mean change history like Dr Who travelling back and undoing all wrongs; I mean challenging the stories we’ve been told which build the foundation- both material and emotional- of all lives today. Using white priviledge- access to education, money and no discrimination based on race- to destroy the machinery that has gotten us to where we are now, so no black or brown person has to fight to be human again. So, I think Baldwin is trying to say that it’s not enough to know that racism is wrong. If you’re not going to activley change the situation by trying (you do everything you can when you can) to learn and construct an un-whitewashed version of history, where those who need to be are held accountable; to rebuild a society that does not perpetuate these current conditions- then you are part of the problem. To talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk, and at the moment white people aint saying shit to make anyone wanna walk. And if nobody can even walk, when will we ever be able to dance? Because ultimatley, it can’t be black people who have been victimised throughout history who are burdened with the struggle of fixing problems forced upon them. The only one who can change a legacy of history programmed into a person’s brain is the person who that brain belongs to.

I know this post is a bit slapdash, but I hope I have not butchered his work and offended anybody. I hope I’ve understood Baldwin correctly, and if you think I’ve missed some major points or am wrong- please say! The ultimate thing is to not close off conversation; it isn’t bad to be wrong, but it is bad to never admit it. To end this post, I want to include a good quote from Baldwin, and I hope you’ll try to look out for more of his work in the future! BE REVOLUTIONARY AND READ HISTORY!!!!!

“… Moreover, the history of white people has led them to a fearful, baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality- to lose touch, that is, with themselves- and where they certainly are not truly happy, for they know they are not truly safe… White man, hear me! A man is a man, a woman is a woman, a child is a child. To deny these facts is to open the doors on a chaos deeper and deadlier, and, within the space of a man’s lifetime, more timeless, more eternal, than the medieval vision of Hell. White man, you have already arrived at this unspeakable blasphemy in order to make money. You cannot endure the things you aquire- the only reason you continually aquire them, like junkies on hundred dollar a day habits- and your money exists mainly on paper. God help you on that day when the population demands to know what is behind that paper… It is terrifying to consider the precise nature of the things you have brought with the flesh you have sold- of what you continue to buy with the flesh you continue to sell…”