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…”