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 BOOK-CLUB!!!- ‘Please Mind the Gap’

At work recently, I have taken up a lunchtime habit. To walk outside towards St Paul’s Cathedral, plonk myself down on a bench either by the roses still hanging onto their plump colours or next to pidgins scratting around thinning grasses for crumbs or seeds, and I read. Also, I like to treat myself to some MacDonalds (but only on Fridays, so I don’t become enslaved to their global corporation of capitalist exploitation of animals, and also so I don’t become an actual potato) whilst I peruse the pages of my book of choice, exploring a whole other world contained, yet beyond the concrete noise of London. This week has been a delight, words mingling their power with the delights of tomato ketchup. I have been reading Sophie Sparham’s ‘Please Mind The Gap’.

I have actually met Sophie irl, and she is lovely. A bespectacled punk with red lips surrounding a smile, unmistakable with dreadlocks the colour of chilli peppers that hang down past her waist. She performed in Peterborough for a FreakSpeak poetry night in honour of Pride, and her poetry made me laugh and wipe away tears in equal measures that night. My slightly drunken appreciation fixed on her as she commanded the stage with a down-to-earth confidence that was not shy exactly, but was not too boisterous or forced. I spoke to her in the bathroom after she had read, we were both washing our hands. I told her how wonderful I thought her poetry was, and she thanked me with laughter and smiles, wished me luck when I said I also wrote then we went on our ways to watch the rest of the night’s wordsmiths.  Sophie is from up north in Derby, and her thick accent wasn’t difficult to listen though, it made the poems even more heartfelt and unique, evoking the places and people with whom her mind wrangled with to write these AMAZING poems.

Sophie’s poetry is the best ‘fuck you’ for days when you feel shit upon by the universe. Her work focuses on political and social issues- especially women’s issues, depression and LGBTQ+ rights. Her poems are about the mental impacts material suffering perpetuates on the mind. How anti-gay sentiments seep into the pavements of her childhood, how the rush and crush of ceaseless production wilts the heart to a hollow calculator of survival, unless we try to let the beauty in. I love her work, because the topics she talks about are serious and difficult to grasp, yet the way she phrases her work is so fluid and delightful to read I almost feel guilty sometimes for paying more attention to the control she has over rhyme and rhythm than on the crippling suffering she is trying to address and heal. It’s not only me who thinks her poetry is bomb either, in the edition I have, Benjamin Zephaniah, a poetry great, has written a foreword where he states: “I was very impressed with this fearless, compelling performer, who is unafraid to seek out the truth and comment on issues that others might shy away from“.

Her work flies above the country, and sets its visions to lands even further out to sea when imagining the unity fighting oppression demands. Her work spans the universal disappointments and difficulties of trying to be honest and happy in a world that cares more for profit and shallow popularity. But alongside these searing commentaries that I am sure Ginsberg would approve of, she also talks about her own life and memories with an intimacy that allows her point to be sharp without becoming too concerned with the details of life that she could include that would make the poems less lyrical, but more rich in specific moments. I’m not saying here that her poetry lacks imagery, it most certainly does not- but her talent and power truly does rest in the structures she can build out of rhyme and rhythm, the true gift of a poet whose work is most alive when read aloud. And, considering she tours her poetry with punk bands and at festivals, I hope many more people will be able to hear her songs, her battle cries for the release of old pain to help make concrete changes.

After first seeing Sophie perform, I expected reading her works would be the same visceral concoction of song and sadness and soul. I was not disappointed. This book is for anyone who cares, and who wants a book to pull out in fleeting moments stolen from the machine, as well as to curl up with for longer in reflection. Its style flows easily, but the issues Sparham writes about will make you want to slow down and think before rushing onto the next delicious rhyme. Her poetry will bring you eye to eye with the most confounding and saddening of injustice- social and personal- before bringing you back up to hope again and be strong against what potentially lurks behind each stranger; a smile or scorn. Her work makes clear the inevitability of our suffering, how unwittingly and silently it is committed by and against each other. But on the flip-side and more importantly, how we are all able to help each other overcome these problems we’ve made for ourselves. The words affirm that strength is not to be measured by the mainstream standards of clout or wealth or popularity: “Success means the paths we chose chose to explore/ not how high we climb”.

So, in this blog-post I want to include the first poem I heard Sophie read aloud, and the first in ‘Please Mind The Gap’. It is beautiful, and I will be damned if it doesn’t make you feel even one degree warmer inside after maybe wiping away a tear or two. Thank you for being such a wonderful and kind person Sophie, and I hope more and more people get the life-enhancing pleasure of reading and hearing your poetry!!!!

Introductory Gathering

Oh come all ye faithless, joyless and defeated
Come all ye washed out, ye chewed up and ye beaten
I want every loser,
As far as these eyes can see
To climb out of your corners and sit next to me.

Oh come all ye rejects, ye homeless, break out from your margins
Come all ye lost, troubled and drive no hard bargains
You’ll soon find that there’s no leader in this hoard
Worship yourselves
Christ, you fucking lords!

We are gathered here today to witness revolution
The coming together of our demons
As we learn the meaning of evolution
Our song birds will scream from the branches of burning trees
Not be left in their cages to sing peacefully

But they will create lawful reasons why we cannot rise together
They’ll tear us and they’ll beat us amidst this stormy weather
However, there are no exit signs here so I urge you, please don’t run
You’ll never leave this bus stop, if you’re waiting for the sun

And I don’t have faith in a god,
But I know everyone needs something to believe in
And you can build your own angels if you feel you really need them
But I would rather bow to your monsters
Put them on the committee intake
Our problems shouldn’t rule us
But it’s important to learn from our mistakes

And have you ever felt lost?
Are you lonely?
Are you the talk of the town for not buying the butchers baloney?
And are you hurt?
And are you hated?
Are you tired and wired, feeling wrong and exasperated?

Well, I’ll be your comfort in this darkened shade of blue
I don’t have faith in a god,
But I believe in you and you and you

And have you been wronged?
Are you conflicted?
By this bullshit we’re living in as long as we don’t get evicted?
And are you as tired of this everyday slog?
Did they use you and abuse you until there were no parts left to
flog?

Well bring what’s left to this table
And lets put together what we’ve got
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not able
Your’e capable of a lot
Because blessed are the wicked, the weird and the truly despised
For allowing us to see the world through other people’s eyes