In The Novelist as Teacher, Chinua Achebe tells us that African writers have a responsibility: to educate and regenerate their people, the way they see themselves and reveal to them their history with the accuracy it’s so rarely afforded. Here in the diaspora, black British writers are still burdened with this duty, as our country fails to reconcile its colonial past with the reality of race and racism in the present.
It’s a responsibility Afua Hirsch, journalist, former barrister and the only person talking sense on Sky News show, The Pledge, feels keenly. “If I hadn’t have come from a privileged background it’s unlikely I would have had access to the elite institutions, that I’d have access to my platform. It’s the reason why I use my platform to write about these things. I feel a responsibility there,” she tells me on a day so unseasonably warm we’ve both had to buy emergency summer clothing to change into.
Africa and the question of home is the central theme of her book, BRIT(ish) and when I sit down to chat with her about it, she has just returned from launching it in Ghana. So what was it like launching the book in her other “home”, the birthplace of her mother, her husband’s family and for a time her base as West Africa correspondent for the Guardian?
“So much love for my book in Ghana,” she explains in a café in central London. “But there’s been a lot for it here too. It’s been really humbling.” Interestingly, there was a lot of gratitude that she took the time to tour the book in West Africa. When an audience member in Ghana questioned why other authors of African heritage, who use their black experience for stories, didn’t bother doing the same, he received a standing ovation. “I don’t think black authors aren’t touring in Ghana or Nigeria because they don’t think it’s worth it,” she says, “I think it’s just publishers aren’t doing it for them. I organised my tour myself. Authors of African heritage are still struggling to tell their stories at all.”
“Gratitude is a word that has hung over the debate of the book, the same smog of ‘polite’ racism that has followed Stormzy in a barrage of Daily Mail articles”
Gratitude is a word that has hung over the debate of the book, the same smog of “polite” racism that has followed Stormzy in a barrage of Daily Mail articles. Not everyone has welcomed the book as they have in Ghana or The Guardian. David Goodhart, the well-known host of dinner party racism – couching racist ideas with the respectability of academic language and ill-informed theory – wrote a scathing review of the book. Naming her the “high priestess of the religion of anti-racism”, he attacked Afua personally and refers to the book as “not a subtle or rigorous work”, arguing from “anecdote, not data”. This is despite 22 pages-worth of citations to reputable sources – including many academics.
If a book on race gets an indefensibly harsh and unsubstantiated critique by David Goodhart in the Evening Standard then it’s safe to assume it’s worth a read. Afua weaves the personal with facts and figures, making the book accessible through anecdote but with the evidence to back up her claims. So why did Goodhart go for the jugular regardless?
“When you combine evidence and research with personal stories, people feel threatened, as it’s that much harder to ignore it, Afua theorises. “My arguments may not be perfect and I genuinely welcome debate, but I do think that when people struggle to find holes in my argument they tend to go after me personally.” I’m inclined to agree. “Those attacks are frustrating and draining but kind of affirming,” she says. And it’s hard to deny that the harshest critics of the book tend to inadvertently prove its relevance.
As someone who writes about dating, my favourite chapter of the book is Bodies’. An excerpt featured in The Guardian on her visit to the Black Man’s Fan Club – a fetish sex club where white “appreciators” of black men come to give life to their fantasies. The depiction of colonial tropes that were let loose and internalised by the black men were disturbing. But Afua tells me that the chapter was divisive. The Guardian suggested it lowered the tone of the book (“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.”).
“I included it because I think it’s important that we don’t just talk about Brexit and the politics of identity, immigration statistics and stop and search. This is very personal and intimate and we live it in so many ways. But it’s not been mainstreamed in our discussion of race and identity as it should be,” she says. “There’s this whole world where these reconstructed slavery ideas are thriving”. Love and sex are spaces where airs and grace around race disintegrate. If we need evidence that racism is still pervasive, we can find it here.
“My favourite chapter of the book is ‘Bodies’, which features Afua’s visit to the Black Man’s Fan Club – a fetish sex club where white ‘appreciators’ of black men come to give life to their fantasies”
Afua believes we can’t deal with any of this if we can’t grow up and speak honestly about our colonial past. In the chapter titled ‘Origins’, she dissects Britain’s collective amnesia on colonialism. “Without reckoning with our Imperial past, we will never tackle racism. The lack of diversity we see is a symptom, not a cause. We’re doing the easy stuff,” she adds, “you can tell how much change is happening by how hard it is.”
The people who should be trying the hardest are still doing the bare minimum. When we meet, we’re both overwhelmed with media requests to discuss the Windrush scandal. Busy as ever, she’s got a book event after our meeting, before prepping for Newsnight to talk about the crisis. The link between the mistreatment of the Windrush generation by the state, the narrative and the colonial nostalgia is not lost on either of us. “Theresa May wouldn’t even meet Caribbean leaders,” she says, noting how unconvincing the claim that the Commonwealth represents historic relationships between equals. “No one will admit that this is the remnants of Empire. It was the Colonial Office one day and the Commonwealth office the next.” We both laugh at the absurdity of it all. It is quite the delusion: “it’s a psychosis.”
So after eight chapters questioning the concept of home – what does home mean to Afua now?
“I’ve let go of the idea that home is a place that can solve my identity problems. They stopped being problems because I stopped seeing them as something to be solved. And more of a journey that I’ve been on. I’ve become more confident in my blackness and my Africanness. I think for a long time I felt it needed to be validated against something.
“Like how well I could speak my mother’s language or how good I am at cornrowing my daughter’s hair…but it’s about consciousness. It’s not how you behave, speak or live – it’s what you care about. Those are the questions I’m interested in now – not where I live. But it’s a long life journey.”
Reading Brit(ish), I relished going on some of that journey with her.
Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99).