10 Powerful Reads On The Black British Experience
So, you want to dismantle systemic racism?
Hold up a second.
This is a long fight. It will not be won by sharing an Angela Davis quote on your Instagram story and then going back to life as usual.
Racism – deeply-rooted, institutionalized, systemic racism – cannot be undone by simply shouting about it. Racism is not just our system, our government, our economy, but something ingrained in our thoughts and worldviews. Unpicking these thoughts requires education – and reading is a great way to educate ourselves.
“Racism is not just our system, our government, our economy, but something ingrained in our thoughts and worldviews”
Why? Reading is a form of listening. We can only untangle racism at large when we start undoing it in ourselves – this begins with addressing the wrong thoughts we carry, then understanding the lived experiences of the people oppressed by those thoughts. Especially in a time where our interactions are limited, books are a gateway to others’ thoughts, experiences, and ideas.
“In order to stand with us, and people who look like me, you have to be educated on issues that pertain to me, fully educated so you can feel the full level of pain so that you can have full understanding.” — Emmanuel Acho
A fight against injustice begins with the individual. Especially if you are in a position of privilege, it’s important to learn about the oppression of marginalized groups. This can help you to be a sincere and useful ally rather than an oppressive, burdensome, performative, or wishy-washy one (we’ll write more on that later). Dismantling systems of power and oppression begins in our hearts.
So it’s time to: Listen. Understand. Act. In that order.
We think these reads are a pretty good start (we chose to focus our list on Black Britons and Black British writers).
1. Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
“We have developed what amounts to a cultural blind spot about these chapters of our past, and our collective squeamishness that prevents us from openly discussing British slavery and the darker aspects of British imperialism has rendered us unable to properly appreciate the place of black people and Africa in our national story.” ― David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History
An exploration of the relationship between the British Isles and Africa, from Roman Britain and Othello to our time today, by British-Nigerian broadcaster, writer, and filmmaker David Olusoga. Catch the associated BBC programme on iPlayer here.
2. Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann
Was racial slavery inevitable? This book not only challenges the question but the British story itself. Black Tudors is told through the experiences of ten Africans who lived as free citizens in the Tudor and Stuart eras, long before England became heavily involved in the Transatlantic slave trade.
3. It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race by Mariam Khan
“I believe the role of the writer is to tell society what it pretends it does not know.”
― Mariam Khan, It’s Not About the Burqa
What is it like to live in a country where the Prime Minister compares you to a “letterbox?” Where your character, religion, sexuality, and identity are judged by a single, vilified garment? Through this collection of passionate essays, Khan calls out the labels, libels, and Islamophobia that Muslim women face, and achieves exactly what mainstream media purports she should not be able to do – speaking for herself.
4. Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla Saad
“Yes, outwardly racist systems of oppression like chattel slavery, apartheid, and racial discrimination in employment have been made illegal. But the subtle and overt discrimination, marginalization, abuse, and killing of BIPOC in white-dominated communities continues even today because white supremacy continues to be the dominant paradigm under which white societies operate. So we must call a thing a thing. We must look directly at the ways.” — Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
This book is structured as a four-week, 28-day guide to examine and identify personal privilege and the impact of white supremacy in your life. You can also follow the hashtag #MeAndWhiteSupremacy to see others’ reflections on the process. If you’re feeling out of the loop on all things privilege, this is a good place to start – from the basics of tone policing and cultural appropriation to allyship and “colourblindness.”
5. No Win Race: A Memoir of Belonging, Britishness and Sport Paperback by Derek A. Bardowell
Doesn’t matter if you’re keen on sport or not – this memoir by Derek Bardowell, British-born son of Jamaican immigrants, dives into the complex reality of being black in Britain, told through an athlete’s eyes. It examines identity, biases, and sport as a tool for self-actualization – a great read if you’re interested in deconstructing the truth behind what media portrays.
6. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: The Sunday Times Bestseller by Reni Eddo-Lodge
“White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.”
Timely, eruptive, and occupying a space normally dominated by African-American writers, this book is a bold and memorable look at the links between class and race, politics, and why Britain’s biggest race discussions are so often led by those in positions of power. While the text isn’t entirely comprehensive from a historical perspective, it is a brilliant building block for conversations that are as necessary and uncomfortable as ever, both in the UK and around the world.
7. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer
Nearly four decades after publication, this text still rings true for many BAME in Britain. It sweeps through history, from the time of the Roman empire to the race riots and police brutality of the 1980s. This book achieved something amazing at the time: exposing the erasure of BAME experiences from the wider British narrative. It proves that Great Britain is not, as some would like to think, simply a white place that other people arrive at. Fryer also covers the deeply personal, psychological, and political impacts of erasure – who am I, if I don’t exist to my nation? Who am I, if I am considered to be impermanent? An excellent example of how we must examine our past (and insist on it not being forgotten) to forge a brighter, fair future.
8. Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffrey Boakye
“Being Black British is a tangible identity in as far as there are black people who are British. (I’m one of them.) It is equally true to state that there are British people who are black. (I’m one of these too.) This may sound like unnecessary tautology, but it’s important to stress that Black British isn’t a 50-50 split; it’s an ideological knot.” -Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye
One of Guardian’s Must-Read Books of 2019, Black, Listed examines black history on a global and communal level through semi-autobiographical reflections, pop culture references, lists, and studying every imaginable subject – literature, politics, music, sport, performance art, education, justice systems, and more. You won’t set it down.
9. Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
“It turns out that membership of the British Library does not save you from your past or uncomfortable present.” – Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
Compiled by columnist and gal-dem deputy editor Charli Brinkhurst-Cuff, this anthology explores the Windrush generation’s journey to “Mother Country” Britain through the eyes of their children and grandchildren in 22 remarkable stories spread over 70 years.
10. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
“I was not born with an opinion of the world but it clearly seemed that the world had an opinion of people like me.”
Personal, deeply observant, and disruptive – rapper Akala (Kingslee Daley)’s Natives holds readers’ eyeballs open, unapologetically, at the truth: this is uncomfortable. This is painful. It’s not a wellspring of optimism. The British Empire and its legacy are all about race and class. He crushes comfortable fables that excuse Britain’s long-running course of colonialism and imperialism by contrasting it to the clearly-far-worse Nazi regime. From the police to childhood racializing, to first realizing his mum was white, Akala sharply critiques things through his own experience. Poignant and relevant as ever.