tue 22/05/2018

Afua Hirsch: Brit(ish) review - essential reading on identity | reviews, news & interviews

Afua Hirsch: Brit(ish) review - essential reading on identity

Afua Hirsch: Brit(ish) review - essential reading on identity

Memoir meets history in this investigation into race, identity and belonging

Afua Hirsch: identity crisis?© Urszula Soltys

Usually extracts in newspapers should stimulate the appetite of the reader to get with it; this is a rare moment when the glimpses afforded to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging have peculiarly maligned a complex and amply researched investigation into questions of race, identity, politics, geography and history.

First impressions were of a personal and rather self-indulgent memoir by a mixed-race young woman. Afua Hirsch, now in her mid-30s, was brought up in comfortable circumstances in Wimbledon. There are plenty of mentions of strawberry and cream, of tennis and leafy oak-lined streets. Her mother is a Ghanaian artist, and a father a European mix of a German Jewish father and a Yorkshire mother. Hence the Ghanaian forename and recognisably Jewish surname. 

Afua Hirsch: Brit(ish)Hirsch’s education and upbringing has been privileged, as she continually stresses: private education, Oxbridge, and a slew of seemingly interesting even glamorous jobs. She read PPE at Oxford, trained and practised as a barrister, working with predominantly young black men up for theft and assault. She then became a journalist, working for Sky and the Guardian as a correspondent in legal affairs and West Africa.

What is the complaint then? Is it not whinging to go on about identity and Britishness and prejudice and even to admit to envy of Sam, her friend and later partner, who was brought up by an heroic mother of Ghanaian parentage in poverty on a tough council estate in Tottenham? Most of Sam’s peer group is now in jail or otherwise in trouble, although he has escaped that fate and is a trained barrister. Oh, but Sam has known who he is: no troubles with his identity.

But Brit(ish) is much more than this. Her personal memoir and anecdotes of incidents related by friends and acquaintances are enriched by interviews with many journalists, writers and academics, and people in the creative industries.  The context is further strengthened and amplified by a personal odyssey which takes her to both East and West Africa, with a particularly painful stay in Ghana. Here she was accompanied by her mother, her grandmother, her young daughter, and Sam, but after a hideous mugging on a beach she felt so unsettled and unsafe that her sojourn came to an premature end. Her point is that her status was neither Ghanaian (Ghanaians saw her as British, and certainly not black, not one of them) nor really European, where she was seen as black. She only speaks a few words of Twi, the Ghanaian language of her relatives, and claims she can hardly pronounce her own forename correctly. Meanwhile her privilege made her an easy target for the poor, extending to criminal action.

The trivial incidents in Britain – a white friend saying "We don’t see you as black", her grandmother’s white neighbours ensuring that their dog shat on her front step every day – mount up in their frequency to a slowly horrifying litany of casual racism, often invisible to the perpetrator and deeply upsetting to the target. As a teenager, she is told not to come into a boutique in Wimbledon to shop: being black, she clearly had criminal intent. Even the incidents of sexual harassment, although verbal, imply that her colour makes her more available. A female white employee at Sky indicates the hiring of Hirsch is obviously inspired by positive discrimination, rather than the result of a normal application assessed on merit. She is often asked where she is from.

And outside her own experience there is many an illuminating vignette. Even well-known black male film actors have to remind make-up and hair artists that their needs are different from whites. This is linked to one of several tales of fostering. Two young black children are shunted from a loving white family in Wales where they had terrible skin and hair problems, as the needs for black skins and hair were not understood. They end up with an abusive black family, where at least their eczema was treated. 

But all of this just makes personal, and more vivid, a very serious look at the history of empire, and of slavery. There is no bibliography as such but 21 pages of dense notes refer to everything from newspaper articles to music, films, television and radio programmes, articles, novels, poetry and many published histories. We are reminded - if we ever knew - that Elizabeth I was frightened by indiscriminate immigration, and that after Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, Britain continued to profit from ancillary activities to do with its continuation in the United States and Brazil. The truth too that Britain is itself a country of migrants through the centuries underlies the peculiar ironies of protests against immigrants.

The long-term effects of colonisalism, empire and plunder, the semi-conscious disparagement of other cultures and histories, are motifs strung through a series of chapters beginning with identity lessons, segueing to discussions of class, place, heritage, bodies, and so on, which attempt to describe what it is like to be black, or mixed race, in Britain now. The statistics are dispiriting, with blacks doing disportionately worse by many measurements: education, class, economics, mortality.

The attitudes are ingrained, and one of her many points is that the majority white population does not even notice so much demeaning and ignorant language. This is an utterly fascinating book on important aspects of contemporary Britain, based on personal experience, historical analysis and study of popular perceptions, some of them bordering on the tabloid-fed lunacy. This meditation on the state of the nation is essential reading for anyone interested in how Britain’s imperial past is playing out in the Britain of today.

This is an utterly fascinating book on important aspects of contemporary Britain, based on personal experience, historical analysis and study of popular perceptions

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