David Olusoga. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.
In the introduction to Black and British, David Olusoga tells a disturbing story from his childhood, where his family were driven out of their home by racist attacks in 1984. After they left, a swastika was painted on the front door, along with the words “NF [National Front] won here.” My response was: “I know racism is still a problem in the UK, but at least it isn’t that bad any more.” A few days later, the story broke about Vaughan Dowd painting racist graffiti on the front door of 10-year-old David Yamba and his father in Salford, Greater Manchester. I was shocked, and perhaps a bit embarrassed by my naivety in believing that this kind of thing doesn’t happen any more. Black and British is an excellent introduction to thousands of years of intertwined history between black people and the British isles, that helps put the racist ideology behind the persecution of the Yamba family into context.
In Black and British, David Olusoga eloquently explores the place of black people in British history, stretching back to the Roman occupation and beyond. He brings the story up to the 1980s, arguing that his personal memories of the period since then limit his ability to be impartial. In between, he covers a huge swathe of historical material, ranging from Britain’s role in both the growth and eventual decline of the Atlantic slave trade, through the influence of black music on British culture, to the impacts of the presence of African-American GIs in the UK during the Second World War.
What I find most innovative about Black and British is Olusoga’s definition of ‘British’. He doesn’t just consider people who live in the British isles, or who hold British citizenship, but everyone who’s lives were shaped by Britain or her people. For example, the book includes a fascinating exploration of the history of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, which was founded as a colony for poor black people ‘repatriated’ from London in the late 1700s. The city thrived as the base for the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, who were responsible for enforcing the ban on the slave trade. Slaves from throughout Western Africa were freed by the Royal Navy’s ships, and made their homes in the city, creating a vibrant and diverse population. Sierra Leone is 5000 km from the Britain, but Olusoga’s writing makes the connections between them impossible to deny.
I also admire the way that Black and British is not just a history of racism in Britain, although it does tell that story very well. It is predominantly about the lives of black people with the British sphere of influence, their triumphs and their tragedies, and their attempts to create a space for themselves within British society. It is easy to focus on racism when we think about black people in the UK, but there is so much more to the story than that. People should be defined by who they are and what they do, not the prejudice they face, and Black and British does that.
There has been (and perhaps, still is), a tendency to overlook the role of black people in British history, an erasure that helps to undermine the ability of black people to assert their right to be part of a society that they have contributed to for hundreds of years. Black and British is just one part of an attempt to rewrite British history in a way that more accurately reflects the contribution of black people, and it does a wonderful job. It has profoundly altered my understanding of the history of Britain, and I think that everyone who lives in Britain or considers themselves British should read it.