With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain
As someone whose childhood was in the 1980s, I remember the decade with rose-tinted glasses: as a child in Wales, you knew that Thatcher(ism) was evil, and you heard about mass unemployment and factory closures – including in my home town with the closure of the local steel plant and coal mines – but as a white, middle-class child I was also cocooned against it materially. The mythos of the 1980s as the site of the triumph of Thatcherism over socialism endures though, and not just among children-who-should-know-better. In spite of the world economic crash of 2008, and its exposure to new perspectives on the legacy of the Thatcherite revolution of deregulation, our mainstream media and political class still seem wedded to the idea that what happened in the 1980s was generally a good thing.
So reading Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain is a prescient reminder that if you weren't white and middle class, the 1980s were far from wonderful. The book itself, written originally in the 1980s by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, in fact covers much 20th century British history from Black female experience, from the West Indies' generations in the 1940s and 1950s invited by the UK establishment to emigrate to Britain and help solve its post-war labour shortage. The role of ideology is intermittently highlighted by the authors, on how the British had been conditioned with a sense of white superiority that would make Black lives unbearable for the remainder of the century. 1958, for example, saw outbreaks of mob attacks against the Black community, but on a daily basis, public domains involving employment, law and order, housing, health and education condemned Black communities to a traumatic realm, a nameless apartheid of simmering violence and daily dehumanization. It is the realm of education which strikes me as most egregious and also familiar from my own experience: teachers and students alike – as products of British society – viewed Black children as curiosities and subordinate. Bullying was endemic, resulting in the demotivation and ennui of students of colour which in turn became interpreted as stupidity. The effect on mental health and treatment, revealed in case studies, is the stuff of horror films:
'I was sent to the adolescent unit, and there were people there for reasons like they couldn't get on with their parents or had problems at school . . . There were a lot of Black girls there at the time. It was a place where, if someone was crying, they put them in a straight-jacket and put them in a room with no windows . . . It was things like that which made me depressed. In the end I tried to commit suicide, because I didn't know any way out of that place . . . They used to drug us up all the time . . .'
Along with such heartbreaking, harrowing narratives, the authors highlight a roll-call of forces aimed to subordinate Black British citizens: media and academic representation; squalid housing at the mercy of landlords; police harassment and mass unemployment, with letterbox threats from neighbours telling them to 'go home.'
You may be thinking what I'm thinking here. Replace mass unemployment with the low-wage gig economy of near-full-employment and the descriptions begin to remind me of Brexit Britain. But here's the thing from reading this book: Brexit seems less an anomaly than a rare opportunity for Britain as a society to face its demons, including the full force of its unconscious biases, its racisms and insecurities, and a frighteningly damaging degree of post-imperial, post-WWII arrogance. Because if you're a person of colour, or even part of a white under-class, perhaps Brexit has always been there, a key part of the identity that polite white society has never wanted to acknowledge.
The re-issuing of Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain in 2018 is therefore timely, with its inconvenient truth for 1950s and 1980s nostalgists. Its usefulness in highlighting parallel histories within Britain, with invisible, unconscious apartheid, will both shake any white patriot of their complacency, while drawing the sting from the shock of Brexit. Yet this is also a book of heroism, of resilient women determined to survive against a rigged system that endures to this day. As both tribute and a warning to the kind of Brexit society that's never been far from the surface, this is recommended reading.