Those of you who have been following my hopefully endearingly shambolic adventures into YouTube &/or the universe of books will know that I have fallen, of late, into what I might ill-advisedly call a theme: that of race, or racism. I have recently done ‘reviews’ of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking…” as well as Layla F Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” and now I’m into David Olusoga’s excellent contribution, “Black and British – A Forgotten History”.
This is not to say that I’m entirely lumping them together as a single subject – that would be offensively crass, right? – but there are unarguably significant crossovers between the three books and therefore it feels reasonable (enough) to gather them in for some reflection. Having said that, I’m only posting the “Black and British” review here; if you want the rest go find my #YouTube channel or delve deeper into earlier posts on this platform.
It was a specific, particularly deep conversation around the ideas of radicalism and liberalism/illiberalism which sparked off this blog, mind, prompting the foolishly urgent need to de-clutter my own head of this, if I may?
I know, I know. I should stop doing this Under-rehearsed Brain-dump Thing; it’s indulgent and inevitably error-prone. But I don’t mind risking embarrassment or worse and frankly it feels more honest to be flailing around with the possibility for self-exposure adding a little edge to the proceedings. And this fear of saying the wrong thing seems especially pertinent, here.
I have a friend who spars with people, more often and more challengingly and with more insight than anybody else I know. He is therefore a tremendously invigorating bloke to be around. Saw him coupla days ago and because we rattled into Deep Meaningful Stuff around socialism/liberalism, campaigning/activism, Eddo-Lodge and What You Can Actually Say, this post – originally just a review of sorts of the Olusoga – is in danger of becoming a rounding-up of wider themes. With the usual apologies for the usual, unattractive stream-of-consciousness, let’s crack on.
David Olusoga I like. Great TV work plus I love his punchy, witty, take-no-shittery on the twitters. Daily if not hourly, he completely dismembers dullish white blokes who think they’re being Pretty Reasonable, Actually. Crucially, he does it with some real wit.
“Black and British – a Forgotten History” is a weighty and accomplished book, of immense scope, covering stories that the author thinks add significantly to our understanding of what it has meant and what it still means to be Black and British. I say this because it strikes me Olusoga makes great choices about what to cover and makes no bones about swerving biggish chunks of what might seem to be essential if that material is covered well or comprehensively elsewhere. So I certainly learned stuff; enlightening, revealing, fascinating, poignant stuff as it were from the fringes. Hence the subtitle “Forgotten History”.
One example: I’m not sure I knew anything about Charles Wooton, and yet you will see (if you bother to click on the video) that the story of his desperate hustle through the streets of Liverpool – so compellingly told – was absolutely central to my experience of and learning through this book. What Olusoga calls Wooton’s ‘lynching’ is both horrifying and a little familiar; the evil of murderous racism on our streets feeling uncomfortably close, to me, in this era of race-fuelled, hate-filled populism.
There is much else to say about this very fine history book but I am content enough that my flawed review grabs a hold of enough of the thing to persuade you to read it, if you haven’t. “Black and British” is simply a 9 out of 10-er; intelligent, readable and with a tremendous historical/social-political scope. Get on it.
But hey, that conversation. In a kitchen in Bristol, appropriately enough, given Olusoga’s connections to, and work within, that fascinating city. I’m with my mate, the Dangerously Brilliant Mind. (Hey if you read this, ****, forgive the intrusion(s): massively respect your intelligence, integrity and… we ‘ave a larf, too, right?)
Don’t remember what sparked off the particular line of enquiry – probably an opening exchange in which we spoke about recent reading – but we soon got into his ‘specialism’ around political/philosophical convictions.
Hilariously, on reflection, this was about 9 am on a Saturday morning, after I’d stayed over with the family. And yes we were socially distancing as far as possible.
**** is a profoundly good, honest, caring man; hard to categorise entirely, politically but certainly not a right-winger. He does, however, have an intellect which is so penetrative and well-armed with reading and with knowledge that it feels austere. (This is not a criticism: it’s an acknowledgement of his fierce brilliance – which I have said, is bloody invigorating).
He has come to identify as a liberal rather than a socialist, in part because he is appalled by narrow, clubby, deliberately intimidating politics from The Left. ****, (who is broadly lefty), thinks there is a kind of evil in the meanness and acute tribalism amongst the Activist Left, whom he would argue, seem to hate what we might call ordinary Labour supporters more than they hate Tories. In fact, maybe they hate everyone who isn’t them?
Of course this is what Tories and Centrists have typically argued so again I put on the record that neither of us fall into those categories. My Bristolian comrade feels it simply ain’t viable to support alongside or with this group – and he does support the majority of ‘Labour Causes’. In short, the illiberal nature of some ‘core lefties’ offends him.
We talk about this and I’m not disagreeing. Then, because we can get into controversial territory and ver-ry frequently do, **** (who is no racist, no right-winger, no mug) expresses concerns about some of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s contributions, in her own field of activism. Is her important work – the books, podcasts, public advocacy – nevertheless in danger of suppressing legitimate debate because by accident or design it may be closing down or narrowing viewpoints towards a kind of puritanical activism? (Should add here that a) my pal has read and listened to Eddo-Lodge and b) that both of us are fair-minded enough and wise enough to appreciate the obvious dangers, re- Middle Aged White Blokes failing to get the ironies currently circling and blowing their klaxons).
We do know that overhelmingly it’s Black Voices that are oppressed. Both of us have and do support anti-racism. And we are not so weak-minded as to be saying all activism is kinda fascistically predicated on nastiness and brutal, exclusive oppositionism; activism is necessary, is wonderful, is essential.
**** is I think merely making the argument for intelligent, humane, broadly inclusive campaigning. He makes a bold, contentious point and I have some concerns about these views but am also clear that I have felt conflicted about whether or not to Say Anything… because I’m a White Bloke!
More ironies, possibly, but I think I am on here and Youtube doing this stuff despite knowing my voice is less important, less relevant to this discussion than a black voice might be – and arguably has less rights(?) – but also because, conversely, it feels wrong to shut up for fear of committing some transgression. White Angst? You bet. But part of my real experience.
I fully understand that the last couple of paragraphs may either seem perverse, or worse; racist. I already regret that I’ve probably conflated leftiness with Black Activism; this does all of us a disservice. Maybe I will go back and edit, or maybe just re-offer the thought that this sense that something ‘illiberal’ and possibly injurious can associate itself with activism – particularly, perhaps, when there is understandably acute anger in the mix.
This has little to do with the review posted below… of a really good book which I heartily commend you all towards. My de-tour has been about how we try to oppose social and political evils – which we must, urgently, together – whilst maintaining as much of our human generosity as we can. But hey, read the books!