Book Review: ‘Natives – Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ by Akala

Akala book cover 2

Blogger’s note: I first read this inspirational book when it came out, two years ago. It feels even more relevant now.

Summer 2018

You may know Akala through his rap music. Or perhaps you’ve heard him on television speak on issues such as race, class or multicultural Britain. I came to Akala through Shakespeare: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to teach to a class of fourteen-year-olds. I was looking online for a starter, something to ease us in.

A TED talk appeared: Akala, on stage asking the audience to identify the author of various lines. Were they written by Renaissance poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, or rappers from the modern age?

The audience were buzzed. As Akala spoke out the lyrics, it became harder and harder to tell: Was this iambic pentameter? And if it was, who was more likely to use it – a 16th century white bard of the English literary canon or the Wu-Tang Clan?

The effect on the class was electric. Suddenly Shakespeare wasn’t stuck in the past, but current. The beauty of his language paralleled by some of the great contemporary poets of our age – rappers, spoken word artists – beside whom Akala had raised him.

To call Akala’s new – first – book, ‘Natives – Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ a polemic, as some have already suggested, may be to underestimate the scope of his work. ‘Natives’ is a challenging book. It pokes at the parts of British society which we prefer to push under the carpet, or periodically glorify through sport or nostalgia or public parade. Namely, our history as colonial oppressor and the effect it has had, not only on our relationship to ‘race’ in the UK but also on the inequities within the British class system.

Part personal biography, interwoven with an exploration of British society and its history, ‘Natives’ manages to marry a retrograde look at the writer’s own life with a deeply incisive examination of the history of class and race in the UK.

The strength of the book lies in the writer’s almost forensic self and societal examination, his need to know, share and understand the forces which have both formed him and threatened to destroy his life and that of those around him.

Kingslee James Daley (later, self-named, Akala) born into a working class North London family, with a Scottish mother and Jamaican father, places his own experience at the centre of the narrative. Early in the book he outlines why he has rooted his intellectual arguments in the context of his own history; this book will not pretend to be objective because even the most stringent academic study is not so. We are, all of us, standing somewhere on this Earth, with our own perspective. And Akala’s is enlightening.

His story is one of struggle – in that he has survived an early childhood of financial hardship, familial split, sustained racism from school and society while also managing in large part to transcend these difficulties as a well-known rapper, poet and political activist.

It is also a story of cultural enrichment:

‘I went to mathematics masterclasses,’ ‘I spent time in the black bookstore and outside of Dalston station debating politics with the nation of Islam,’ ‘I visited my great-grandfather’s grave and got a real sense of my family heritage.’

Akala refuses to oversimply, eschewing stock ideas or pat generalisations on the subject of race and class in 80s and 90s Britain in favour of honesty.

‘My schooling, like everything else in my life it seemed, was an entanglement of contradictions.’

The racism of one teacher towards the young Akala is harsh and overt.

‘Now I felt only rage and hurt. I knew that she did not like black people but I had not fully grasped the extent and depth of her hatred before that day.’

So acute is this writer’s memory, his skill in laying bare the facts of his existence, that he is able to carry the reader into a world that many in Britain would have witnessed only as bystanders, unaware of the personal and lifelong implications of such pervasive injustice.

On the nature of covert – often unconscious – oppression, Akala is outstanding. It is not just institutionalised racism which was born of our imperial past, he argues, but the divisions of class which have been scored more deeply, creating a society not only of haves and have nots, but one which blames those who try to break out from such a set-up.

As its title suggests, Akala’s book ascribes many of our current societal ills to the continued presence in British daily life of our imperial history:

‘…its legacies are so clear and visible and because unlike the Spanish, Portuguese, German or Japanese Empires it still sort of exists, albeit in attenuated form as second fiddle to the American Empire, despite what our free press likes to pretend.’

It is Britain’s acceptance of ‘hierarchical difference’ which is the book’s main beef against this legacy:

‘The fact remains: no one colonises another group of people out of love for them.’

And here lies the core of his argument. The appalling injustice still inherent in a society which seems incapable of looking back and owning its colonial past.

This book reads as an extended request for reflection. About suppressed narratives, and the dangers of typecasting social groups based on the responses of a minority of people to injustice.

‘Natives’ might serve as a helpful primer for a forgetful nation on the subject of its own history and identity. An opportunity to examine the wrongs of the past, the human rights violated by a knee-jerk failure to address the subject of British imperialism and its modern-day effects on people of all backgrounds, particularly those at the sharp end of societal injustice.

Akala’s book is a red flag, an extended song of protest, in this current ‘Brexit/’post-Brexit’ era. It asks us to examine some of the most basic notions about who we are – as the ‘English’, as Brits – as a people, and how we might decide to move forward towards a more reflective and equitable society, given our imperial past.

Beyond the soundbites of a disappointing national debate about Europe, ‘Natives’ could serve as a springboard to a proper discussion in a country in need of deepening its engagement with ideas around race and immigration, social class and access for all to the basic and cultural resources our isles have to offer.

It’s time we Brits talked about our history – not just kings and queens or how we won the war but the other parts: the shame of plunder and forced governance, the truth of what it means to have been the coloniser. This author has provided the perfect platform from which to begin. In the words of the writer who took me to Akala’s work in the first place:

‘Do it, England.’

Fly like Eddie

squirrel

You know it well, yearn for it, are driven by it. You even smile when you hear its name. You’ve chased it, occasionally found yourself in its flow.

Perhaps you’re a writer stuck at a strange juncture, or an artist on the border of showing your work. Whatever your passion, this thing you’re working on illuminates your world, matters more than almost any other thing.

When you got stuck and it seemed to leave your grasp, what did you do? Wait for its return, give up, walk away?

Eddie ‘The Eagle’, English ski jumper, was driven by a persistent voice when he decided to put himself forward for the Winter Olympics in Calgary.

‘Go,’ said the voice, ‘It’s what you must do’.

Eddie was a novice, a non-sporty child who had only recently gained full use of his legs. But the voice did not let up and neither did Eddie. He trained alone, travelled far, supported himself with other work, ignored the advice of detractors. Eddie kept his eye on the ball.

The film about his life makes much of Eddie’s outsider status. Socially, he drinks milk. Eddie has none of the fancy gear, nor the cultural confidence of his nordic counterparts. His ski-jumping coach has a questionable attitude.

But what Eddie possesses is tons of grit. He persists because he is absolutely in love with the sport. We see it in his eyes as he watches his rivals’ skill on the television. We sense it in the resolve behind his decision to leave England to train.

To have passion for something is wonderful, but to pursue that passion undaunted by setbacks can bring great beauty into the world.

The film ends with these words:

‘May the real work begin.’

The Real work. Passion’s tireless companion. May all people working creatively find a way to marry the two. The passion and the grit.  May we learn to fly like Eddie.

 

This post was in part inspired by the work of my blogger-friend David J. Rogers who writes for artists and writers about the psychological skills required for success.