Black, Listed Book Review

This is a book that dives into black identity with wit and charm. Jeffrey Boakye manages to provide insights into the black British experience with masterful prose; often playful, but always informative and relevant. He somehow manages to diverge from his chapters with useful insights, or humorous streams of consciousness, whilst keeping it on topic. It’s all cleverly done. For what could be a heavy topic, Boakye, engages throughout. You can tell that he is also an English teacher.

The first chapter, entitled Official Descriptors, attempts to wade through the variety of labels given non-white people: Black, Black British, POC, Ethnic Minority, Afro-Caribbean, African, African-American, Mixed Race, IC3, Working class, Immigrant, BAME/BME. I find identity simultaneously captivating and mind-boggling. One wants to be accurate but not too general. I think that in a truly post-racial world, the construct of race will not even be necessary. If anything, this plethora of labels we ascribe to different groups suggests we have some way to go. My favourite section, was on the term mixed race:

I’m no scientist, but five seconds of thought tells me that everyone on the planet must be kind of mixed race. As a species, we’ve simply moved about too much for too long for any other conclusion to be viable. Go back far enough in your genetic photo album and there will be some unfamiliar faces smiling back at you.

He follows up later in the chapter with a similar succinctness on the idea of the exoticisation of mixed race-ness, referring in part to Meghan Markle (little did he know when writing that she would be the source of much racist vilification by the right-wing press a little while later). He writes that even though it “Sounds like progress, celebrating the unification of different, previously opposed, races,” We perhaps shouldn’t celebrate too early. He says: “Love treads a fine line with infatuation, introducing the fifth big problem in our mixed race journey: fetishization”. He quotes a writer Anjali Patel from her list of ’18 Things Mixed Race Girls Are Very Tired of People Saying To Them’: “We are not pretty racial salads here for you to gawk at. We are human beings. Move along.” What I can take away from this chapter is that, although an appreciation of different identities is useful, defining people is not always useful or necessary.

One of my favourite chapters was Boakye’s chapter on historical descriptors. His observations on the black experiences are in-depth yet creative. In his analysis of Shakespeare’s Othello he points out that Othello’s blackness cannot save him. Indeed, he points out that ‘His outsider status not only obstructs his full integration into mainstream society but also obstructs his acceptance of himself. When he first starts to distract Desdemona, the first thing he attacks is his own complexion.’ And, when reflecting on his own identity, he points out, in his typically astute way,

This is the tragedy of being black in white contexts: that it can lead to insecurity, self-othering and ultimately self-destruction. That it listens to the poisonous whisperings of white suspicion. That it doesn’t trust itself because it seeks white approval.

I wish I could quote all the latter half of this chapter. The personal reflections of black-excellence, with particular attention to his encyclopaedic knowledge of black artists (he has written a book on this) is wonderfully relevant. What sums it up nicely though is his final line:

“This chapter is dedicated to every black person reading who lives with the pressure to demonstrate excellence just to get by.”

Boakye also bravely and openly discusses derogatory terms that have been used throughout history. In my opinion, the willingness to put his discomfort to one side to discuss what must be a challenging subject, puts him up there with other great antiracist writers and activists. He challenges so many of the pervasive names used predominantly by the right, as well as presumptions made by many other white people, with such assurance and clarity. Following on from a piece about Scary Spice, he writes:

As a nickname, ‘Scary Spice’ speaks volumes of the normalisation fears surrounding black intimidation that persist all the way into the millennium. Blackness is frightening to white sensibilities, making black people scary by default. Intimidation, it would appear, is in the eye of the beholder.

Another thing that Boakye does not shy away from things that may seem too political. He actually states that he did not want this to be a political book and, on the whole, it is not explicitly political; it is accessible and brilliant. But he still uses his responsibility to raise the awareness of bigger problems, without intimidating the easily intimidated. Importantly, on his explanation on the word badman, he calls out the structural racism that puts black men into boxes. “The badman concept supports a narrative that racist ideology has constructed since black migration spiked in the UK – that black men are a dangerous threat to mainstream safety.” He quotes a statistic from the Prison Reform Trust that black prisoners account for the largest number of minority ethnic prisoners (at 49%) and that “Black men gets perceived as bad men and get treated as such, contributing to a tragic cycle that black boys too often find themselves trapped in.” It is a sad yet unavoidable fact that a country’s perception of other people goes some way into defining them, whether they want to or not. Going back to a previous point, black excellence is the way out of this trap. In a society that aims to be equal, it simply isn’t fair that some people have to try harder to be successful. This point came up again and again in last month’s book, Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible. Clearly having to work twice as hard just to fit in is not restricted to black men or black women.

I’d like to end this review in the way Jeffrey Boakye ends his book: with advice on what we can do.

Black people have a responsibility, to speak up and engage, he says, and he uses an emotional interaction with the mother of Stephen Lawrence to make his point. She is now an MP and has devoted her life to improving the lives of black people after her son was murdered in a famous case that exposed institutional racism in the police force and the wider community. Personally, I don’t think it should fall to black people to correct the wrongs made by white people, but I see his point. The bit that is perhaps most relevant to me (and you?) is his advice for white people.

We’re surrounded by hipsterism now… The problem is hipsterism doesn’t have a cause. It’s only vaguely countercultural and it’s hopelessly tied to commercialism… It stops short of real engagement with black history and heritages of black intellectualism.

Basically, he is saying, engage. And do it sincerely.

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