Words: Florence Robson
Black History Month has become a modern tradition – and one that this year feels more vital than ever. However, perhaps because of its origins in the USA, there has been a tendency in years past to focus on Black history as it relates to iconic American figures and events, while ignoring the stories and struggles of those closer to home. Read on for our recommendations of some of the best non-fiction books on Black British history, from an essay collection about the Windrush generation to accounts of the lives of Black people who made their homes in Tudor England.
1. Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2018, this book tells the remarkable story of Africans who lived free in Tudor England, transforming how we tend to see this much-discussed period of history.
2. Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
‘Black and British’ is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to challenge their narrow notions of the past. Olusoga begins in the Roman era and speeds forwards, drawing on genealogical research, original records and expert testimony for a comprehensive and fresh account of British history.
3. The Louder I Will Sing: A Story of Racism, Riots and Redemption by Lee Lawrence
Lee Lawrence’s mother, Cherry Groce, was wrongly shot by police during a raid on her Brixton home when Lee was only 11. For the next 30 years, Lee fought to get the police to recognise their wrongdoing. His compelling and uplifting memoir shines a light on the underlying racism beneath many of our most important institutions.
4. Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
The Windrush generation made the long journey across the sea to Britain, expecting to find a place where they would be welcomed with open arms; this book tells the reality of their experiences, and those of their children and grandchildren, through 22 real-life stories spanning more than 70 years.
5. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack by Paul Gilroy
Published in 1987 to immediate uproar, this powerful and explosive book accused British intellectuals and politicians on both sides of the political divide of refusing to take race seriously.
6. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch
You’re British: so why do people keep asking where you’re from? Afua Hirsch’s book is both a personal story and a sweeping exploration of Britain’s imperial past. Written in Hirsch’s trademark warm and wise tone, this is an accessible and vital depiction of Britain’s national identity crisis.
7. The New Cross Massacre Story by John La Rose
The New Cross Massacre Fire took place on 18 January 1981 at 439 New Cross Road, claiming the lives of 13 young black people who were enjoying a 16th birthday party. One other party goer died a year later and 26 of the revellers suffered serious injuries. This pamphlet, originally published in 1984 and reprinted 30 years on, sets out to tell the full story of the massacre and the subsequent battle to get justice for the bereaved families.
8. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer
‘Staying Power’ is a landmark study of Black British history; published in 1984 and starting with the sentence “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here”,, it paints a picture of 2,000 years of Black presence in Britain. Fryer’s ground-breaking book is an excellent foundational text to read before delving into many of the other options on this list (and beyond).
9. The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James
In 1791, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, the slaves of San Domingo rose in revolt. Despite invasion by a series of British, Spanish and Napoleonic armies, their twelve-year struggle led to the creation of Haiti, the first independent black republic outside Africa. Only three years later, the British and Americans ended the Atlantic slave trade. These remarkable events come to life in C.L.R. James’ classic work.
10. Tribes by David Lammy
Lammy’s rich account of the tribalism gripping British politics is both fascinating and galvanising. Drawing heavily on his own experience as the Member of Parliament for Tottenham, Lammy asks necessary questions about how we can mend our divided society.
11. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
If you’ve not yet read Eddo-Lodge’s immensely successful handbook on race relations in modern Britain, now is the time to do so. Looking at everything from white feminism to the connection between class and race, and brilliantly researched, this book sparked a national conversation for a reason.
12. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
Akala is a BAFTA and MOBO award-winning musician but is just as renowned for his political commentary. In ‘Natives’, he shares the myriad ways in which race and class have shaped his life and outlook, from being stopped and searched as a child to dealing with racist teachers. It’s a difficult read at times but his disruptive and incisive critique of white fragility is essential reading.
If you’re in London and looking to pick up any of the books above, why not swing by New Beacon Books, the UK’s first black publisher and book distributor, to browse their selection?
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