Words by Eric Barrell
This year, the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd marked the biggest civil rights movement the world had seen in decades. In the UK, it pushed forward a reckoning with this country’s colonial past. October is UK Black History Month, and this overview of four books published or nominated for the Booker Prize in 2020 will focus on books related to Black History across the diaspora.
Black and British: A short, essential history –by David Olusoga
A new-edition of award-winning broadcaster and historian David Olusoga’s best-selling 2016 book, Black and British: A Forgotten History covers Black History in Britain from the Roman Conquest to the present day. Hitting the bookshops on October 1st, this edition is illustrated with maps, photographs and portraits. 50p of each purchase will be donated to The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise which addresses the lack of Black British History in the UK Education System. Indeed, the book is being reprinted with illustrations to encourage younger readers after calls for greater education on racism and Black History in UK schools after the events of this year.
Whilst Olusoga’s 2016 book goes more in-depth, the 2020 Edition is great for less-avid readers still eager to learn about this important topic. The book highlights all kinds of important Black Britons from the trumpeter at the court of Henry VIII, the work of abolitionists-such as Olaudah Equiano in abolishing the slave trade, and the many black soldiers from across the Empire who fought for Britain in both world wars. Olusoga’s comprehensive approach means a more in-depth focus on particular individuals is sometimes lost, but the book still gives a great overview of an often-overlooked yet integral part of the thousands of years of this country’s history.
This Mournable Body-by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel is the last in a trilogy about the life of Tambu, a woman dealing with life’s hardships amidst the challenges facing her country of Zimbabwe over the past 50 years. Tambu first appeared in Dangarembga’s 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, an account of a 1960s childhood in Rhodesia during the war of independence. Tambu is a complex and at times morally dubious protagonist, which makes the novel more compelling. This Mournable Body deals with the theme of balancing morality with survival, as Tambu struggles to make ends meet after leaving a prestigious copywriting job because white colleagues took credit for her achievements. The novel deals with the divisions in Zimbabwean society between the wealthy white minority and the black professionals striving to make a living in the capital of Harare; and the further division of new values emerging in the modern city versus the moral traditions of the country’s rural villages.
Dangarembga paints a dazzling picture of this divided mosaic: describing the nightclubs where people of all races dance happily until a fight starts, or the abandoned grand houses in Harare’s bourgeois suburbs; now rotting and overgrown with weeds. Despite Tambu’s struggles making her way, This Mournable Body puts forth a message of the importance of kindness; and not losing your sense of right and wrong whilst you try to make your way in the world.
Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography-by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton
Published this September, Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography captures the life story and 3-decade career of Britain’s first black female MP. Considered a trailblazer of progress and an icon of Labour’s socialist wing by many on the left, she is also one of the British right’s most disparaged and divisive figures. This biography is based on interviews with both her political colleagues and opponents, friends from childhood and university days, and extensive archival research. Diane Abbott’s life is charted from her childhood in Harrow, the daughter of working-class Jamaican immigrants.
She attended the local girls’ grammar school and went on to read History at Cambridge University. Initially elected to Westminster City Council in 1982, she became the Labour Party (and Britain’s) first black female MP when she won the Hackney North & Stoke Newington constituency in the 1987 Election. She has held this position ever since, making her the longest-serving black MP in the UK Parliament. Considered a radical backbencher for many years, she voted against her party on the Iraq War and pro-nuclear weapons bills under Tony Blair’s leadership. Then, in 2015, she was appointed shadow home secretary after Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour leader. Whilst this biography is primarily a political one and does not go into much detail on Abbot’s personal life, it gives valuable insight into the cultural context of racism, leftist and antiracist activist movements, and the UK Labour Party- from the 1980s to the present day.
The Shadow King–by Maaza Mengiste
Another novel on the 2020 Booker Prize Shortlist, Maaza Mengiste’s captivating story about the women soldiers in the Ethiopian war against Italy in the 1930s is partly based on her family history. Mengiste’s grandfather and great-grandmother both fought to defend Ethiopia during the second Italo-Ethiopian War. The novel focuses primarily on two women; Aster: a glamorous, middle-class lady grieving the loss of her child, and Hirut: an orphaned young woman who becomes the live-in maid to Aster and her husband Kidane. When Kidane goes off to war during the 1935 Italian invasion led by Mussolini’s fascist government, Aster refuses to just wait at home for his return. In addition, although Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie has gone into exile in England, a man named Minim emerges. Although he is soft-spoken and mysterious, he bears a striking resemblance to the missing Emperor. When dressed in a makeshift uniform and sat on horseback, he is propped up at the back of battlefields to inspire the Ethiopian troops. This is the novel’s eponymous Shadow King. As the story of the war unfolds, Mengiste fragments the narrative so that the reader is not just following Aster’s journeys through the mountain battlefields in her husband’s tunic and cape, her maid Hirut by her side. Mengiste weaves in other perspectives to this wartime story, including moments from Selassie’s perspective while exiled in Bath, and the descriptions of the documentary photography of the Jewish-Italian soldier Ettore. In capturing these different perspectives, The Shadow King looks at this period with fresh eyes; delivering an enthralling story rich with complex characters to inform a new generation about a key point in African History.