Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
Available on Goodreads
My rating: 4.5/5
A great choice for anyone looking to get an overview of black British history, Black and British provides insight into Britain’s historical relationship with black nations and people, and explores these relationships as part of a larger, global picture. And, in exploring history, it imparts understanding of some of the racial dynamics and ideas, as well as the racism, which exists today and how they evolved.
In Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga examines the long and eventful relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa and the Caribbean. It tells a story which reaches back to Roman Britain, to Elizabethan ‘blackamoors’, and to the global slave trade. Black and British also tells of the reliance of the British industrial boom on American slavery, of the parts played by black people in wars Britain has fought, and other aspects of history which highlight just how entwined black people are in the economic and cultural history of the nation.
Expanding knowledge and understanding
Early on in Black and British, Olusoga provides the disclaimer that certain depths of the history and about historical figures discussed are not explored in the book due to the large timeframe and “broad canvas” which it covers. However, from the perspective of someone whose knowledge and understanding of the history of black people and Britain was limited prior to reading the book, it provides a wealth of both.
Despite my limitations in this area, I did know a little bit about black British history from my school days and media. One of the most notable topics I was aware of was the “triangular trade” and Britain’s role in it. Where areas such as this were concerned Black and British built upon my existing knowledge.
Considering slavery and the slave trade, the book helped me to see and understand the bigger picture. Beyond the general machinations, key dates, and the few groups and figures I already knew about, Black and British made me aware of how the Atlantic trade came to be, the sentiments of the general British public towards it and how sentiment changed with time, and of the fact that Britain was merely one part – though quite a large part, for some time – in the global issue of slavery. Additionally, reading the book allowed me to gain further insight into the efforts it took to achieve abolishment, by people both black and white.
And, I learned plenty about black British history otherwise, including the origins and evolution in the meaning of the term “Uncle Tom”, which is now “a pejorative shorthand for a black person unable to stand up for his own life and in thrall to white power”; black figures notable in British history for their actions, talents, and positions; the treatment and perceptions of black people by white Britons and how these changed and evolved with time; and the forms which racism has taken in the country, ranging from minstrelsy and human exhibitions to targeted violence and aggressive policing, to the hatred of interracial marriages and children.
There were areas which I had hoped to find out more about which weren’t covered in as much detail as I would have liked, most notably to me Britain’s colonisation of Africa, but this was reasonable and somewhat expected considering Olusoga’s earlier mentioned disclaimer. Colonisation is among many aspects of Britain’s history which deserve and warrant exploration separately and in detail. Helpfully, in regard to topics such as this and other points of intrigue, Olusoga’s book includes a bibliography and endnotes to direct readers to other sources which can aid them in achieving more extensive exploration.
Personally, and for the most part, Black and British met and in some ways exceeded my hopes as to what I would get from reading it. Besides learning more about black British history, a key factor in my decision to read the book was the opportunity to better understand existing racial dynamics and racism. Through its explosion of history – including Olusoga’s personal history – as well as its brief look at the present day, Black and British helped me to do just that.
I may still have some questions, but I think the book had provided me with a good foundation of knowledge and understanding and left me in a good position to further build upon these.
On images, layout, and structure
Throughout Black and British, there are sections of images depicting some of the people, places, scenes, objects, and so on which Olusoga discusses. I appreciated these pictures as in multiple cases they depicted imagery which I couldn’t imagine for myself, and may otherwise have had to research myself for clarification. In other cases they offered a welcome window into the past, often adding further humanity to the topic by allowing me to see for myself the people and situations which I was reading about.
However, I did have a minor issue with the layout of the images. Presented in groups and positioned at various places throughout the book, the images weren’t always in proximity to the text which they were relevant to. In some cases, this meant I saw the images before I was reading about them or that I had long passed the related text before I saw the image. Additionally, the image sections always came mid-sentence.
These factors together made reading Black and British awkward in places, as upon flicking through the images I would find my mind wandering to what was to come or having to think back to place images into the context of what I’d previously read. Then, once I’d gone through all the images, I would have to orient my thinking back to the topic I was in the middle of reading about before I stopped to take a look at the pictures.
However, as I said, this was a minor annoyance. Also, despite the above-mentioned setbacks associated, including the images in this manner does have its benefits. A primary benefit for me is that the grouping, along with the fact that the pictures are printed on slightly thicker and white paper which stands out from the rest of the pages in the book, makes the images easy to find and flip through. As a result, I can easily access them to provide me with a quick reminder of some of the topics covered in the book and whereabouts they may have been discussed.
Black and British doesn’t include a timeline of key events and moments discussed, which was a disappointment for someone like me with a terrible memory, especially considering the wide span of time covered. Importantly, a timeline or another device may have made it easier for me to locate where throughout the book particular topics are discussed would allow me to direct myself more easily to the relevant further sources referenced in the book. Or it could simply help me find the right place to reacquaint myself with a particular topic.
Fortunately, the images as a prompt may act as a remedy to the lack of timeline or another device. Additionally, the book is written in chronological order, excluding the introduction and preface, and the chapter titles could also act as memory prompts. However, how effective this will be in helping me find the location of topics throughout the book remains to be seen. I will say that it’s only been a couple of weeks since I finished reading the book and I’m already drawing blanks when I read a few of the titles of flip to certain sections of the book.
Overall, I found Black and British to be an eye-opening and informative read. It not only filled gaps in my knowledge about black British history, but it also opened my eyes to just how integral black people and countries have historically been to Britain, in a history that stretches further back than I had known. Moreover, it’s helped me to start gaining a better understanding of present-day issues and matters relating to race and racism in Britain, by revealing where the nation has been and how it got to where it is now. To anyone looking to expand their knowledge in similar ways, Black and British is definitely a book I recommend.
If you made it this far, I hope you found this review helpful at the least, and at best were encouraged to read Black and British.
Those of you considering reading Black and British may or may not know that the book accompanies a four-part BBC series. I haven’t yet watch it, but I have downloaded it to my Sky box. If/when, I do give it a watch I may or may not decide to write a blogpost about it. Follow my blog and keep a look out if you’re interested.
If it’s not on the BBC series, my next post on the topic of blackness and Britain will be my review of Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging which, if you follow my blog, you will know I decided to read for the same reasons I chose to read Black and British. Given that I found Black and British difficult to get through – because go figure, the historical experiences of black people have not been entirely happy – I may take a bit of a break from serious books before I make a start on Brit(ish). Again, follow my blog and keep an eye out for that review.
Regarding this current post, don’t forget to share your thoughts on my review, the book, and/or the related BBC series, down in the comments.