Afua Hirsch: Forged Identities

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Afua Hirsch opened her talk by reading her new essay in the Freedom Papers, a series of 50 essays commissioned by the Book Festival on the theme of freedom and published as a supplement to the 18th issue of Gutter Magazine. Reading it to a background beat gave it a taste of spoken word dub poetry. Her personal story outlined in her Freedom Paper essay is a distillation of the ideas in her book Brit(ish), which gave us a useful overview of the issues to be debated. Journalist and author Chita Ramaswamy was a calm, measured and insightful chair and the conversation naturally flowed. Hirsch’s talk, quoting from author Toni Morrison that the ‘personal is the political’ invited us to see the connection in the struggle to understand and construct a clear identity as a mixed-race British woman with the need to debate and understand the ramifications of Britain’s history as an imperial power.

She began by deconstructing a common but well-meaning phrase from white friends and associates, the supposedly reassuring “We don’t see you as Black.” Attempting to pinpoint the source of discomfort embedded within such a comment highlights that Blackness itself is associated in our mainstream narrative with poverty, criminality and backwardness. As issues of identity are key to political movements such as Brexit, she underscored the link between the current rise in fascism and a sense of threat to constructed white identities that are based on falsehoods. The infamous Enoch Powell, famous for his incendiary ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, could speak Urdu and longed for lost imperial grandeur, and she used this as a prime example of how imperial nostalgia can feed directly into racism. Powell’s musings that someone of West Indian or Asian heritage will always be viewed as ‘Other’ in a majority-white country is something that is sadly all too common today.

Both Ramaswamy and Hirsch agreed that the freedom to choose British identity is a fragile one; subject to the political whims of the ruling elite and the groundswell of feeling in the country as a whole. Although the extreme violence and hostility that previous generations of Black and Asian immigrants had to suffer has eased, institutional racism hasn’t gone away. Hirsch postulated that the new battleground is in the freedom to self-identify, particularly for those who can’t easily fit into a rigid category. Ramaswamy said that she greatly appreciated Brit(ish) for clearly articulating such common experiences for people of racialised and complex identities in Britain. Hirsch is pleased to see that space is finally opening up for discourse on these matters in Britain, but it’s certainly not an easy ride. She shared anecdotes of being invited to speak on The Pledge on Sky News, and attempting to avoid debating race when pitted against hostile white and right-wing commentators determined to invalidate her experiences of racism in Britain. She spoke of the exhaustion in continually fighting for one’s experience of racism to even be recognised as a legitimate reality. She shared the great effort involved in channelling the emotion that’s continually provoked by recalling disturbing experiences into the resources necessary to make points in a more cerebral way. Chita agreed that as a fellow journalist and middle-class British woman of colour, one is often accused of playing the victim and expected to remain silent when meeting a lack of empathy over the impact of continual racist slights.

Hirsch has been very courageous in exposing her personal story to potential attack by narrow minded members of the old white elite clinging to an outdated narrative. Some feathers are bound to be ruffled by exposing the hypocrisy of situations where British citizens, even those born here, are often made to feel like they don’t belong in a place they consider home. Although surprised but comforted by the overwhelmingly positive reception by readers, she’s observed two types of negative trends in the reactions to the book by pundits. Firstly, contempt, exemplified in a scathing review of her book by a Times journalist, strongly implying that she was attacking the country of her birth and upbringing. She wryly commented that at least a review of this nature removed the last shred of doubt that these archaic viewpoints are still very much in our midst. The other was gratitude, or more specifically, annoyance at the supposed lack of gratitude by British-born and bred second-generation immigrants to the county where they have been ‘allowed’ to live by a tolerant, benevolent majority. The outraged reaction to the Windrush scandal across the spectrum was bolstered by stories of “good immigrants”; because post-war Caribbean immigrants and their families had earned their right to stay with hard work and positive contributions, rather than the simple fact that people arriving in Britain at that time were not only invited here by the British government, but already legally classified as British citizens.

She spoke of her personal family history, which is outlined in depth in the book, and how grateful, in fact, her Ghanaian grandfather was to have the opportunity to go to Cambridge and raise the bar for the perception of African people at that time. There was no luxury of failure! She spoke of a strange coincidence when investigating local history; discovering that the windmill close to her childhood home in Wimbledon was where Baden-Powell wrote his Scouting Bible. The irony of this lies in the fact that he aided in the destruction of Kumasi in Ghana that turned some of her own family members into refugees. Even those handy survival tips he’s famous for he had learned directly from Ghanaian forest guides. A prime example that demonstrates that history framed as simply local in a country with such a huge imperial footprint will have often have complicated global connections.

This should be of interest to all, and be fully part of our education system. Yet Afua has been in the centre of the complex controversies developing around the issue of statues and what they represent. National heroes such as Nelson and Churchill are generally remembered in a one-dimensional way, as she developed in depth in her recent documentary ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes’. The mention of their more unsavoury attitudes and acts creates severe cognitive dissonance in those who cling to false binaries. She quoted a figure of 70% of British GDP coming from sugar grown on slave plantations in the Caribbean, but without the time to delve into the complexities of the effects of colonialism on our relative national economies, that statistic had nothing to ground it. At least that tidbit may have at least given some audience members some necessary food for thought. As Hirsch had mentioned, some conservative forces wish for History at school to be a celebratory subject. However, if we decided as a nation not to gloss over or omit the more difficult issues, we would do well to also celebrate those who fought for freedom from all forms of oppression.

Lisa Williams

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