Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire (Akala)

Okay, a confession: I thought about dropping the book, a couple of times. It’s not that it’s not well-written, because it is (one of the best I’ve read actually). It’s not because it isn’t relevant; it’s been relevant for the past three hundred years. No, the problem is that I’ve been reading a lot (and I do mean A LOT) about race over the past year, so when I started Akala’s book, I think I started with a few preconcieved notions about what I was getting into, and for the most part I wasn’t surprised: it’s a brilliantly-researched, honest, opinionated, and occasionally bitter read from someone who’s elevated himself out of a place where white privileged society told him he belonged. I think the problem was that I was expecting the kind of jaw-dropping revelations that Isabel Wilkerson came up with in Caste, and I’m sure that there would’ve been a few, if I’d read this one first.

But this book is about growing up in Britain, where I grew up, at a time where in-your-face racism was pretty much a daily norm, which was when I grew up too. And that’s why I stayed with Natives; it was familiar, it was recognisable, it was tragic. You just sit there and nod … yeah, there was a lot of nodding. Akala tells it from his personal viewpoint, detailing how his experiences growing up were shaped by Britain’s history of colonialism and her centuries-long involvement in the slave trade. There are quite a few references (and again, it’s an involved read because they’re all worth investigating), but not as many you might think; this is more of a biography than an indictment of British culture, and for that reason I think many more people might find it approachable, even while their sensibilities are offended.

As I said, first and foremost, Natives is a personal journey, and while I found myself disagreeing with a few of the author’s views, I nevertheless found it engaging and thought-provoking, once I let go of my preconceptions.

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