When I was thirteen years old, a family friend was making a trip to Jamaica. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was dying of cancer, and she thought the UK was toxic for the health of Black people and wanted to go ‘back home’ to see if her condition would improve. As a parting gift she gave me a well-thumbed copy of the book I Write What I Like by Steve Biko. The book literally changed my life and still shapes how I view the world and specifically why I see Black British literature as so important.
Possibly the most famous quote of the entire book is: ‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’
It is this one quote that beautifully sums up why ensuring we have literature from all different groups in society is not just ‘nice to have’ but a fundamental human rights issue.
Literature is how we share ideas, values, beliefs and even our culture. It is through this sharing of ideas that our minds and beliefs are shaped, and it is ultimately how we stop our minds being the ‘weapon in the hands of the oppressor’ Biko talked about.
It was this underlying philosophy that made Lenny Henry and me bring together prominent Black British figures to contribute to the book Black British Lives Matter.
Each chapter explores why Black British representation is important in every aspect of British life and why we need to champion the unique experience of Black British people.
And so, with that in mind please find ten books that I believe highlight the importance of Black British lives and in their different ways help all of us free our minds:
I Write What I Like: Selected Writings
Steve Biko was one of the most important figures in the anti-apartheid movement, both as an organiser and as a thinker. His writing was critical to the Black Consciousness movement and, I believe, is still critical today to understanding issues around race and racism.
This Mournable Body
This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020 and is the final instalment in one of the most beautiful African trilogies. It asks the difficult questions that can seem so pertinent to anyone who has lived in a society blighted by racism or a colonial and post-colonial society; what happens when hard work isn’t rewarded and life loses hope?
If we believe Black British literature matters, it is imperative that I highlight at least one book by Helen Oyeyemi. Oyeyemi was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013 and has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards. In Peaces she tells the story of of two people on a mysterious train journey that takes them on a magical journey but never loses its own internal logic. A story that in many ways confounds description but is an essential read.
I once heard someone describe the international bestseller Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki as a ‘deal breaker’ if someone describes it as their favourite book on a date. I might not go that far, but I must confess management books and personal motivation books usually leave me a little cold. Real Wins is different. Here, Moore combines personal narrative with brilliant observations about race and racism and wraps it all up in her area of expertise – sport. The result is a one-of-a-kind motivational Black British book that is a brilliant read.
Access All Areas
Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder
Ostensibly the book retells Lenny Henry’s personal and political journey as he endeavours to make British media more diverse. Published the same week as the storming of the White House, the book is an essential read if we want to understand race and the obstacles that hold Black people back beyond the simple narratives of ‘nasty racists’.
Dear Senthuran – A Black Spirit Memoir
In editing Black British Lives Matter with Lenny Henry, one of the overall messages that came across is that there is not a single Black experience, and we are heterogenous in our outlook and beliefs and values. And this is why I love (although don’t always agree with) Akwaeke Emezi. To say the author does not shy away from difficult topics and a good fight would be an understatement. If Dear Senthuran was a boxing fight, it would be a series of knock-out rounds that can sometimes leave you a little punch drunk. An amazing and important book.
Long Way Down
I love graphic novels – through the beautiful mixture of narrative and art they can often cause you to pause in a way the traditional form of the novel can’t. But when it comes to Black representation, they are often lacking, which is why Long Way Down is so important. An extraordinary book that won almost universal praise, this is a must-read for anyone who, like me, loves graphic novels or is looking for an intelligent introduction to the form.
House of Lords and Commons
As a person of Jamaican heritage who spent many childhood summers there in the 1970s and 1980s, it is sometimes difficult to convey the country’s beauty and tranquility with its history of violence and even occasional political unrest. Reading Hutchinson’s work, I am now convinced that the best way to bridge some of these contractions is through poetry. A wonderful collection of poems in which the writer is able to illuminate themes by concentrating on the specific, a specific that also gives an insight into the Black diaspora.
Black British Lives Matter
Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder
Born out of the global Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 this collection of essays explores why and how Black British lives matter and are important, moving beyond a simple reaction to the racism Black people are subject to. Each chapter is written by a prominent Black British figure, from Baroness Doreeen Lawrence to David Olusoga, explaining the importance of representation in various professions and walks of life. As Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder write: ‘Our lives are far more interesting and important than the forces that try to limit it.’
Black and British: An Illustrated History
As the father of a young Black British boy, this is one of the most important books I bought in 2021. The essential guide for anyone who wants to learn about Black British History, it is written for the young reader, but I would challenge any reader (of any age) not to learn something new from this book. My only criticism is that the illustrations are so beautiful, I just wish I could find out where to buy prints to decorate my son’s room now.