BOOK REVIEW: Politics of identity: one woman’s quest to discover her roots
BRIT(ISH): On Race, Identity and Belonging
Penguin Random House
It is likely that Afua Hirsch’s book was an event. Conducting the research, writing the book and dealing with its aftermath may have changed her life. This is an inevitable afterlife of a memoir.
In the years after she published her memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water, Sierra Leonean writer Aminatta Forna found she had almost become public property. Forna encourages memoir writing, with the caveat: “Only if you are sure you want to live with the consequences every day for the rest of your life.”
Hirsch’s book, which is part memoir, autobiography, political commentary and history, is an easy read with a difficult subject. Her prose is elegant and simple. The subject, on the other hand — broadly cast as identity politics — is complex and often presented in a very clumsy way.
There is some truth in the claim that all politics is identity politics. It is also true, however, that across history, the most unjust political systems — such as apartheid or the Holocaust — and the contemporary persecution of the Roma in Italy and the Rohingya in Myanmar, started with identifying “others”, and then dividing or destroying people, families, and communities on that basis.
As an account of a Londoner, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging provides great insights into Hirsch’s life and times, woven superbly into history and society. To anyone who has felt the full force of oppressive systems driven by racial exclusion, she offers little new or original. Others may get insights into the 2011 riots in Tottenham, and the Boy Scouts.
The search for identity or origins can be harmless, but approached with romantic idealism it can be somewhat ignoble, tending to go in search of differences, purity and nativism, and when none can be found traditions are invented.
In the opening passages of the book, Hirsch details her sheltered childhood in Wimbledon, an “oak-tree-lined London borough, with Edwardian houses laid out methodically”. It was a “soft and silky childhood, with treats, adventures, absorbing school work and intense friendships, challenges that I embraced and seasons that I loved”.
“It was the perfect place to raise a family, in all but one respect. I had a brown skin, an African name, hair that coiled tightly, knotted and frizzed when brushed, and never flopped around my face….” The child of a European man, whose mother was English and father a Jewish refugee from Germany, and a Ghanaian woman, Hirsch’s book details the search for her African identity.
She describes identity as an intersection of two sets of ideas. One is “a personal set of characteristics that make up an individual, the things we consider relevant in making us who we are”. The other is “a social one, denoting characteristics shared with others in a group, a sense of belonging, and membership to a social category, community, tribe, faith or nation”.
Hirsch repeats the belief that “you cannot do anything until you know who you are”, to which she adds the bold assertion: “Belonging is a foundational human need.”
A better understanding of the fundamental needs of humans is probably the search for food, shelter and clothing. Beyond that, there is unreflexive, post-modernist middle-class privilege, or, as social media dramatists may Tweet, #middleclassproblems.
Another difficulty is her unquestioned and terribly romantic loyalty to Barack Obama. As Hirsch writes, he “represented me”. That Obama dropped bombs and initiated targeted assassinations on other “dark-skinned” people gets little or no treatment in Brit(ish). That Obama deported tens of thousands of Latinos, not unlike the British government treated the Windrush generation, seems to matter naught to Hirsch. She “loved him” because he was mixed-race and the son of an immigrant.
Across the book, Hirsch makes resonant connections between her time at Oxford University, the Rhodes Must Fall movement and the drive to make curricula less white and Eurocentric. There are marvellously textured observations about slavery and abolition, colonialism, conquest, the erasure of indigenous communities, of customs, traditions and family life in Ghana. These help situate her journey to find her origins, and define her identity in West Africa.
In Senegal she realised “very decisively” that she was not Senegalese. In Ghana she expected to feel more at home. The story she tells about Elmina Castle, “the place where a million human tragedies unfolded” in the holding cells that kept African slaves in captivity, is important.
Like most literary works, there are inconsistencies and contradictions in Brit(ish). A bugbear is Hirsch’s insistence that she is “simply interested in facts” when the very idea of identity and sense of belonging are pretty much based on beliefs and values.