Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly book tag that was run by The Broke and the Bookish but has now moved to That Artsy Reader Girl. Each week she provides a different bookish theme those deep-seated desires to list! Anyone is welcome to join in on their blog, in the comments or any other way.
This week’s prompt for TTT was actually “Bookstores/Libraries I’ve Always Wanted to Visit”, but as it’s Black History Month in the UK this month I wanted to give you all some recommendations for that instead. Last year for a TTT prompt on favourite British fiction, I shared a list of diverse British fiction in response to the numerous lists which focused overwhelmingly on whitewashed and middle-class Britishness.
A few weeks ago, when I posted up my Black History Month TBR a commenter said that they hadn’t known that we had our own Black History Month in the UK. I also remember when I attended a book event for Angie Thomas where she spoke about the shock that a lot of Black Americans felt when they learned that there were Black people in Britain. Given the whitewashed media output of Britain which focuses on actors like Keira Knightley, Kit Harrington, and Benedict Cumberbatch and shows/films like Downton Abbey, that isn’t surprising.
Adapting my list from last year to focus specifically on Black British fiction, I hope that I can shine a spotlight on the fantastic works by Black British authors as well as the extensive and rich histories of Black people in Britain.
1. East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle
In 2016, I wrote a blog post for a History module on the Brixton Riots in 1981 and came across the work of Alex Wheatle. Wheatle himself participated in the Brixton Riots and which he dramatized in his book, East of Acre Lane. Through the character of Biscuit, a young black man, Wheatle provides a fictional lens which transports us back to 1980s Brixton. The Brixton Riots are a key part of British history and as someone is from Brixton, I am always keen for other people to learn more about it. Wheatle has also been a prominent voice in challenging the erasure of Black British authors in the media.
2. House Music: The Oona King Diaries by Oona King
House Music is the memoir of Oona King, the second black woman to be elected to Parliament. It provides a candid personal account of her 10 years as an MP in the House of Commons, giving an insight into the life of a black female MP, and the struggles she faced trying to balance a life in politics with wanting to also have an actual life.
3. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvin
First published in 1956 and written by Trinidadian author Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners was one of the first publications to focus on poor, working-class black people in Britain following the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1948. It explores the lives of West Indian immigrants who come to Britain post-WW2 hoping to establish new lives but are faced with cold weather, bleak prospects and a frosty reception. In combating their isolation, many immigrants formed close-knit communities full of love, laughter, and life.
4. The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Memoir by Aminatta Forna
An intimate memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water gives a moving and vivid account of an African childhood and her family’s exile in Britain following her father’s political career against tyranny in Sierra Leone. In attempting to uncover the truth of what happened to her family, Aminatta interrogates the inexplicably intertwined relationship between Britain and post-colonial Africa.
5. Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman
Fairytales for Lost Children is a collection of short stories about gay, lesbian or transgender Somalis living in Somalia, Kenya, and England, and is written by Diriye Osman, a gay Somali-British author. Whilst not focusing on England exclusively, it’s a highly rated collection which explores displacement and queerness.
6. Small Island by Andrea Levy
Adapted for British television in 2009, Small Island is about the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants who move to Britain after the Second World War. It’s a wonderfully written book, split across 4 different perspectives – Jamaican immigrants Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, and white British landlords Queenie and Bernard Bligh – and explores the hostile welcome that many Black immigrants faced when arriving in Britain, their struggles to settle in, and interracial relationships.
7. Benjamin Zephaniah
No list about Black British History or Black British writers would be complete without including Benjamin Zephaniah. His importance and influence cannot be understated and, as such, it’s impossible to choose just one of his works of poetry, plays, and fiction to feature here. The message to take away is that you need to read many of them! I remember Benjamin visiting my primary school when I was about 7/8 and it’s a memory that has always stayed with me.
8. Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie
Irenosen’s debut novel and winner of the Betty Trask Award in 2016, Butterfly Fish is a beautifully written story which juxtaposes everyday London life with African folklore. Feeling like an outsider in London especially after the death of her mother, Joy finds herself drawn to the brass warriors head from Benin that she inherited from her mother and starts experiencing visions of another woman’s past. Butterfly Fish explores love, loss, family secrets, political upheaval, and hope.
9. Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
I will never stop recommending this because it’s honestly amazing. Olusoga’s work breaks so many assumptions about British history. Reaching back as far as Roman Britain, Olusoga re-examines British history to reveal the long, rich history of Black people shaping and living in Britain as active participants. As someone who studied History and has witnessed the lengths that academics will go to wipe Black people out of British history, this book is a vital contribution to combating that.
10. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack by Paul Gilbert
Another highly influential Black British writer, Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack is a much beloved and referred to text. Published in 1987, it held no qualms about exposing and challenging anti-Blackness in Britain and how British racism had become embedded within our national culture. An explosive book that is sadly as true today as it was when it was originally written.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this recommendation list that I’ve put together. It would be great to see more bloggers – both British and non-British – talking about and celebrating these important books, as well as those written by other fantastic Black British authors.