I’ve always sensed that Britain is racist. Discovering the extent of that racism, mainly by learning about this country’s violent colonial past and involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, has disturbed and angered me immensely. The wilder and more violent Britain’s treatment of Black people becomes, the more I doubt it will change. It’s been said time and time again that racism is part of the fabric of British society. How do we fix this? Is revolution still possible for us?
Yes, it is, according to Dr Kehinde Andrews, author of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. Dr Andrews is also an activist and professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University.
*Disclaimer: I received a copy of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century from the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Back to Black talks readers through the history of black radical politics, drawing on the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Pan-Africanism, Rastafari, Afrocentrism, Black Lives Matter and the Haitian Revolution to reimagine what black radicalism might look like today. In eight chapters, Dr Andrews discusses various aspects of black radical ideology. He breaks down Black radical movements in detail, exploring what made them effective, where they fell short and their legacies. The author shares what we can learn from past and present movements if we want to overcome the racist system that oppresses Black people globally. The book mentions several notable black radical figures and organisations including The Black Panthers, Marcus Garvey and Assata Shakur. Unsurprisingly it is Malcolm X’s ideas whom Andrews references and supports the most.
“There is no healing for a broken people while the system that breaks us is left intact.”
Dr Kehinde Andrews, Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century
The author’s writing is sharp, assured and witty at times. He’s not one to hold back and I love that he says exactly what he means. I appreciated the directness of his words, particularly when he spoke about the depths of Britain’s imperialism and racism, and the psychosis of whiteness. The book contains many concepts but the author presents the information in a way that’s accessible and easy to follow. The book drew me in from the first chapter and I was fascinated throughout. I had to pause every so often and re-read certain passages to make sure I fully understood them because it was my first time being introduced to some of the concepts being discussed.
My favourite chapters were ‘Pan-Africanism’, ‘Cultural Nationalism’, ‘Liberal Radicalism’ and ‘Black Survival’ as these provided me with the most food for thought. ‘Cultural Nationalism’ made me reflect on how I engage with and express my cultural identity as a Black person. Reclaiming our culture, while it may make us feel good, is not a revolutionary act. I, for one, am guilty of adopting this mindset in the past. In the author’s words, “Calling yourself African, wearing Kente cloth and celebrating Kwanzaa is a lifestyle choice and not an achievement.”
In ‘Liberal Radicalism’, Dr Andrews explains the problem with striving for what he calls a ‘symptom-free racism’ society. As Black people and people of colour, we know that society oppresses us and many of us want to make our existence within this society as comfortable and pleasant as possible. We would rather not have to see the effects of racism so often. However, the author argues that it’s no good focusing on the symptoms of racism. For us to be free from racial oppression, we need to cure and eradicate the disease itself.
Throughout the book, Dr Andrews shares personal experiences and anecdotes from different points in his life and career that help provide context and illustrate certain points. He speaks honestly about his position as a Black academic and the struggle of trying to be a radical while in this profession. Universities have historically been and remain racist institutions. According to the author, this is a reason why “black academics are as problematic as black cops.”
Having more Black and brown faces in predominantly white spaces means nothing if those spaces are institutionally racist at their core. Dr Andrews uses Barack Obama’s presidency as an example of this, but the Black and Asian MPs in Britain’s Conservative Party also come to mind. Again, this was a bitter pill for me to swallow as I often find myself seeking black representation and visibility in many things, then critiquing those things when I don’t see it.
Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century is a bold book full of home truths that will be uncomfortable, yet vital, for some to hear. Dr Andrews’ words encourage us to reclaim Black radicalism while reminding us what real change looks like and, more importantly, what it doesn’t. Black people will never truly be free until the systems that oppress us are overturned. This remains true even if we remove ourselves from the system or try to integrate into it. It’s often hard to believe that the system can change. Back to Black will spur you into action and, at the very least, shift your perspective(s) on Black radicalism. Written with hope and a sense of urgency, Back to Black assures us that revolution is still possible, but we must fully commit to it.
My rating: 9/10.
Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century by Kehinde Andrews is published by Zed Books.
Further reading: Top 10 books about black radicalism by Kehinde Andrews