Akala on race, class, culture and Camden
In his new book, the rapper/poet/philosopher examines how race and class have shaped life in Britain. Dan Carrier says we could all learn a thing or two from him
19 July, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Akala: ‘If there was anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place’. Photo: Alexis Chabala
IT is easy, poet-philosopher Dr Kingslee Daley aka Akala, writes in new his book, to forget that the curriculum we are taught at school is not the “result of some universal abstract truth but rather the designs of actual human beings like me and you”.
In Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, part personal memoir merged with a wide-ranging consideration of the “social, historical and political” factors that have shaped Britain today, assumed truths are dissembled with guile and wit. The purpose of this book, he says, is to examine how race and class have impacted and continue to shape our lives and he takes us on a historical journey that is both shared and personal.
Britain, he argues, has two competing traditions: “one rooted in ideas of freedom, equality and democracy and another that considers these words as mere rhetoric to be trotted out at will and violated whenever it serves the Machiavellian purposes of power preservation”.
Akala outlines a Camden childhood in the 1980s – “if there was anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place” – and describes the experience of being a young black Londoner in an era of neo-liberal triumphs and of entrenched racism.
He speaks of the prejudice he faced as a child. “Some of my white middle-class teachers made my school life extremely difficult and penalised me for the very thing they should have been nurturing – my intelligence,” he says.
His memories of school in the 1980s – he went to Brookfield and Acland Burghley – are mixed: he recalls being bullied by some adults (“my very first teacher was annoyed that I was a ‘know it all’, apparently,” he writes) and outlines the type of heartbreaking treatment he suffered.
But he also recalls those who helped him – the “countless teachers and community activists gave me the tools for navigating life’s roadmap”.
Akala remembers being seven years old and stepping into the junior school. His mother had a row with his new teacher, a man Akala does not mention by name but those of us who went to Brookfield (it is my former school) will recognise as the Anglo-Polish weightlifter-turned-teacher Andy Drzewiecki.
Akala’s mother’s argument at the start of the new term with Andy altered the parameters of the relationship between Akala and the school system.
“He had a talk about the problems I had been having; a conversation that ended with my mum agreeing to volunteer to come in on selected days to help children with their reading so she could keep an eye on me and be of use to the school as well,” he says.
The effects were dramatic. “My new teacher took such an active role in trying to unpick damage done to my self-esteem and attitude to school that he changed the entire course of my relationship with formal education.”
Chapters range from such recollections to a question-and-answer session, where Akala poses various lines he has shoved in his direction and dissembles them: “Stop playing the race card”, “You have a chip on your shoulder”, “Why don’t you just go back where you came from?”, “You are anti-British”, and various other nuggets of nonsense that, as an intellectual black man who has earned a platform, he often has to contend with.
In other sections, he takes to pieces preconceptions of the black man as some kind of genetically advantaged athlete, using the prism of Linford Christie and the 100m sprint.
He explains the paradoxes in a national memory that sways between a sense of pride for being part of the abolitionist movement to Britain’s empire and continued abuse of others.
He considers the British establishment’s hypocritical approach towards Nelson Mandela and compares it to their attitude towards Fidel Castro, and looks at issues in post-apartheid South Africa – namely the continued ownership of the means of production by a tiny section of the population.
Akala discusses the relationships between black American and British cultures, seen through music: he shows how such topics are linked. By feeding the reader different strands of thought, he considers the interconnectedness of race, class and culture and how it has shaped the world we live in today.
Whenever I see Akala on the TV or internet, hear him live or on the radio (or now having read his latest book), I can only hope that as many people as possible can be exposed to his learnedness, his ability to help you to look at what you thought was an accepted statement or situation and critically evaluate it.
We need Akala’s voice to ring out loud. This is a work of scholarly excellence, and is extremely entertaining. It demolishes accepted ideas that for too long have been a bedrock in the teaching of history and our understanding of what our nation represents. Everyone who is a member of Camden’s diverse “petri dish” should hear him identify our strengths and weaknesses as a community, and offer ways to improve it.
• Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. By Akala, Two Roads Books, £16.99