I came across this electrifying memoir many years ago when I was researching forgotten literature about black Britain. Its original title, N***** at Eton, was so provocative, I wondered why I’d never heard of it. (It is now being reissued as A Black Boy at Eton – an editorial decision made to ensure that there were no obstacles to people wanting to read and talk about this book.) I managed to locate a second-hand copy and discovered that the author, Dillibe Onyeama, a Nigerian, had been a pupil at Eton College in the Sixties, and that almost as soon as he matriculated, he wrote about his experiences there. I started reading, and the story he had to tell was so gripping and shocking, it wouldn’t let me go.
This is no ordinary memoir, because Eton has embodied and emboldened Britain’s class system for hundreds of years and spawned 20 prime ministers, including the two most recent male PMs, David Cameron and Boris Johnson – a worrying contradiction to contemporary beliefs about class and social progress.
Into this establishment hothouse of 1,200 boys –with its archaic traditions, rigid hierarchies and a culture of corporal punishment whereby older boys are authorised to beat their juniors – arrives 14-year-old Onyeama, who becomes only the second black African to attend the school.
The son of a Nigerian supreme court justice, who was later appointed a judge of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Onyeama is the progeny of a powerful and prosperous man, although this makes no difference to how he is perceived and treated by his fellow pupils, who throw the full weight of anti-black racism at him throughout the four years he attends this ultra-elite boarding school. It’s hard not to be horrified at what he endures or to be outraged on his behalf. The imaginations of his peers have been cultivated to see black people through the imperial prism of the racial phenotypes and stereotypes that were concocted to justify the transatlantic slave trade and the British empire. Instead of attempting to engage with Africa’s multifarious nations, cultures, languages and belief systems, its people were conveniently written off as thick savages who nonetheless possessed impressive physical prowess.
Within this context, Onyeama is never allowed to be just another boy at the school. When he doesn’t perform well academically, it is to be expected, and when he succeeds at sport, it’s taken for granted. Further, when his grades are good, he is singled out for special attention because his classmates believe he has overcome the intellectual limitations of being black or, in some instances, rumours spread that he has been marked leniently to compensate.
Interestingly, for those who argue that, because racism was rampant in the Sixties when Onyeama was at the school, this isn’t exactly news, it’s worth noting that the author, who arrived in Britain from Nigeria at the age of eight, did not suffer from the same level of abuse he encountered at Eton while at his previous British schools.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is that, while he is clearly a sensitive boy who becomes attuned to all the nuances of racism he encounters, Onyeama is also a formidable fighter, literally and figuratively. Rather than submit to oppressive forces, he defends himself and thus manages to maintain his dignity, even though it often provokes more of the same.
Published in 1972, four years after he left the school, this is a remarkably well-written memoir, especially by someone still maturing into adulthood. With events fresh in his mind, the author has the fluent facility to bring them to life with drama, passion and energy. Somewhat sadly, however, without the benefit of hindsight and still very close to his material, he is also terribly tough on himself, to the point where you want to take him aside and commend him on how he navigated such challenging circumstances. Reading about his early experiences – of familial dislocation while still in Nigeria at a young age before migrating alone to Britain, where he finds alienation and victimisation – makes it easier for us to understand and empathise with his predicament.
One hopes that the persistent dehumanisation of someone on account of their ethnicity would be unthinkable today within the British education system. Onyeama was not treated kindly by many of the boys, and while superficial friendships were formed, the “vicious little Caesars”, as he describes them, come across as a mob of feral bullies who put him through hell. They are the savages who will one day become Old Etonians, with all the status, privileges and networks this bestows. One wonders how many of these future “masters of the universe” will have gone forth into the nation and infected it with their insular sense of class and racial superiority from influential positions in politics, the judiciary, media, finance, the sciences, academia, arts, banking, business and the armed forces.
When N***** at Eton was first published, Eton’s then headmaster, Michael McCrum, banned Onyeama from ever visiting the school again. Rather like the Catholic Church, its violations behind closed doors should not be permitted to tarnish the reputation of such an august institution. After publication the book soon disappeared, although Onyeama reissued it in Nigeria after he returned home. The author of many books since, he helped to set up Delta Publications (Nigeria), before eventually becoming its CEO.
Fifty years later, the British journalist and writer Musa Okwonga, of Ugandan parentage, published his own memoir about attending Eton in the Nineties, One of Them (2021). By then, the overt racism of earlier eras had gone underground, and it was only many years after he’d left that Okwonga learnt about the racial aspersions cast behind his back by his classmates. During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, when many institutions were challenged on the murky pasts they’d rather remained hidden, the current headmaster of Eton apologised to Onyeama for the abuse he’d encountered half a century before. Okwonga reflects that the bigger issue for debate, about which Eton has always remained silent, is that “the history of the British empire is intimately connected with the history of Eton”.
Yet the past is never dead when we are alive to resurrect, interrogate and reinterpret it, and we must always strive to hold to account those who cloak themselves in moral rectitude and glory while refusing to acknowledge the source of their wealth, prestige and power. Dillibe Onyeama’s story about landing in the hostile environment of Eton College is a personal one, but the questions it raises have much wider repercussions.
“A Black Boy at Eton”, introduced by Bernardine Evaristo, is published by Penguin on 3 February
A Black Boy at Eton
Penguin, 272pp, £9.99
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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed