Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

From “The Unknown Hour”

A new poem by Ben Okri, on Brexit and our times.

It is often the question in life
Whether or not to stay or leave.
It could be said to be one
Of the fundamental things we believe.
History began with staying or leaving.
But a long time we stayed in the garden.
Time enough for celestial history
To ripen, the long breathing of the completion
Of that cosmic task. There was no time
In the garden. Not clocks, nor necessity,
Nor referendums presided over our ancestor’s
Indefinite stay. There was no choice to leave;
Only a deed obscured behind a deed forced
The angel to send us out. And history,
Some say, is the secret effort to try
To get back. Some say there would be no
Evolution without our being thrown out.
But being thrown out is different
From leaving. To leave is a voluntary act.
It is a severing, a disowning, a cutting off.
No one who knew the wars and misery
And the untold and untellable suffering
Of life outside the garden would have left
Voluntarily. This is of course a metaphor.
Not to be taken with the fine edge of the razor.
To want to leave Europe is not the same as
Leaving Eden. For Eden, they say, was perfect,
And nothing afterwards can ever be. Only
Degrees of imperfection, degrees of beauty,
Degrees of agreeable possibility, scope for
Growth and mutual growth, space in which
To help one another on the impossible journey
Back to the rose garden, is maybe the best
That we can hope for. Those who sell one thing
Or other as the perfect dream always sell a lie.

I think we grow best through mutuality.
The world grows more complex. Outside
The windows of our nations, greater forces
Swell and array their ranks in finance and in arms.
As they grow bigger, we grow smaller.
It was the unwise fate of African nations
That they huddle vulnerably under their isolated
Flags. Easily picked off by plunging eagles.
Easy prey. Justice on this earth demands
A new balance of forces against the secret
Armies gathering in the night. Weapons
Of evil shuttle across borders in the dark.
Terrorism has become the ordinary language
Of our broken speech, the shout of those who
Want to compel others to bow to their book or creed.

An invisible line connects us all and everything
Is now linked in tears and in pain. No longer
Is there a room in which we can hide our head
From the bombs and the curses and the violence
That is the air of our times. A problem here scuttles
Across seas and borders and no high walls or policed
Boundaries can return the prestige state of nations
To their innocence ever again. We have entered
The age of migrations and mass migrations,
Of the breaking across borders and of wars that send
Whole populations shifting the fragile territorial
Geography of the globe into something unrecognisable.
The vengeance of the lost garden is ours all at last.
There is no other way out of it than back to what
The garden meant that we have forgotten.
The garden was always one.
Now we are millions, our ways are millions,
Our dreams fragmented. But the garden was one.
And only in the return to the one can there be
Any peace in the fury of history. Broken and divided
We are all doomed and merely waiting for unknown
Forms of destruction which time and the consequences
Of all our deeds and dreams will perfect.
Everywhere nations are breaking away from larger
Nations. Fragmentation. Fragmentation. No
Future in fragmentation after fragmentation.
Those who stay together as one, uniting
Their diverse gifts, making beauty out of chaos,
Begin to reverse the entropic trend of life
After that mythic garden. To fall is not to fall
From space or height. It is to fall from unity,
From oneness. But it is easier to walk out
Than to work it out. Easier to fall apart
Than to stay together. The romance of independence,
Of freedom, is stronger than the truth of unity.
That is why it took us no time to fall
And all of history and future history
To return.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

Show Hide image

Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist