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Natives

Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire

By Akala
13-minute read
Audio available
Natives by Akala

Natives (2018) melds memoir and polemic to explore race and class in contemporary Britain. Drawing on his own experiences while growing up poor and Black in London in the 1980s and 1990s, musician and writer Akala crafts a vivid portrait of a society that systematically robs Black citizens of opportunities. Why, he asks, is Britain like this? As we’ll see in these blinks, answering that question takes us deep into the history of slavery, empire, and racism. 

  • History buffs
  • Radicals and reformers
  • Brits and Anglophiles

Akala is a hip-hop artist, writer, activist, and entrepreneur. As a musician, he is best known for his award-winning breakthrough album It’s Not a Rumour and his 2010 follow-up DoubleThink. Akala is the founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, a theatre production company that explores the parallels between contemporary rap and Shakespeare’s writing. Natives is his first book. 

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Natives

Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire

By Akala
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Natives by Akala
Synopsis

Natives (2018) melds memoir and polemic to explore race and class in contemporary Britain. Drawing on his own experiences while growing up poor and Black in London in the 1980s and 1990s, musician and writer Akala crafts a vivid portrait of a society that systematically robs Black citizens of opportunities. Why, he asks, is Britain like this? As we’ll see in these blinks, answering that question takes us deep into the history of slavery, empire, and racism. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Caribbeans arriving in Britain were met with a racist backlash.

At the end of the Second World War, Britain was exhausted, indebted, and in physical ruins. It also faced a labor shortage. To get back on its feet, it needed workers. 

Despite its wartime losses, Britain still possessed a vast empire. In 1948, it passed the British Nationality Act. This gave anyone born in a British colony the right to settle in Britain. With the encouragement of the government, Caribbean subjects bearing British passports began landing at Tilbury, a port near London. 

This was the “Windrush generation,” a reference to the name of the ship that brought many Caribbeans to Britain. They saw themselves as equal citizens who had come to help rebuild the war-shattered “mother country.” But that wasn’t how white Britain saw them. 

The key message here is: Caribbeans arriving in Britain were met with a racist backlash.

Between the late 1940s and 1960s, around half a million Caribbeans arrived in Britain, among them Akala’s grandparents. They quickly realized that stories they’d been told about the mother country weren’t true. 

Britain, for one thing, was full of poor white people. Out in the colonies, whiteness had been a sign of power and wealth. The only white people many Caribbean subjects had seen before coming to England were members of the imperial elite. Imagine their surprise, then, when they first saw a white man sweeping the street. It was absurd. What was this Britain? 

But this wasn’t the only surprise. Caribbean arrivals had been told that they’d be welcomed as heroes. They were shocked when they were met with hostility instead. Akala’s grandfather, for example, remembers that he was regularly called racial slurs in public within a week of setting foot in the country. As his new neighbors saw it, he wasn’t helping rebuild the country – he was a freeloader who’d come to steal “their” jobs or even “their” women. 

How had white Britons come to this conclusion? Well, no one had tried to explain to white Britain that the popular welfare state then being built was in large part supported by revenues raised in colonies like Jamaica. Nor were they told that the people who’d produced coffee, tobacco, and gold in those colonies, and who were now coming to Britain, weren’t “immigrants.” They were British subjects like anyone else in the country.

In the absence of such explanations, hostility to Britain’s Black citizens only continued to grow. 

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