The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer may have taken place thousands of miles away, but his agonising cry – “I can’t breathe” – reverberated in the UK, too. In fact, it became the catalyst for the largest wave of anti-racist protests in British history, taking place in more than 260 towns and cities last summer.
These protests were very much rooted in the British experience. Demonstrators carried handmade placards with the names of black Britons killed by the British police; they demanded justice for members of the Windrush generation threatened with deportation and the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire; they decried the high Covid-19 death rate among communities of colour. Statues were toppled, streets renamed and venerable British institutions such as the Bank of England were forced to reckon with their ties to the slave trade. A year later, Black British Lives Matter, edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder, takes time to reflect on this extraordinary movement.
The book comprises essays from 19 prominent black figures, including the historian David Olusoga, the architect David Adjaye, the Labour MP Dawn Butler and Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen. It is an effective primer for those keen to understand why Floyd’s death drove hundreds of thousands of people to the street. The essays offer a 360-degree portrait of the black British experience, taking in health, the criminal justice system, politics, art, journalism, business and education. They interweave the writers lived experiences with their expertise.
This is expressed most powerfully in Lawrence’s essay, Black British Mothers Matter. She writes about how the tragic events of 22 April 1993, when her 18-year-old son was murdered by a gang of racists, have defined her life since. She had just turned 40. “I am aware that to many people I am ageless,” she writes. “I am ageless in the way that people in the public eye often are frozen in time by a single event … I am also ageless because people don’t always see me as human.”
Her tireless battle to get justice for her son, and force the country to confront the reality of racism, has transformed her into a symbol, but this has also dehumanised her. “And I need you to remember my essential humanness and the essential humanness of all Black mothers,” she writes. This plea to recognise black Britons’ humanity recurs throughout the book, from Marverine Cole’s account of mental ill-health, which deconstructs the devastating consequences of the “strong Black woman” stereotype, to Ryder’s closing essay, which describes his own horrific encounters with the police.
So large is the political crisis to which the book is responding that some of the essays only manage to scratch the surface of their subject, while others at times feel repetitive. But what the collection occasionally lacks in depth, it makes up for in range. There is certainly enough variation in style and approach to keep the reader interested.
The essays are most effective when the authors use their experiences and expertise to address a specific problem. Butler laments the smattering of black and Asian representation in overwhelmingly white institutions such as parliament, arguing that, as a result, minorities can easily be pitted against each other. Too often there is “one person of colour to argue for a policy that would deny their own parents entry into the UK versus another politician of colour arguing for policies that would benefit other people of colour”. A “critical mass” of black politicians would avoid this.
It is clear, though, that the response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests must go beyond just representation. Protesters called for the dismantling of racism and vowed to weed it out of society. In Olusoga’s chapter, which is an interview conducted by Henry, the historian admits this surprised him. “It never occurred to me that it was even possible. And maybe I’m right and they’re wrong, or the other way around. The fact is I put limitations on what I thought was possible; I always presumed racism would always be here, that it was a given.”
Perhaps that is what makes this moment critically important, and what makes the breadth of experience reflected in this collection justified: whereas we have become used to simply asking for space to breathe, our imagination has now been expanded. We see that not only is a new world possible, it is ours to win.