I’m an avid reader of non-fiction. I thoroughly enjoy taking a peek at other people’s lives and, more importantly, learning something new about the world we live in. Usually I’ll have a fiction and a non-fiction book on the go simultaneously and it won’t take me long to get through them. I hoover up books with the same enthusiasm that our dog reserves for any food that hits the floor, and I’m a remarkably quick reader (it’s my superpower). But Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain took me ages – and I mean weeks – to get through.
First published in 1985 and winner of the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize that year, The Heart of the Race is a testimony to the collective experience of black women in Britain and their relationship to the British State throughout its long history of slavery, empire and colonialism. It’s a thought-provoking and honest record of what life was and is like for black women in the UK and packed full of tales of grandmothers duped by the promise of the ‘mother country’ in the 1950s, forgotten women whose hard work during periods of industrial triumph are largely rewritten from a predominantly male – and white – history, and stories of school-age girls whose futures are viewed with less importance than their counterparts.
But it’s by no means a gloomy book. Celebration is intertwined with a narrative of struggle, like a single gold thread through a knot of rope, and black – particularly black female – culture is lauded throughout. There are tales of every day working women’s commitments to their families and jobs and a real sense of communities trying to create a new sense of social order in this country.
However, it’s a dense read. It’s not a particularly large text (spanning 273 pages) but rather its subject matter is weighty. It has an academic rather than anecdotal voice which, at first, I found difficult to follow. But perhaps that’s the point? It’s not a quick read to be scoffed down like a bag of crisps but a rich text we’re supposed to savour and think about long after the last page is turned. At multiple points I had to put the book down and Google something interesting I wanted to read, eager to learn more about huge, important chunks of history that have long been omitted from our collective narrative.
It’s also worth remembering that, aside from the recent addition of a forward, the text is more than three decades old. Non-fiction has evolved into a completely different genre in recent years (hello, creative non-fiction) and it’s simply that I am more used to the pithy, quick-witted stories that cropped up rather than something that resembles texts I read in my university days.
The Heart of Race is an extremely powerful book and has been described as a “testimony to the collective experience of black women in Britain”. I found that I wanted to know more about these stories and the real people included in its pages.
The forward is written by an English teacher and columnist from The Guardian, Lola Okolosie, and highlights the book’s importance in a world that is, quite frankly, not changing quickly enough. The injustices, struggles and stories are present in modern society – but so is the activism, the tenacity and the passion to speak up. “It is a text pertinent to now,” writes Okolosie, simply because it documents the successes of those who have come before despite a “system of intractable sexism and racism”.
Stories are important and stories are powerful, and The Heart of Race tells these tales in an intriguing and human way.
If, like me, you’re a fan of non-fiction then I’d recommend The Heart of Race. Be warned though, it’s not light bedtime reading. It requires us to think, to ask ourselves questions and to rage at the world around us, and to reflect on the incessant need to silence people whose experiences should – and must – be heard.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain is published by Verso and available to buy now