An intriguing book that sometimes tries too hard. My Times review of David Olusoga’s “Black and British: A Forgotten History”
For all the fascinating material that it unearths, Black and British is not always an easy read. In his introduction Olusoga pays homage to Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking account Staying Power, published by the left-wing Pluto Press in the mid-1980s and still an engrossing survey. Where Fryer took a brisk, journalistic approach to storytelling, Olusoga amasses his data at a slower, more academic tempo, wandering into lengthy and sometimes wearying digressions on, say, the effect of the American Civil War on economic and cultural developments on this side of the Atlantic. Along the way he also reminds us that The Times gleefully threw its weight behind the Confederacy.
If the book seems to slip in and out of focus, it is partly because Olusoga has set himself such an ambitious task. As he explains, he is embarking on “an attempt to see what new stories and approaches emerge if black British history is envisaged as a global history and — perhaps more controversially — as a history of more than just the black experience itself”.
It is worth bearing those words in mind as you follow a complex, multilayered narrative that snakes its way from the Roman Empire to the early slaving ports of Sierra Leone, from Jamaica and Barbados to Virginia. Britain — or more properly, England — sometimes seems to drop from view altogether, only for the author to slowly draw together the various economic and social strands. This is, in short, a book that demands patience and application.