Stuck for something to occupy you whilst stuck inside on these dark winter nights? Our own Samantha Naik (BAME Officer and Membership Vice Chair) has kindly authored a few book reviews to help you pick a good read.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell (1914)
In the early twentieth century, a group of painters and decorators and their families in a small town are exploited by their employers, and suffer from ill health, low life-expectancy, insecure housing, humiliation, and poverty. Some act with generosity and kindness; others go along with the Conservative and ‘Liberal’ (of that era) masters, believing they are their betters, and that socialism is evil; a few socialists persevere knowing that one day they will win.
This book has inspired many activists. It shows us what it was like to live in poverty, with no welfare state, and it is the answer to the elitist fiction of Ayn Rand; the workers are skilled and talented, yet cannot make a living. It surprised me that the issues of a century ago are similar to those that trouble us today: approximately 20% of working people in 2021 are poor (and this statistic is set to rise during the COVID19 recession) and may be in insecure employment, rents are exploitatively high, homelessness is a risk, and poverty causes ill-health. Back then too, the Conservatives demonised poor people while cutting benefits. The mystery of ‘why do poor people vote Tory’ was very much in evidence in the early 1900s, too. Tressell skilfully told this story, with characters, good and bad, that will live on in your mind long after you close the book. An inspiring read.
The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson (2010)
A non-fiction book that reads as a novel, with characters that are truly real. Beautiful descriptions, interspersed with the harsh reality of life in the USA for black people, after the abolition of slavery. What methods of painful exploitation could the South invent, to continue to control the black workforce, even in the aftermath of slavery? Why has it been difficult for black people to amass wealth, compared to their white counterparts, so that generations later, black people still suffer the historic injustice of ‘Jim Crow Laws? These questions are answered, in Pulitzer Prize winning fashion, by historian Wilkerson.
The great migration of Black Americans from southern states to northern states in 1915 to 1970 was not something I had contemplated: the bravery of those who sought new lives due to cruelty of racism, each of them taking a leap into the unknown, and often finding that the racism followed them. It is also useful to consider current racism in the USA and UK has developed from doctrines of white supremacy that were needed to justify the cruelty. The racism inflicted by southern states was not so long ago – racial segregationists were still arguing their case in the 1970s.
Both books show that race and class are used by the ruling powers to exploit people, without conscience, for material gains – even in rich countries where there are enough resources for everyone to live decently. We see this in ex-President Trump’s ‘culture wars’ that set citizens against Muslims, Mexicans, and anyone who challenged fascism. We see it in the Tories demonisation of refugees, veneration of statues of slavers, and the slagging off poor people – refusing to trust poor people with money and instead giving vouchers for £5 worth of food (as happened in January 2021) as replacement for school meals, and calling such a pitiful parcel a ‘hamper’ (while charging the taxpayers a much higher price). The corruption portrayed in Tressell’s novel is evident in modern Tory Britain.
The election of Biden may signify a turning point in the USA. Under would-be-dictator Trump, racial injustice came to an ugly head, with the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and subsequent BLM protesters being tear-gassed, and the White Supremacists roused to insurrection and attempting to overthrow democracy in January 2021. In America, things must (hopefully) become fairer, because racial justice is now an issue that is recognised by the majority of US citizens.
Perhaps Biden can also help us make the UK fairer too. Here, BAME people suffer health inequality, evident from the Marmot Reports of 2010 and 2020, and have died in disproportionately high numbers from COVID19. Whatever happens in the next four years, I think Biden will help move our discussion back into rational areas – and that can only be a good thing.