Afua Hirsch is a fascinating contemporary cultural critic. Trained as a lawyer, Hirsch straddles journalism, politics and intellectual debate; rejecting journalistic ‘neutrality’ and combining her writing with activism and campaigning. Finally, Hirsch is a prominent voice in the cultural ‘decolonisation’ debate, to which Culture& has contributed via previous newsletters, Instagram, and our wider work.
I highly rated Hirsch’s 2018 book ‘Brit(ish)’, and was naturally very excited when I heard she would be presenting a new podcast series. I was not disappointed. Hirsch’s podcast, We Need to Talk About the British Empire is an excellent journey through the multifaceted scars left by the British Empire on colonised nations, objects, and people’s lives. I really appreciated how Hirsch analyses the multi-generational effect of colonial trauma.
Each episode in the six-part series is built around an interview with someone who either has ancestral or direct experience with colonial trauma (as hundreds of millions of us do). The diverse range of interviewees perfectly highlights how expansive the British Empire was. It would take a much longer series to uncover the trauma left behind everywhere that Britain once ruled, but the main geographical areas of focus include, Africa, India, the USA, the Caribbean, China and the UK itself.
From episode to episode the range of places covered uncovers the similarities and nuanced differences that the people of each colony experienced. What unites each episode is a feeling of having had something stolen, whether in the form of property (as occurred to my own family), history, freedom, dignity, or even the right to live and work in the UK.
We Need to Talk About the British Empire goes beyond simply documenting individual cases of colonial trauma by analysing how this trauma affects people long-term. In Episode one, Anita Rani speaks passionately about how much of an affect the brutalising nature of the British Indian Army, the 1918 flu pandemic, and Partition had on her Grandfather.
In Episode 5 Benjamin Zephaniah poetically recounts the lifelong effect that colonial education and propaganda had on his Mother, part of the Windrush Generation. Zephaniah describes the countless racist incidents his Mother experienced, and how she would excuse them out of a feeling of ‘gratitude’ to Britain. Once she arrived in Britain, Zephaniah’s Mother would only once return to visit Jamaica, vowing to never return again due to viewing the country of her birth as inferior to Britain.
This podcast shows us that our experiences, the experiences of our families affected by the legacy of the British Empire are not isolated. If we scratch below the surface and ask questions of our elders we will understand more about ourselves, and greater appreciate the experiences of everyone from whom something was stolen. We are not alone.
Image: Afua Hirsch. Photograph: Urszula Soltys