updated on 20 October 2023
Reading time: seven minutes
As autumn draws in and the weather gets colder, there’s nothing quite like a good book. Legal fiction has always been a well-liked genre. Since 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been a popular book to read and teach in schools. Although it’s a brilliant work of legal fiction, it’s also a novel written by a white author about the Black experience of the justice system in America. To use the words of author Tanya Landman in the Guardian, “Harper Lee’s focus is purely white”. So, in this LCN says we want to draw attention to the wealth of legal and political writing produced by Black authors. By highlighting these voices, we hope to not only expand your legal knowledge but hope that you’ll also be entertained, educated and inspired.
For more information on what firms, chambers and legal education providers are doing to improve diversity and inclusion within the profession, head to LCN’s Diversity hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG (UK) LLP.
In Black and White: A Young Barrister's Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System by Alexandra Wilson
In Alexandra Wilson’s debut non-fiction book, she explores the British legal system from the inside as a junior criminal and family law barrister. Her story begins when she was a teenager, following the passing of her close friend, Ayo, who was stabbed to death on his way home from football. The series of events that followed compelled her to enter the legal profession in search of answers and more importantly, change.
In Black and White allows the reader to step into the tense court room, as Wilson navigates a world with a set of rules designed by a privileged few. The book offers a genuine and raw reality of race in the legal system as it stands today, in the 21st Century. She writes: “The Bar represents the whole of society. It should reflect that.” Her book is in equal parts shocking, confounding and powerful – a must read for anybody interested in the legal justice system.
Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams
Williams is a British barrister specialising in criminal law and has been a part-time Crown Court judge in London since 2009. Her protagonist is 30-year-old Barrister Lee Mitchell, who’s from a working-class Caribbean background. Set in the 1990s, Lee faces prejudice both in and out of the courtroom and during a case uncovers the secrets of London’s obscenely rich. As the case progresses, the line between the personal and professional becomes severely blurred.
This text is part of an edited collection by celebrated author Bernardine Evaristo titled Black Britain: Writing Black, which is a series aimed at rediscovering pioneering books depicting Black Britain. Evaristo describes the book as “impressive and unique. As relevant today as it was over two decades ago”. If you enjoy a fast-paced, thrilling novel, this may just be the one for you.
Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts
Dorothy Roberts’ groundbreaking 1997 book Killing the Black Body explores concerns about reproductive rights for Black women in America. Significantly, following the publication of the book, President Bill Clinton made major changes to the welfare system by signing the personal responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. This allowed states to restructure policies that previously regulated the reproductive decisions of women receiving benefits. Writer Michelle Alexander commented that the book is a “must-read for all those who claim to care about racial and gender justice in America”.
Rice & Peas and Fish & Chips by Pauline Campbell
Pauline Campbell was born in East London to Jamaican parents and qualified as a lawyer at 41, in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. Her story is an incredible one and Rice & Peas and Fish & Chips takes the reader through her childhood, teenage and adult years. The book is part memoir, part commentary, as she explores her life and journey into a career as a senior lawyer, after being told at 15 she wasn’t A-level material”. It tells not just a personal story, but one entwined with the political setting and status of her parents’ Windrush generation.
Campbell weaves together humorous experiences of childhood with the reality that racism not only exists, but that it’s also part of your everyday lived experience. In conversation with The Waltham Forest Echo, Campbell said the book “uncovers modern Britain’s structural racist past” while also narrating her journey to “discovering her own identity [and] sense of belonging”. The book reflects on race and racism, identity and belonging set against the context of modern-day Britain.
One of Them by Musa Okwonga
The next book we’ve chosen explores race and class in modern Britain and addresses the gaps in the British education system. Musa Okwonga was born in Britain to parents who’d fled war-torn Uganda in the mid-1970s. He grew up in a working-class town on the outskirts of London and always dreamt of attending Eton. Aged 13, Okwonga won a half-scholarship to the school and found himself plunged into one of the top single-sex educational establishments in Britain.
Okwonga’s story is one of covert prejudice, as he struggles to understand the “great silence” that existed in his education. From a lack of acknowledgment of the role of empire in building the school and no mention of slavery in history lessons, Okwonga questions the insidious presence of racism in his schooling. He writes that, as it was “unlikely… many of my contemporaries [had] a close Black friend”, he resolved to avoid any stereotypes they might have about Black people with “a military level of self-restraint”. In adulthood, he went on to study jurisprudence, sometimes known as legal theory, at Oxford before later becoming a writer.
Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
Much like how Okwonga’s text addresses the gaps in the British education system, this book provides a foundation of the history of Black Britain, including the legal elements. In the written version of his popular BBC TV series, Black and British takes the reader through the deep rich history that is Black Britain. Drawing on new genetic and genealogical material, original records, oral testimony, and contemporary interviews Olusoga takes the reader from Roman to Contemporary Britain.
History and law become intertwined throughout Olusoga’s analysis of Black Britain. From the court cases of writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano − which led to him purchasing his freedom from slavery in 1766 − to the impact of post-war immigration laws on the Windrush generation, the law is integral to every part of British history. The most recently revised version also features a new chapter focusing on the Black Lives Matter protests.
Surge by Jay Bernard
Jay Bernard’s Surge explores significant developments of Black British History in London in the 1980s and present day through a series of moving poems. The poet used archival materials from the George Padmore Institute to research the New Cross Massacre during a 2016 residency. When the Grenfell fire happened in 2017, Bernard noticed the similarities between the two events. Therefore, the idea of history repeating itself is a prominent theme in the collection. Bernard questions the way governments and systems of power respond to tragedy and the lack of social progress between the two events, in terms of both legislation and attitudes. The text shines a much-needed light on an unacknowledged chapter in British history, using an archival basis to inform and discuss political issues.
Tribes by David Lammy
Former-barrister and MP for Tottenham, shares his experiences of qualifying and practising law. After becoming the first Black Briton to attend Harvard Law School, he was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1994. Tribes asks questions about identity politics and is part memoir, part cultural and political analysis with a historical focus. From his own experience of being “jumped” by police officers at 12-years-old, to his time practising as a barrister in the 1990s, Lammy offers a genuine insight into the significance a legal career may have on your life, even if you enter politics afterwards.
Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth
Ron Stallworth was the first Black detective working in the Police Department at Colorado Springs. His book tells the true story of how he infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan in a month-long undercover investigation. The book reads like a crime thriller, telling the story of the divisions in America in the 1970s, and was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film in 2018 by Spike Lee.
For more books to add to your reading list, check out this list titled ‘49 Black Authors On Their Favourite Books by Black Authors’.
Ellie Nicholl (she/her) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareersNet.