Making brief forays into his childhood and post-graduation adult life, One of Them is focused on the story of Musa Okwonga’s schooling experience at the exclusive Eton College and his struggles with identity. While this highly anticipated memoir tells a true coming-of-age story, it is also an up-close exposé of the harmful culture plaguing Britain’s most prestigious school and weaning its future leaders.

Okwonga documents the cutthroat competitive spirit instilled in students from a young age and that sense of utter shamelessness, “the superpower of a certain section of the English upper classes.” As the rest of the population waxes lyrical about fair play, the upper classes know that quintessentially British value does not apply to them.

Most unique are the links drawn between the qualities of these students and Britain’s attitude to colonialism, between the prestige of this institution and the plunder of Black people’s capital through slavery. Though a fellow student proudly announcing that his great-grandfather was a slave driver leaves one cold, more memorable is how Okwonga exposes the so-called endearing quirks of Britishness for what they are.

“Okwonga exposes the so-called endearing quirks of Britishness for what they are.”

That typically British quality of bashfulness hides a quiet delusion of superiority and “ferociously competitive spirit” that stole a quarter of the world. In Wọlé Ṣóyíinká’s Death of The King’s Horseman, Olunde says that the “white races’ greatest art is the art of survival.” Musa’s grandfather echoes this sentiment beautifully: “the last man on Earth will be an Englishman,” he says.

As it looks behind the beautifully imposing stone façades of the institution and dares to probe the heart of Britishness, One of Them is at once critical and lyrical. It must be said that Okwonga is a superb writer: every sentence is crafted with so much intention, making for prose that is both restrained and revelatory. Disarming in its resolute honesty, One of Them tells the powerfully personal story of a Black and bisexual working-become-middle class man’s struggle with identity in a virulently racist country.

From the Etonian style of behind-your-back racism and the bloody secrets of its prestigious halls, to the unapologetic bigotry of the National Front and dangerous rhetoric of high-profile politicians, Okwonga’s unveils the multiple faces of British racism and traces how they are intricately linked in a system rigged for Eton’s white, upper-class graduates.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

MUSA OKWONGA is a poet, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications. He is the co-host of the Stadio football podcast and is the author of two books on football, the first of which was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year, and the author of one collection of poetry. He lives and works in Berlin. You can find him @Okwonga on Twitter.

A Black British exposé of Britain’s most prestigious school and the rotten system it headsOne of Them by Musa Okwonga
Published by Unbound on 15 April 2021
Genres: Memoir, Black British, Coming-of-age
Pages: 216
Buy on Bookshop.org
Goodreads
four-stars

Musa Okwonga -- a young Black man who grew up in a predominantly working-class town -- was not your typical Eton College student. The experience moulded him, challenged him … and made him wonder why a place that was so good for him also seems to contribute to the harm being done to the UK. The more he searched, the more evident the connection became between one of Britain’s most prestigious institutions and the genesis of Brexit, and between his home town in the suburbs of Greater London and the rise of the far-right. Woven throughout this deeply personal and unflinching memoir of Musa’s five years at Eton in the 1990s is a present-day narrative that engages with much wider questions about pressing social and political issues: privilege, the distribution of wealth, the rise of the far-right in the UK, systemic racism, the boys’ club of government and the power of the few to control the fate of the many. One of Them is both an intimate account and a timely exploration of race and class in modern Britain.