The Inheritance of a Colonial Past: On ‘Assembly’, by Natasha Brown

TW: Mentions of racial discrimination.

My experience with Assembly as a really short audiobook was full of pauses because of the way it made me introspect. This tiny book packed a punch in the ways it broke down the mantle of privilege, race, gender, and power. Do not be misled by its size (like I was). It is going to live with the reader for an undoubtedly long time.

I want to begin by saying a big thank you to Libro.fm for this amazing experience. And before we begin, here is a short synopsis from Goodreads:

Come of age in the credit crunch. Be civil in a hostile environment. Go to college, get an education, start a career. Do all the right things. Buy an apartment. Buy art. Buy a sort of happiness. But above all, keep your head down. Keep quiet. And keep going.

The narrator of Assembly is a black British woman. She is preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family estate, set deep in the English countryside. At the same time, she is considering the carefully assembled pieces of herself. As the minutes tick down and the future beckons, she can’t escape the question: is it time to take it all apart?

Assembly is a story about the stories we live within — those of race and class, safety and freedom, winners and losers. And it is about one woman daring to take control of her own story, even at the cost of her life. With a steely, unfaltering gaze, Natasha Brown dismantles the mythology of whiteness, lining up the debris in a neat row and walking away.


Writing Style

This story was written in the stream of consciousness style, meaning it was often non-linear. An unnamed Black British woman with Jamaican roots is our protagonist and we get to think as she does and observe things through her eyes.

Essentially we are given a glimpse into her mind — what she thinks of versus what she says out loud, what she observes but only keeps to herself, what she wishes to say out loud, but realizes that she can’t.

If you are not familiar with this writing style, it may be abrupt in the beginning but it doesn’t take much time for the reader to get sucked in — after all, this is the way humans think — we jump from one topic to the other.

Apart from that, the language was witty and erudite, matter-of-fact and after some time, the protagonist’s voice becomes the voice in your head.

Disclaimer: I am not a Black individual, and hence I do not completely understand some of the issues talked about here. However, I am a POC from a country that was once a British colony, and as such, there are certain issues I do relate with. At no point, do I mean to be disrespectful. 


A Colonial Heritage built on Colour, Class, and Politics

When it comes to Britain, and our Black woman protagonist, it is inevitable that the issues brought on by colonialism, will be discussed here. And it really does too — as we see our protagonist’s observations.

Colour and Race

Despite what many ‘woke’ people claim, that they “no not see” colour (which in itself is absurd and needs a whole discussion on), it is an essential fact of life, of living that determines the way people’s lives pan out.

“Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience. Exist in the negative only, the space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air. Open your eyes”

Life is not as easy for Black people. Like the protagonist too says, they have to be twice as good, twice as hardworking, and twice as able and deserving, to get the same things as their contemporary White people. It is a fact of life for them and unavoidable.

“… no, you’re not a real Brit, go back to Africa”

This racial history is not new — as we all know. It stems from centuries of slavery — the effects of which are still seen today. The trauma of this is inherited in the minds of all the descendants and despite this tragic and inhumane history, there was still a need for the Black Lives Matter movement that took place recently. 

Even when her relationship with her White boyfriend is not overtly opposed by his parents, our protagonist is compelled to think of what they presume to be the reasons the relationship was not right — a lack of “purity”.

“… purity — not in any crass, racial sense, no. Of course not. It was a purity of lineage, of history: shared cultural mores and sensibilities. The preservation of a way of life, a class, a necessary higher echleon of society. Her son’s arrested development (and what was this relationship, if not childish folly?) should not wreck the family name”

The lives of Black people continue to be endangered even today — in all times and instances. Even, as the protagonist says, a Black person who goes shopping is followed by a security guard at all times. 


Class and Privilege

In this story, as we live through the experiences of the protagonist, we get to see clearly the obvious differences in the way life is perceived by different people.

Her boyfriend does not really understand strife; “he is easily convinced, accustomed to happy endings and painless resolution”. He jokes that he wishes to be as rich as her. But money is different from wealth isn’t it? As the protagonist rightly observes.

“Well, money is one thing. He has wealth. Tied up in assets in trusts and holding companies with complicated ownership arrangements… Compounded over generations. What’s the difference? he asks. I tell him. One of us goes to work at six a.m. each morning. The other sits browsing the papers at the cafe down the road”

And this issue of class is something the protagonist faces everywhere — from her boyfriend in the bedroom to powerful older men at work.

“Buoyed by a wealth he’s never had to earn, never worked for… from this vantage, he points a finger… at you: The problem. Always, the problem”

And despite all her hard work, and after all that she has earned, it is still not easy to say that she wants more. So much has been internalized. She says of a friend,

“she wants a bigger house, a better boyfriend, more money! She want all these things without shame or subtlety nad I’m both fearful and admiring of her appetite”

And so, detachment is the way ahead for her. “To protect myself, I detach.”

After all the hard work (because of all the hard work), to achieve security, it becomes difficult to finally go for things she (and most Black people) actually want to. Giving up the security is fearful — will they be losers then? Will they not be safe anymore? Will they, therefore, not belong? What is it, if not simply “generational persistence, without meaning or memory” as the author claims?

“Generation o sacrifice; hard work and harder living. So much suffered, so much forfeited, so much — for this opportunity. For my life. And I’ve tried, tried living up top it… But after years of struggling, fighting against the current, I am ready to slow my arms. Stop kicking. Breathe the water in. I’m exhausted”

The protagonist finally sums it all up in these words and I do not think anything could be more apt!

“You don’t owe anything. I pay my taxes, each year. Any money that was spent on me: education, healthcare, what-roads? I’ve paid it all back. And then some… I am what we’ve always been to the empire: pure, fucking profit. A natural resource to exploit and exploit, denigrate, and exploit. I don’t owe that boy. Or that man. Or those protestors, or the empire, the motherland, anything at all. I don’t owe it my next forty years. I don’t owe it my next fucking minute. What else is left to take? This is it, end of the line. I am done”


The Woman Question 

Being a woman, and that too a Black woman is a multiply jeopardized position in a world such as this. 

Here, Feminism is about tokenization — to be “the right sort of diversity”. 

“A woman harmed, another rewarded”

Here, being a Black woman in power (a position reached due to her hard work) is to be ridiculed, her position questioned.

“I know this woman. My colleagues call her that woman. They say they know how that woman got that job. They say worse, too. She’s a frequent, favourite topic of theirs. This successful woman. This beleaguered, embattled woman. Kicked about and laughed about. Anyway, now she supports other women. She’s a regular speaker on the women’s events circuit”

In the workplace, it often comes down to this.

“It’s so much easier for you blacks and Hispanics. He says that’s why I was chosen, over qualified guys like him. He says he’s not opposed to diversity. He just wants fairness, okay?… The unquestioned assumption is of something given; something unearned, taken, from a deserving and hardworking [White man]”

Here, if a Black person does well and is exceptional, they “transcend race”. And despite it all, they do not belong.

“Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still, never from here”

Here, her position is only for the sake of appearance.

“I understand the function I’m here to perform… My thoughts, my ideas — even my identity — can only exist as a response to the partygoers’ words and actions… Reinforcing both their selfhood, and its centrality to mine. how else can they be certain of who they are, and what they aren’t? Delineation requires a sharp, black outline… the thumping nationalism of this place. i am the stretched-taut membrane of a drum, against which their identity beats”


The Modern Burden and therefore Decolonisation (and the Post-Colonial)

Yet another interesting thing that the author referred to is the “Modern Burden”. And I thought what is the Modern Burden?

What is this Modern Burden… as opposed to the White Man’s Burden?

It was therefore further interesting that the protagonist thinks of decolonisation. But one may think, colonisation has been over for years, hasn’t it?

But has it? When this trauma is still so fresh? When White Supremacists continue to commit race crimes even today? And thus, we see how Colonialism works in the modern-day scenario.

“Britain continues to own, exploit nad profit from land taken during its twentieth-century exploits. Burning our futures to fuel its voracious economy. Under threat of monetary violence. Lecturing us, all the while, about self-sufficiency. Interfering in our politics, our democracies, our access to the global economic stage; creating LEDCs… pour money into a government that forever tells them they are not British. This is not home”

This quote was therefore very interesting, and it was especially more as when the next one is seen as a continuation of it.

“… neither of us were there, were responsible for the actions of our historical selves? Yes. Yet, he lives off the capital returns, while I work to pay off the interest? Yes. But, here I am now, waking through the fruits of it; land he owns, history he cherishes; the familiar grounding, soil, bricks and trees stretching metres high; the sense of belonging, of safety, of being home. He has that here, always, to return to? Yes. Sleeping this morning, did he look renewed? Yes. Yes, of course. He is home”


Finally, the Interconnection

And despite all the ways in which I tried to section off the topics, it is all related, isn’t it? History, class, race, colour, power, privilege, politics, are mere synonyms at this point.

“… we came and built and mended and nursed; cooked and cleaned. We paid taxes, paid extortionate rent to the few landlords who would take us. We were hated. The National Front chased, burned, stabbed, eradicated. Churchill set up task forces to get us out. Keep England White… New laws were drawn up; our rights revoked”

Change happens from within — therefore to place the onus on the Black woman; is that merely a joke? To be that condescending? It is as if this struggle for equality is for her alone and not for the racist White supremacist who needs to work on themselves first.

“Why aren’t you off shaking up change in the Labour Party?’ He winks. Ushering in a new world order.’”

How has it come to this, though? Our protagonist looks towards the education system.

“Because they watch (us). They’ve been taught how to, from school. They are taught to view our bodies (selves) as objects. They learn an MEDC/LEDC divide as geography — unquestionable as mountains, oceans and other national phenomena. Without whys or wherefores, or the ruthless arrows of European imperialism tearing across the world map.

At its most fundamental: the nameless, faceless, unidentified (black) bodies, displayed, packed, and chained, side-by-side head-to-toe, into an inky-illustrated ship. Conditions unfit for animals. In perpetuity, they’re shown these pictures, over and over in classrooms again. Until it becomes axiom; that continuous line from object, to us”

So my thoughts on this book were a mix of anger, disbelief, and pure outrage. While I tried to be as erudite as our protagonist, I think she may have put it a bit better than I ever will be. 

Nonetheless, this is a book I recommend to all. Read it, form your own thoughts, and try to make the change in ourselves — to be the catalyst for a much-needed change — because it all begins with the self.

Further Reading

Also, reading this book reminded me of these two texts (read them, they’re amazing!):

  • “Ruins of a Great House”, a poem by Derek Walcott
  • “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, an essay by Audre Lorde

Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support her by Buying Her a Coffee.

Published by pretty_little_bibliophile

🌷(she/her) ENFJ-A I অ‌সমীয়া 🎁 @tbb_box BIBLIO10 🎟️ Join @readwithnika_bookclub 🏆Winner of #NECA2018 #BookBlogger #Booktuber #AssamBookstagrammers

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