GDST alumna, writer and broadcaster, Afua Hirsch, wowed the audience when she joined Wimbledon Head Fionnuala Kennedy to talk about her life and career
‘Afua Hirsch In Conversation’ was an hour-long event which saw Afua talk with Fionnuala Kennedy, Head of Wimbledon High. She spoke about her childhood and her career as a journalist, writer and TV presenter, her thoughts on her own identity, and other issues such as the teaching of history and empire in UK schools, the Black Lives Matter movement and she even had some wise words to share on the US election.
Sitting on the stage at Wimbledon High, Afua said: “This is where it all began for me – in 1988, right here, at Wimbledon High.”
Afua grew up in Wimbledon, the daughter of a Ghanaian mother and Jewish father (whose own father fled Berlin in 1938). “It was a strange place to grow up, very green, spacious and privileged but not diverse. I felt a strong sense of otherness growing up here,” she said.
So much so that when she started at Wimbledon High in Year 3 “I told my parents quite emphatically that I would be changing my name to Caroline”, she said.
“I now feel sorry for my younger self. I think many people feel a great pressure to assimilate.”
Much of Afua’s writing has been about her sense of identity. Indeed, she said that much of the impulse for writing Brit(ish), the Sunday Times bestseller published in 2018, was to create “a book for my younger self”. Growing up, Afua says the only public images of black people she saw were “when a crime had been committed or there was a famine in Africa”.
“Despite all that fear I did it anyway – I knew I was writing with integrity”
She revealed that she had felt “so much anxiety” about writing Brit(ish). Having an established career already, first as a successful lawyer and then a a journalist, she said it felt “very counterintuitive to turn the lens on yourself and tell your own story”.
She was also worried about the very personal nature of the book “It’s hard to say how taboo it felt (writing about myself)” – not least because she was worried about her parents feelings. But she said, “they were so gracious, and they really embraced it”.
In a very inspirational moment for all the GDST students listening, Afua spoke about her doubts over the writing of the book and said: “I honestly wasn’t sure if I would get cancelled. But despite all that fear I did it anyway – I knew I was writing with integrity – if it backfired, I knew I could hold my head up high.”
Afua also spoke about the importance of teaching and understanding history. “History is everything. Without a knowledge of history, you cannot understand the role of the empire in the world wars, or why we have multi-culturalism today…”
And she said that we need to find a way to talk about history in “an engaging and creative way” to attract mainstream audiences; something she tried to do in her latest television series, BBC Two’s Enslaved, which she presented with Hollywood actor Samuel L Jackson.
She also referred to her publicly voiced concerns about Black History Month.
“I’ve been quite a critic of Black History Month, not because of its objectives – I just hoped we wouldn’t need it anymore by now,” she said. “Black History Month still perpetuates the idea that it’s somehow a specialist niche subject and when the month is over you simply revert to white history.”
Afua said we must acknowledge how “damaging” our “Eurocentric” curriculum is and then build from there.
“I find it astonishing right now that at Oxford you can do an undergraduate paper on the slave trade and one of the industrial revolution, but they do not inform or cross-reference each other at all,” she said.
We need a “really honest assessment of our education system”, she said, and “we need to focus on the role of political leadership”. Without the will of the political class, she said it is almost impossible to change the status quo.
When Fionnuala Kennedy asked what Afua would tell her younger self now, she said:
“When I was younger, I thought my identity was a destination – if I could just live here, go there, do this etc – then I thought I would be that person. But I have latterly realised that it’s a journey. I will always be searching, that’s who I am, not the person at the end of it.”
And in a final, brilliant piece of advice for the many GDST students watching she said, “Remember, the things that gnaw away at you now might well become your greatest assets.”
Fionnuala Kennedy, Head of Wimbledon High School, said:
“We were delighted to welcome back Afua to Wimbledon High and are of course hugely proud she’s an alumna of our school. I agreed with the point that initiatives such as Black History Month should be redundant by now – they’re fantastic in themselves, but it’s unbelievable that they’re still needed and that our historical perspective is not yet international in its very nature.
We’ve got lots to do nationally on updating our curriculum – as Afua said, not just in English or History, but in Science, Geography, Art… Happily, schools are fertile ground for language analysis, reflection and change. And who better to do that with than our amazing students across the GDST.”