The literary micro-genre of Eton memoirs by black former pupils has doubled in size. The first was published in 1972 by Dillibe Onyeama, under a title that used the racist epithet by which he was regularly insulted while at the elite British boarding school in the 1960s. Now comes the second, Musa Okwonga’s One of Them, which is based on the author’s experiences as an Eton schoolboy in the 1990s.
Onyeama is a Nigerian writer who was the second black pupil to attend Eton College in more than 500 years of the school’s existence. After his book was published, he was banned from revisiting Eton. Okwonga is also a writer, British-born, to parents who fled war-torn Uganda in the mid 1970s. He grew up in a working-class dormitory town outside London where he developed an obsession with going to Eton, “the school of my dreams”, after seeing a television documentary about it at the age of 11.
Brought up to believe that hard work is the way to escape racism, he wins a half-scholarship to Eton. Aged 13, he finds himself at the educational apex of British society, a single-sex establishment that has produced 20 prime ministers, including two of the last three. Among a small minority of black pupils, he rubs shoulders with boys whose surnames resemble the names of famous companies — “and then I realise that these are the families that actually founded these famous companies”.
Okwonga does not name any of these peers, although some are guessable. In a coy formulation, he refers to “the time when some students from prominent families arrived at my school and the whole community embraced them in the gentlest way, gave them room to be themselves, and they ended up thriving” — evidently a reference to his Eton contemporaries, princes William and Harry. His memoirist precursor Onyeama also makes a fleeting unnamed appearance, as “a black student” who gets a belated apology from the school in 2020 for his experiences of racism.
This coyness is frustrating, robbing the story of specificity, but it serves a purpose. Eton (which I also attended, several years before Okwonga) occupies a peculiarly charged place in the British imagination. Hugging its power close to itself, it inspires a kind of appalled fascination from onlookers, often imbued with perfervid notions of aristocratic vice. One of Them does not feed these titillating fantasies. Instead, the book outlines Okwonga’s complex formation as an outsider moulded by the ultimate British proving ground for insiders.
In contrast to his working-class hometown, where he is chased by white youths on motorbikes and harassed by the police, Okwonga feels safe at Eton. He has nurturing teachers. He does well academically and plays a lot of football (a topic he has written about in other books). Racism is present, but it is insidious rather than open, mainly uttered behind his back or taking the form of ignorant comments.
This covert prejudice becomes linked in his mind to a great silence at the heart of the school’s teaching. He wonders why he learnt nothing about slavery and empire, a source of wealth for many of Eton’s alumni. As an adult, he feels alienated by the austerity policies carried out by one of the school’s prime ministers, David Cameron. “I look at its motto again — ‘May Eton Flourish’ — and I think, yes, many of our politicians have flourished, but to the vast detriment of others. Maybe we were raised to be the bad guys?”
One of Them cannot bring itself to answer in the affirmative: Okwonga has an abiding fondness for the school of his dreams. His book offers a nuanced, ambivalent qualification to Eton’s self-image as a citadel of liberal education. Progress has clearly taken place since the first memoir by a former black pupil was published — but not as much progress as the school might like to imagine.
One of Them: An Eton College Memoir, by Musa Okwonga, Unbound, RRP£8.99, 224 pages
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