In 2017 I was shortlisted for a Saboteur Award for my reviewing (lol), and though obviously I didn’t win, I did come away with some kind of a prize (that I paid for): a copy of a very intriguing book: Remembering Oluwale: An Anthology. I hadn’t heard of the book until its inclusion on the same web page shortlist as my name, but when it won its award on the night and I learned more about it, I knew I had to have a copy. This was around the time when I was super super depressed and reading A LOT about race, so it chimed with my interests of the period, too. I didn’t read it until now because I sorta deliberately started avoiding the topic as my therapist questioned that reading about race may have been, broadly speaking, an act of psychological self-harm (to accompany the then-frequent physical self-harm), because in any piece of fiction or non-fiction about race it is never middle class white men who come out looking like the good guys. I think that there was perhaps some validity to that comment, however I continue to be interested in texts about identity, texts about prejudice and societal problems, but being “happier”, I am able to read them without injuring my fragile brain. Or whatever.
David Oluwale was a Lagos-born man who moved to the UK, to Leeds, in the middle of the 20th century and was murdered by racist police officers in 1969. His body was discovered in a local river on the edge of the city, and though the senior police officers responsible did not get charged with murder, they were found complicit in assaulting and abusing Oluwale, and definitely responsible for “hounding” him to death, even if it could not be proven that he ended up unconscious and in a river due to the direct efforts of these two men. A police cadet (I don’t know what that means and it was never explained in the book) was the person who broke the investigation, who broke rank and reported his superiors to a greater authority. The police investigated the death in great detail as evermore serious rumours began to spread about Oluwale’s mysterious death, and it became important to establish a definitive truth and figure out what could be done to make sure nothing like this happened again.
Leeds then became a pioneering centre of police and minority relations, though the motivation for this may have been less than pure: police forces were being heavily reformed at the time and those in charge of Leeds City Police wanted to keep their autonomy, and a massive racially motivated murder by police officers wasn’t going to work in their favour. The police were as open as possible, but perhaps this was an attempt to pinpoint blame on a couple of racist police officers, rather than allow the narrative that the force itself was institutionally racist. Then again, maybe their motive to improve came from a real wish to improve their city and the service they provided for it. Who cares, though, as Leeds City Police was merged with some other forces in 1974 to form West Yorkshire Police.
David Oluwale became an important symbol for British race relations, for the tragedy of his death and the circumstances of his life. Though he came to the UK to work, and did work in a steelworks for a period, he eventually ended up in a psychiatric hospital for about a decade (where he underwent electrotherapy) and by the end of his life he was homeless and no longer receiving mental health treatment. He ended up being picked on for a long period by some local, racist, police officers. They would beat him and taunt him and arrest him for spurious reasons, treating him badly, bullying him with the power of their institution. Police records filled with ethnic slurs were found, and a paper trail – as well as, eventually, the reluctant testimonials of other police officers – proved beyond doubt that Oluwale was the victim of a persistent and targeted campaign of racist aggression from senior police officers.
From his death and then the trial onwards, Oluwale has loomed large in British literature and music about race. Poems and non-fiction works had been written about him, and one of these was adapted into a play. The first half of this anthology contains some of these pieces, works about Oluwale that have been written across the last 50 or so years. The second half of the book contains poems and prose, all of which are the longlisted works from a writing competition, the Remember Oluwale Writing Prize. Not all of the pieces are about Oluwale directly, but they all engage with issues raised by Oluwale’s life and death. There are pieces about immigration, about dispersal, about loneliness and isolation, a feeling of displacement, about the cruelty of the UK Border Force, about the ambiguousness of the faces of faceless institutions.
There are deeply moving pieces here about estrangement and powerlessness, about mental health treatment, about addiction and loss. It’s a tough read, to be honest, not just because Oluwale’s life ended in such tragedy, but because the latter half of the book contains short pieces that tell different, separate, unique tragedies. Remembering Oluwale is a beautiful, powerful, anthology, and I’m not going to highlight any names other than David Oluwale’s here. These are important, and ever-relevant, pieces and I highly recommend you give this a read if you get the chance.
Also it’s important to know who David Oluwale was: the state was to blame for his death.
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