A frank and affecting account of the enduring destruction wrought on a mother and her family, first by a racially-motivated murder and then by the racist reaction of the Metropolitan police that meant it was not investigated properly.
The Lawrence family’s compounded tragedy eventually resulted in a landmark admission in the form of the Macpherson Report, which, in February 1999, made public what Black people already knew, that the Metropolitan police were institutionally racist. But although in many ways And Still I Rise is a remarkable story of triumph over adversity, of simply refusing to stop seeking justice, it is not heart-warming. Doreen Lawrence has never given up because, although the Macpherson report improved the way some future racially-motivated crimes would be treated, her son’s killers are still free.
Doreen Lawrence’s early story, related briefly in the first three chapters, is representative of that of many immigrants of her generation. Brought up by her grandparents and aunts in Jamaica until the age of nine, in 1962 she joined her mother in south London. Escape from her strict, chore-filled traditional West Indian upbringing presented itself in the form of marriage to Neville Lawrence at the age of 20. Regular churchgoers with high aspirations for their three children, Doreen and Neville Lawrence worked hard to build a comfortable life and a stable, happy family.
The stream of misery and betrayal that follows is compellingly related. Although few people in Britain are unaware of the saga of incompetence that led to Stephen Lawrence’s killers walking free, to hear in Doreen Lawrence’s own words how, time after time, her family’s hopes were buried in an avalanche of racist indifference is heart-rending. The stereotypes of Black people that led the police initially to assume that her son was probably the victim of a gang-related killing also led them to see Doreen Lawrence as difficult and obstructive because she refused to be patronised and fobbed off with second-class treatment.
This simple refusal to accept that her son’s death was not as important as a White person’s, changed British society. But this change is not the focus of the book, and although she gives credit where it is due, Doreen Lawrence keeps a sense of perspective when handing out praise to people who, although exceptional in her experience, were only doing what they were supposed to do. Of the Labour government that finally agreed to commission an enquiry into the handling of Stephen Lawrence’s murder investigation, for example, she writes: ‘Looking back now, I am sure that if the government had realised all that would come out of the enquiry, they would not have let it take place.’ (p.179).
The passages describing the – clearly very painful – disintegration of her marriage, make for uneasy reading. By writing about their relationship Doreen Lawrence invites other people to judge her and her family, which it is hard to believe was the intention of such a dignified and private woman. The point that really comes across in these passages is that Stephen Lawrence’s killers are not just responsible for the death of one young man but the destruction of a formerly close and loving family.
Doreen Lawrence’s ambivalence about being a public hero for such tragic reasons is set out succinctly in the preface. ‘Two lives ended one chilly April night thirteen years ago. One was the life of my eldest son’, she writes, ‘The second life that ended was the life I thought was mine’. At the end of the book she tries to reconcile this with the public good her son’s death has brought. ‘I take comfort from the fact that Stephen’s name is synonymous with positive change’, she writes, ‘and is linked everywhere with improving race relations’.