I wrote this poem as a companion to my poem Good Immigrant, a poem whose title comes from a book of creative nonfiction edited by Nikesh Shukla.
Black & British is inspired from a poem called A Black Americanand the book and television documentary series Black and British: A Forgotten History.
When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean from across the sea
there were already natives there who were content and free.
And those who were bought, sold and thrown from the slave ship Zong
were brainwashed by slavers into thinking their skin colour was wrong.
Simultaneously the free Blacks without chains
mated with local tribes like the Caribs and the Arawaks
and White history. And because of this,
we’re a market of multi-coloured fruits,
so to the hoots with pure bloodlines
and according to geography and genealogy
the first Britons may well have been Black.
As we’re a people of many shades, clans and tans,
from Idris Elba to Thandie Newton to Cheddar Man.
And through migration
our characteristics changed and genetics cracked
and bits of everything seeped in
creating pick n mix nations and historical revelations.
I am Black and African and European
and West Indian but I don’t know who I am
I’m human and that’s my identity.
A good immigrant,
because our ancestors went from place to place,
and that’s everyone’s family tree.
Once upon a time I was called nigger
and wog and coon and coloured
my Windrush grandparents suffered this too
in a Technicolor society, in the 60s
where they walked with purpose
as Black was beautiful.
But I’m still feeling edgy about being
Black and British; and if you think
being called a Black Briton
eases my mind, you’re wrong
putting my ear to the doors of
Holdenby, Sandringham and Althorpe
to hear the sad odes of slave songs.
There are many Black Britons
whose parents moved
from Cameroon and Nigeria,
Haiti and Grenada,
Barbados and Jamaica,
And if you go to Africa and the West Indies
in search of your race,
you will only find another Briton
lost in a foreign place.
However, your heritage
is everywhere. Look at all the
shades of our skin. Black is not
a colour, it’s the epicentre
of the society we’re living in.
If you choose to be called British
I won’t persist. I know I’m not
the only one struggling
with their identity,
as the land I was born in
is a historical penitentiary.
I was born British
but raised West Indian.
Who am I? I don’t know yet.
But just let me be
and I’ll figure it out,
I wrote this poem inspired by a post on Instagram by London-based poet, rapper and, well, lyricist, Nate, about the British Museum.
Additionally, ‘The Evidence Room’ is inspired by ‘Custard and Curry’ by Canadian poet Robyn Sidhu.
London’s ‘The British Museum’ is the blackface of British History. Will Britain ever give these items back? Not a chance!
Though, I do recall reading an article saying they’d loan items back to Nigeria and Ethiopia; to this day Britain still acts like it’s 1834.
Our introduction to Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) in Marvel’s Black Panther just sums all these feelings up so well.
This video was filmed last night (September 26) at Studio 88 on Leicester Square by SFP videographer, Kevyn Ricard (big up yourself!)
One day in January, I was caught in a conversation with a man who thought imperialism was GREAT! That the British Empire was awesome! With the constant questions and statements, it felt like a date so that’s what I’m going to call it.
And so I thought, should I really be here?
I was in fear of his mind, confined to nostalgia –
bits of bunting swaying in the breeze,
like nooses hanging from trees in a Jim Crow South.
I think of The British Museum… should I really be here?
I haven’t quite decided yet. Look, when
I see those artefacts I see quashed rebellions and resistance.
I see livelihoods as blood sports, so I begin to think
of The British Museum and the Victoria & Albert too…
When I tell my White friends this, they are confused.
I tell them “Yes I am British.”
Well, British-West Indian-West African
maybe a bit of Indian and Chinese
there as well I don’t actually know.
They are confused
since my passport says British Citizen,
that makes me British, right?
Or does it make me part-white?
Or was it just when
my grandparents and great-grandparents
sacrificed white beaches for Windrush anthems?
And a few centuries earlier,
my five, six and seven times grandparents
traded the Gold Coast for slavery;
that doesn’t mean I am any more or less British
than John, Jack or James because
I have the pigment of a cocoa bean.
On our date, I sip on my water.
He sips on his coffee, he talks about
how he prefers it without sugar.
I think Demerara.
Just the beans and water you know?
Sugarcane plants from bank to bank,
slaves outflanked by overseer ships.
Nationality in binary terms is messy
because it’s not binary.
He reveals a bacon sandwich
squirts ketchup onto it
and presses the bits of bread together.
Bits of red slipping sliding
oozing abusing the paper bag –
dripping down onto floor
as he lay his heritage before me –
a quarter this, a third that.
I concur that I share this fractured history.
If you dissect my body,
if you cut into my torso and limbs,
you will find rivers of European blood
that swims with the gene pool of colonisers.
I am the red wine gushing
from the wounds of little Ashanti boys.
I am the Caribs of Grenada
jumping to their deaths from Leapers’ Hill
to escape the French slave traders.
I am Jamaica and the Maroons.
Nanny, she was Ashanti you know.
Came over in chains
but she never forgot who she was
despite the British putting them
to work sugarcane fields,
beaten and raped to yield harvest.
The Maroons resisted, Nanny persisted.
Ran for the hills,
fighting off the British for eighty years.
Ran for the Blue Mountains,
put colonisers’ heads on spikes.
No White man was safe
from the Maroons in the moonlight.
Maroon masters of camouflage,
attired in leaves. Still as trees
before they struck in the dark.
The Brits had the tech
but the Maroons had
the will, determination, magic…
this is the birth of Jamaica… real independence.
I am watered down White man,
colonisers who forced their way
onto my family tree
entwined themselves with
each bit of branch, bark and leaf
became part of the canopy –
mixed, meshed and mingled with soil
hijacking stem cells, membranes and nucleus
claiming they created photosynthesis.
I guess the concept of privilege
can be traced to history.
His presence, his words, are warning me
he is here to pillage the uncivilised
to steal a bounty for his wife.
On our date,
I watch his hands grasp his coffee.
I try to imagine them touching me.
I am uncomfortable, unnerved,
he smells like Rwanda being burnt to ash.
The woman that waits on him helps give birth
to his malignant anti-migrant mentality.
I may be immigrant,
grandchild of colonialism,
birthed from chains,
child of slaves and servants,
who worked the fields,
as our last names were
gambled with the ocean.
I may father multiracial children
who will be forced into cold welcomes,
but you are what sullied my pigment,
forced my flesh from
Mother Africa to begin with,
like a C-section
for gold, minerals and artefacts –
from the Ashanti in Ghana
to the Edo People of Benin,
my ancestors that lost their souls
so you could talk about Great Britain.
On this date that’s not a date,
he tells me I look mixed-race.
What does that even mean?
I could be half-white.
Should I take that as a compliment?
Being part-slave part-coloniser,
as if colonised is the new black,
as if being the same colour as the people
who plundered and slaughtered
those they thought lacked civilisation is ideal.
On our date,
he expects me to educate him
on centuries worth of colonial history
after he was previously defending it.
Instead I say:
I am one of the many voices
of the African Diaspora.
Yes, I am European. Yes, I am British.
Yes I am Caribbean. Yes, I am African.
I hear rumours
of Indian and Chinese in my lineage as well.
This is why we shouldn’t talk
about nationality and ethnicity as binary terms.
I tell him I am not the final resting place for his White guilt.
I will not carry his pride and mind in brass pots
like the water my forbears used to carry on their heads.
I am tired of talking to people like him
who seem to think I need validation
from someone who talks
like they grew up on a slave ship.
I can’t settle for this shit any longer,
that giving a big tip
to an Indian waiter isn’t
the first step towards repairing
centuries of racism and degradation.
He pauses, finishes his coffee.
Tries to keep face, tries
to recover his bravado and breathes…
I wrote this poem as prequel-sequel to “Grandma’s House” and it’s very loosely based on “The Type” by poet Sarah Kay.
When you grow up in a West Indian household most things turn into a joke, eventually (whether you like it or not).
Growing up Black is me as a child opening the cabinet of glasses to be told no. They’re there for display like a museum exhibition.
It’s going to the cutlery draw to set the table for dinner and be told “not them ones.” They’re mash up. “Take these; them the good ones” – from a big container in the conservatory inside a box inside of another box behind something like it’s the fifth Indiana Jones film.
It’s Grandma telling me to hide when the Jehovah’s Witness come knocking at ridiculous times in the evening.
It’s answering the door to that one relative who turns up when the word on the grapevine is that Grandma’s been cooking – the fried chicken, the saltfish, the oxtail, the curry goat, the rice and peas, – the full shebang!
You had him at saltfish. He’s at the door within an hour. We call him The Tupperware King and he’s as persistent as an IOS update. Not even a lie!
listening to Grandma Cathy tell me about her mother is like hearing about Nanny de Maroon. Grandma Toile she was called –
she was no school. She was no speak English. She spoke French and double Dutch. She spoke a version of English that some understood but she was pure Patois, ready to survive with head, mouth and heart.
Growing up Black was going to watch my grandfather do gigs in his steelband. Tune after tune, whilst the band drink dodgy beers that look like they were made in a popup factory.
Growing up Black is cringing every time the English say Goat Curry. Growing up Black is learning about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam before you reach your tenth birthday.
It’s being introduced to N.W.A and Public Enemy at thirteen. It’s being told about your lack of privilege by your mom, that you ain’t like your white friends; you have to work twice as hard for half as much.
It’s being followed around the supermarket by security seconds after walking in. It’s being at Grandma’s House and finding anything but butter or margarine in that container.
It’s having aunties and uncles and grandparents who buy everything big. And I don’t mean big, I mean flipping enormous! Two-kilogram bottles of ketchup. It’s being at weddings and funerals and there being the token Caribbean buffet. Sweet Christmas!
It’s being told that there’s no pepper in the saltfish fritters until it’s lodged in your throat. Grandma’s joke at everyone’s expense.
It’s walking into the living room met with mustard gas, and by that I mean fog that burns. Not hot sauce from Tesco, I’m talking sauce fresh from our homeland, the small islands – the Caribbean, the West Indies and the Dutch Antilles.
Yellow liquid gunge, filled with bits and pieces. Someone has home-grown the Grim Reaper and put him into a plastic water bottle, labelled Hot Sauce in black marker pen. It should be called Put This On Your Food If You Don’t Want To Live Sauce.
It’s watching my grandfather and his friends slap dominoes on the table. Bloodclart!! followed by laughs and gulps of Wray, Appleton and what I like to call Cerberus, named for that dog that guards the gates of the Underworld. One sip of Rivers Rum is enough to knock a person out for a fortnight.
Growing up Black is being told you’re a great cricketer. You’re like a Michael Holding or Clive Lloyd. And those pioneers became my idols – Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Colin Croft, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers. Top top players of the game at the highest level.
It’s testing what your white friends say to their parents to your parents. It’s safe to say I lived… just about.
Growing up Black is living on a fault line between identities, it’s telling your family about the first time you were called nigger whilst ticking British on the application form. They will understand.
It’s being looked at oddly when you show your passport at customs abroad. Where are you from? No, really, where are you from? Making you feel you like you don’t belong.
From Slavery to Windrush; from the Nationality Act to Brexit; from curry goat and rice in a butter container to a hostile immigration policy,
growing up Black is family and community. It’s dinner round the table. It’s history and politics and West Indian superstitions.
It’s kakaje, sleep dust. It’s a childhood and upbringing in Dutch pots and crisp n dry. It’s immigration in plastic. It’s a family that spans thousands of miles and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
This poem is in response to a challenge by fellow Northampton poet Justin Thyme and it’s inspired by the land of Wakanda in Africa.
Wakanda is a fictional country in the MCU and the setting of Black Panther, a superhero film that has lots to say about postcolonialism.
This is a long one, so buckle up…
If you turn on any western news programme today, you’ll see stories of a poor Africa. A continent of poverty, disease and famine but it isn’t so. There’s rich Black folk there, living it large and I’m not talking about the men in Nigeria in their big houses.
Let’s go to the land of Wakanda where there were no terrible big boats, there were no white men taking slaves and telling Blacks how to behave.
But there were tribes tripping on each other, fighting one another for the crown of the greatest kingdom on earth, the land of Wakanda.
At the same time, the Black folks in the Americas who were free were mating with local tribes like the Amerindians and the Cherokee.
But Wakanda is true Africa, free from the whip, colonial quips, also the legacy of European slave ships. Do you understand?
And as a result, Wakanda is a land of every shade. From light skin to dark skin, no room for colourism to carry on with its colour chart sin bin.
Not like in Europe and America, in this day and age who put light skin on a pedestal and treat dark-skinned women like the cargo that came through Liverpool.
Wakanda got no time for diaspora rules; British, American, Dutch, French. It doesn’t matter. Black is black, Killmonger is on the right track.
He knew that the African was the first on the scene and him being from across the water did not mean he was any worse or better than his brethren.
Through the migration of his father, his culture started to change and rearrange like the slaves who had to adapt to the West Indies and England.
So really, if we’re going to go all the way back, and I mean it. Then Adam and Eve may well have been black which kind of means that everyone on Earth is an African. Everybody is Wakandan. Even Mr Coloniser and the Christian slavers. Imagine that!
So if everyone is an African something, even the Indians and their caste system. They’re African Indians and so on. And the origin of humanity is with the African.
And if one drop of Black blood makes you Black like people say, than everyone’s Wakandan anyway.
Yet, I’m not colour-blind. I’ve got White friends. I’ve got Asian friends but I bet if they gander through their family tree far enough. Perhaps they might find an ancestor that looks like King T’Challa in handcuffs.
However, I’m not trying to change your identity. You all already been born and raised in different nations, some thanks to the devastation of diaspora and colonisation.
I was born British but I tick Other. I’m Black. Born in England. West Indian grandparents on both sides, look wider and I’d have been an African. Dare I say Wakandan, had Africa been allowed to realise itself?
And not been made to sit on the colonisers’ shelf. At ten years old, I was called nigger. In America they say that too. They say Negro as well but those slurs for slurs’ sake have vanished (kind of) and Negro is just how you say black in Spanish.
I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. And it seems we’re back in a time when even Black people can’t get along because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that our skin colour is wrong.
And then Black Panther came showing us to be good. Where we fought each other but there was democracy among the peoples of Wakanda where we walked with purpose and Black was beautiful.
And I’ve even been criticised for celebrating my colour. How about 800 years of White history? That Euro-centric UK curriculum. #JustSaying.
Who even comes up with this stuff anyway?
Was it just a few guys feeling insecure so they decided to create all this racial rhetoric? So they thought African-American and Black Briton sounded a bit more exotic.
Labels make people feel euphoric. Kind of like how Lenny Henry was the only Black man allowed on British television in the 80s. There can only be one! And there’s BAFTA! (Black Britons eff off to America).
And as a result, a lot of Black British artists ended up broke. And that is why we needed Black Panther, as Wakanda represented us all, not just America as is the norm for the mainstream.
People who look like me doing things that are often attributed to Mr Coloniser. Sounds about white and I know there are some people here who recently moved from Grenada and Ghana and Gambia – and Ireland and Holland and America – and Brazil and Benin and India.
But not the peoples whose family lived in the country for generations (I’m only the second of mine) but the people who are from various locations. We’re from everywhere. If you follow the epic wingspan of genealogy, you’ll find your very own Cheddar Man.
Your heritage and history is in the country you’re in, not just your melanin. But it’s also out there in the world. And I’m ready to leave England, but it’s also my home. It’s a leader in oppression and suffering and grieving.
But they must be doing something right, because there’s so many coming and so few leaving. And if you go to Africa in search of your essence, you’ll find breadcrumbs, traces and no pure races.
I love being Black but I’ve never been to Africa. I know Britain better than the country of my ancestors. I’ve never seen Bunce Island or Elmina or Freetown.
What if colonisation didn’t happen? What if there was no slavery? That’s my Africa. Untainted and pure, able to realise itself. Wakanda Forever.
We’ve all just changed so much; many thanks to diaspora and migration it’s no mystery, because we all share a little Black History.