I wrote this poem inspired from ‘Clocking In’ by poet Mitchell Taylor, in which he talks about the mundanity (yes, I made this word up) of retail.
Mom would drop me at The Cobbles
yes, The Cobbles, I went to a private school
a place of high fees and English smiles
and by English smiles I mean colonial rules
I’d be dropped off at The Cobbles each day
these parents scoffed at £10-notes with enthusiasm
as my parents worked their asses off so I had the best
these children had no nouse
of what it was like to be hungry to go without
what happens without their silver-platter path
rugby matches, horses, weekends in New York
lives of decadence and class
but displays of decadence didn’t stay in class
I was dropped off at The Cobbles each day
a full stop against a white background
just sheepishly reciting those Latinate sounds
I was dropped off at The Cobbles each day
even at ten I knew I was a joke
they were staring at me cus I was brown
they were all clones of each other
I’d now call them happy robots, drones
and those five years gave me depression
taught me how to be toxically selfish, alone
but that chapter of my life’s
been swallowed up in the Cold War I fought
but I’m happier now
I don’t go to private school anymore.
So I wrote this poem inspired by ‘Art Class’ by Rhiannon McGavin, an American poet. This poem also derives my poem Genocide and its inspirations.
Despite society being an abstract noun, I have characterised society as a man. So for the nature of this poem, society is a he.
Society thinks you can’t swear in poetry.
So unto Society I say,
“Raise your hands if you have heard of Auschwitz.”
Instantly, he raises his hands
like mustard gas rising out of a trench.
Okay, hands down.”
Now raise your hands if you have heard
of the Morant Bay Massacre.
Rolling eyes blended with curious stares
a shaking hand ascends
half-raised like a lone soldier
struggling to stand at Passchendaele.
“Are you sure about that?”
“That’s what I thought”
“Society – what’s truth?”
They won’t let you hear it at school
if that person says “fuck.”
Can’t even talk about “fuck”
even though Education’s
been fucking students for years.
You can’t teach a 16-year-old in school
how to swear, how to use language,
how to wear words like body armour
There’s children in London
who carry knives to the library in case they get jumped
and you want to censor language.
“Society – what is history class?”
Your books leave out the Maroons and the Arawaks
Call themselves ‘World History’ and omit
Cecil Rhodes and Zimbabwe, King Leopold,
blood diamond mines and the Congolese Genocide
Fifteen million dead Africans,
call themselves ‘Politics in the Modern World’
and fail to mention Enoch Powell or Apartheid.
Why Black children hide in lighter skin,
dark-skinned girls under the boots of colourism
those with natural hair thrown to sin bin.
Folks thinking Edward Snowden
was a politician educated in Oxbridge.
How can education not include
Julian Assange or Jimmy Carter?
Schools are built in shadows
the grinding teeth of money,
designed under coins and corporations.
They’re sterilising children,
injecting classrooms, drilling
independent thought with silent poison
stifling creativity, making a killing.
Jack hung himself in his bathroom
because he wasn’t smart enough
to meets school standards.
Hannah started bleaching
her daughter’s skin
the day before she started school.
She carves curved lines into her
beautiful brown skin so
she can remember her ancestors.
I wrote this poem inspired from my schooldays and my reflections on that now as an adult, and its related connotations.
Also, this poem talks about how discrimination can happen between privately-educated / state-educated people of the same ethnicity.
This poem was deeply-inspired by ‘Privilege’ by Lacey Roop. She’s a slam poet and author poetry collection And Then Came the Flood.
At fourteen, I was educated with the children of the rich and entitled.
At lunch I sat with them – children who lived in big houses.
Honestly, I disliked most of them. I didn’t want to be one of them.
My mom was a teacher, my father worked in IT.
The parents of these children were lawyers and businesspeople.
In other words, they sold lies for a living; however, like my colleagues, I never knew the meaning of without or hungry.
Some of the friends I made at school were people who had never encountered people of colour before – other than those they saw on television.
I grew up around people who had names like Seonai and Winston and Darius and Precious and Paris and Isaiah.
And they grew up with people who had names like Mary-Kate, Anna-Grace, Elizabeth-Anne, Tom-Harry and John-Paul.
By today’s standards, they’d be known as progressive white folks who had more money than they knew what to do with.
They were the offspring of people who felt uncomfortable around someone like me, a child – whose last name wasn’t Jones or Smith, whose skin tone was a shade too dark, too dug up earth for their white picket fence.
One time, I was invited to a party. Drugs and underage girls littered it like confetti. The houses of lawyers and CEOs and surgeons, people who had inherited everything they owned.
When other Black people here how I talk, they question who I am. They question my ethnicity and identity.
Just because when I spill the heart contents of my chest, they ask if I am really Black. Because I talk too well for this colour.
As if my blood is not infested with the same slave plantation mud as theirs. I do not hate my skin but I’m often ashamed of those who share the same melanin as me.
Judging me on my RP and how I was raised, not what I say or how I behave. I hear people say, “If you know better than do better.”
This is why I can’t gawk from the side lines when I see Black people putting each other down. When I see colourism dividing us by our different shades of brown.
Black Privilege is feeling the bitterness of other people who look like me. This private school childhood is being the token Black.
It’s knowing my mouth is more bulletproof than Charlottesville which is why I use this mouth loud, even in the face of that bitterness.
To keep certain ears attuned to “You know better so be better.” For my eyes to be whitewashed and imperialised. Black privilege is a fiction, a fantasy.
It’s the assumptions people make because they hear my softly-spoken syntax – this relaxed tone of voice. This privilege-sounding tongue-tied man subverting stereotypes.
It’s the judgements we take without thinking. I was stop and searched by police for simply blinking… wrong place wrong time.
Having privilege is never having to think or talk about it. I’m always thinking and talking about it.
And if we all have voices to use, why on Earth should we stay silent?
I wrote this poem on my own experiences of childhood bullying inspired by the poem ‘Nothing is For Nothing’ by American poet and songwriter Jill Scott.
I had been playing chess longer than time itself,
being whatever piece they wanted me to
whenever they wanted me to be it – a freak, a chess piece on checkered sheets,
being black, white, bishop, knight,
king or queen, a game unclean.
Played by my classmates
because of an apparent defect.
I accepted it because
I didn’t want to be alone,
now I’m trying to atone for my sins.
A childhood of wanting be wanted
by those other than my family.
I continued this image of “friends”,
laughs and jokes with them
often at my emotional expense.
Not friends at all,
pretending to fit in,
jibes at my melanin,
their image of a wet dream.
They thought I was
exotic, wild, neurotic, a freak.
Their cricket ball, for six I’d slog.
They told me to
“Go back to the trees I came from.”
I was monkey man, coon, nigger, wog.
And everybody walked around,
whispering about me,
like being able to run fast was synonymous
with members of my caste –
like Britain wasn’t suffocating
under its nostalgia raised at half-mast,
like there was nothing to laugh at other than
this slave running free on their plantation.
But when I was taking wickets and scoring tries
I wasn’t discriminated against, there were no jibes.
I was a gentleman, a man –
it was a sham. It really was, wasn’t I good for the cause?
Seems not, because the schools I went to
were this close to practicing colonial laws.
Intelligent, great cricketer,
good rugby player, head down,
but I was brown. Not good enough.
I was a firing lion,
like Michael Holding or Andy Roberts.
I was calm like Clive Lloyd,
but test me, and Vivian Richards will find you.
Knocking that ball right back twice as fast.
They wanted me to be obedient and docile,
stupid and oblivious. Working twice
as hard than everyone else, like a freak.
There I was selling my soul for acceptance.
Struggling not to be the latest generation
of slaves on my family tree.
Struggling to gain, gain nothing
but vexation, confusion, frustration, illusions.
As there was no love, just leeches
dressed as teachers in instituions that take.
Children of posh privileged people that flake
when life gets too hard,
when they get gruel and lard instead of steak,
when they didn’t get a pony for Christmas,
when they crashed their first car (it was a Jaguar).
Whatever happened to going outside and playing in the park
or dealing Pokemon cards like Pikachu and Charizard?
But all they cared about were horses and porches, Daddy’s cigars.
There was no love from their parents,
just empty condom wrappers where their hearts should have been.
And that’s what takers do, they push the self-esteem out of you.
And now I am the me you see now, the me
that joined Soul Food Poetry and holds onto himself
with both hands and all feet.
The me that must love and be loved in return,
but knows that love and hate is learned.
The me that is passionate, confident
and smart with self-respect.
Taught himself to love himself
because the freak didn’t.
I’m not a freak, I’m a man.
I wrote this poem inspired from ‘Effing Swings and Roundabouts’ by fellow poet and friend Lauren D’Alessandro-Heath where she dissects her name and its connotations through poetry and spoken words.
Additionally, this poem came from my three-week stint in Toronto and Ottawa (Canada) when Uber drivers kept asking me “Where are you from?” as “the UK” wasn’t good enough for them.
In my poem, I aim to do the same thing with my names and their baggage, as well as answering the quintessential question.
This is a question that is asked on a regular basis to people who look different, those that show otherness, including whites.
Where Are You From?
Enjoy (mind you, it’s a long one so buckle up). Above is a reading of my own poem, followed by the text version (below).
That day in history class, I was giving the teacher a grilling; talking at speed about the chosen truths they make kids read.
I paused, preparing my trident for war like Poseidon, preparing to debate with spitting snakes of Medusa.
Her speech hisses, her mouth a boneyard of teeth, like the streets of England below, a radio with its back ripped off.
Her mouth leans in and asks:
“Where are you from?”
And I laugh, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked. Could it be my brown skin, my frizzy hair? Alien? This Martian melanin man too dark to not have come from foreign soil.
My name has been Ventour and Griffiths. That’s where I am from. But I’m also Noel and Welsh. I come from Parkes and Baptiste. Moore and Clouden.
Slave names given to my ancestors who endured the Trade so I could have my life, that outlasted the raids of West Africa for gunpowder and gold.
I can trace these names back to Grenada and Jamaica. Ventour and Noel come from my mother’s family, originating in Grand Roy and St George’s.
Grenadian, or French like Mr Coloniser’s name.
My family back home, now country bumpkins, farmers, real estate holders, gardeners inheriting those allotments from those who carried our forbears as human cargo.
Grenada… Isle of Spice, paradise, soca and calypso, the world’s second biggest exporter of nutmeg, then there’s those submerged slave statues in St George’s Bay.
My father’s family…
Griffiths and Parkes, from Manchester and Portland, Jamaica. Jerk chicken and Rastafarianism. Reggae – Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs,
sound systems booming from forests, parties in bush down dirt tracks far from GPS and Google Earth. Ackee and saltfish. Dreadlocks and Patois.
Walking down a dirt road, there’ll be two men playing dominoes on a box next to a goat. Solve the riddle and they will tell you where you need to go like it’s a Skyrim side quest. I jest,
but I know both cultures and countries, that my names come from killing nations, the cremations of traditions, religions and languages.
Slavery and dictatorships as blood sports from the ends of nine tails, and the flailing bodies from trees round Jamaica and Grenada;
Ghana and Nigeria; Ivory Coast and Senegal; from the ships that sailed slaves down the Thames, from the slave markets of Bristol – both sides of the Atlantic.
My names mean strong, mean survivor, like Nanny de Maroon.
Black women had it far worse than the men. Out there in the trenches, fighting rape and master. Fighting his wife, and the knife of the ship’s captain.
How many immigrants and refugees would have stayed in their homelands if the West hadn’t colonised these countries to begin with?
And I think it’s sad that more ten-year olds have heard of Henry VIII and Boudicca than of Cecil Rhodes, Rhodesia and blood diamonds.
I think it’s sad that more young Black men have heard of Versailles than of the Carib and Arawak tribes, than of boxing pioneers like Bill Richmond in the Georgian East End of London.
I think it’s sad that if schools teach slavery, they only talk about Wilberforce, Clarkson and Pitt, politicians who fought for abolition through politics, who never experienced master’s wrath, slave codes, whips or journeyed in the hulls of ships.
We don’t learn about the lawyers and the judges. We don’t learn about Lord Mansfield and the Zong or the case of Granvillle Sharpe and Jonathan Strong.
We don’t learn about the slaves who freed themselves, like Harriet Jacobs, like Nat Turner, like Harriet Tubman, like Nanny of the Maroons, like the island of Haiti.
We don’t learn about conquest through the courtroom; the United States versus the Amistad; Somerset versus Stewart; the real Solomon Northup versus Birch.
In 1765, a teenage boy was admitted to London’s St Bart’s. His master had beaten him badly. Left him to wind, rain and cold – left to die.
Sharpe found Jonathan, paid his medical bills and probably saved his life. Sharpe could have left him to the cold, sold him for gold. But he didn’t…
An act of kindness. Two years later, Strong was abducted and sold to Jamaican slaver. Determined to be free, he plead to Sharpe for help. Not wanting to become part of the next slave ship mutiny. Not wanting to be swallowed by the seas.
This case was not isolated. Blacks were being poached up and down this island nation, cartered onto ships and sold back into mass incarceration.
Sharpe was no lawyer, no legal training; he was just a man, a human being who saw an injustice being commited.
He was conscripted to the ideals of British freedom. This was about morality, this was about what made Strong’s life worth less than his own?
This was about how could he hold his head up in the street if he left this boy to certain death?
He had an unflinching moral compass. What was immoral could not be legal.
In 1772, he won a test case that outlawed slavery in England.
Where were Strong and Sharpe in my lessons?
I know we are descended from a mighty people, gave civilisation to the world, survived the hulls and holes of Jim Crow, Apartheid and Slavery.
People that innovated, created, loved – despite tortures unimaginable. They’re in my blood and in yours too. That’s how I became me and you became you.
This comes with good food, family barbeques, jokes and rice and kidney beans, a close-knit family, grandmothers whose first question when I walk through doors is:
“You hungry? Have you eaten?” Sustenance of life, soul food, dare I say poetry? My soul starting to shake, leaving my body as I find hidden wedges thick like steak that Grandma has put in the fish cake.
Weekly, I am asked “Where are you from?” Clearly not from here. But I speak the coloniser’s language pretty well. I do not speak the broken English-French Grenadian tongues that my Great-Grandma Toile did.
I investigate family mysteries, like having a white Irish great-great grandfather called Street. I see India in my grandmother, West Indian Indian…
many call it Cooli – many come from Trinidad who are Kenyan-Indian in descent. More questions there!
All these questions tell me I have to validate my existence to see which country of poor Black people far far away I come from.
Stories that made me and my genealogy, scouting in pedigree and family history. I look at my reflection and see my face, a conglomerated peoples and cultures that drifted from place to place.
But when I am asked “Where are you from”, I laugh. I give them my history, that I speak bits and pieces of French, that I understand some of the split tongues of the Caribbean
that I speak in metaphors and similes. That I speak in poetry and spoken word, villanelle, soliloquy and free verse.
I give them my life story, leaving them perplexed casting a hex on their ideas of indigenousness.
But I can laugh, when someone asks “Where are you from?” That my skin screams, Motherland. Not England, Africa.
And I watch my identities multiply into a million diaspora. Each once whole, whispering “We used to be whole. We used to be one.”