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 narrative poem inspired from the film Moana (2016), in my opinion one of the best Disney animated films since Lion King(1994).
The first time I watch Moana, I am in awe. It’s a spectacle to see that Disney actually made a film about a princess who’s not subjected to the Male Gaze and she’s of colour!
Warrior, battle-born, adventurer, explorer with all the fight, like Lagertha and Merida, as I hear the palpitations in my chest.
I smirk when she explores the concept of origins through song and dance. ‘Where You Are’ through customs and cultures of Motunui,
I stay quiet when they talk about old traditions;
I stay quiet when they talk about village mentality;
I stay quiet when they talk about safety and seclusion;
I stay quiet when they talk about coconuts and trees;
those vexations, confusion, frustrations, illusions –
as if my own family didn’t have versions of these conversations before they left the sunlit Caribbean for England’s wind, rain and cold.
She dreams like I do, travelling far away as the ocean calls her name. The world is wide and exploration pulls young minds and souls.
I wince when something bad happens to her, dragging a brown body storming down Middle Passage – a rain dance gasping under swash.
At night, I catch her looking into the the sky – thinking, wandering… wondering what will happen if she fails to the sound of splish splosh.
But Maui promises that he is one of the good ones. In her dreams, she walks though her village promising to make the woods great again.
And if she fails, it’s byebye Motunui; it’s an X on Maui. The same X on her parents. She asks him to meet her halfway, to reach across oceans,
bending continents in half… from sheer determination, to not walk over future generations of dead Polynesian bodies in order to compromise.
You know at night, I remember the first time I watched that film – the song and dance thumb bites to the Male Gaze and patriarchy,
plus representation in front and behind the camera. It’s a safety net, that Moana is one of the good ones.
That she’s strong, that she will get back to the paradise she calls home having restored the Heart of Te Fiti,
This poem is inspired by some of the characters of my childhood, in addition to Fire Season by James Galvin and ‘One of the Good Ones’ by A. M. Pressman.
I went to school with children of privilege,
synonymous with the English upper-middle class
and the first time I went to their houses
I stared up at the mounted heads,
bold as brass looking down upon me.
Stags’ heads, boars’ heads,
hollowed out skulls
like the Egyptian from the days
of Tutankhamen, Cleopatra and Nefertiti.
They are the only brown things in the room,
showing me how to be “one of the good ones” –
open-mouthed mounted mammals,
hollow shells shelled with bullets.
I laugh at the homeowners’ jokes
and I can hear the oxymoron in my chest.
I stay silent as they endorse fox hunting.
I stay silent as they insult immigrants.
I stay silent as they recite colonial-era poetry.
I stay silent,
as they tell me how they freed
poor African children last summer,
as if they will try to decolonise me too.
I know they voted Tory, as their ancestors did before them.
How long will it be before I become a head on the wall?
How long until my bones sit in the British Museum?
I wonder if I they already view me as one of their trophies.
I grimace every time they talk about their friends’ servants,
people who come from places like South America and Africa.
They go on to talk about Terry and his manservant.
I wince every time they brag about their friends who boast
about the bleeding brown bodies that keep his household upright.
But sometimes at night, I catch
these people staring into the eyes on the wall,
dark orbs of stone you know?
They know what they did;
they can still feel the blood splatter,
like the indelibly etched ink of tattoos.
They tell them they’re sorry,
promising that they’re
“some of the good ones.”
In the days after Brexit;
I thought about them, the Head Collecters.
The days after Brexit; it was open season.
It was hunting season on British streets.
Bits of bunting flapping in the breeze
like bodies over Mississippi and Georgia,
looked like treason was making a comeback,
more comebacks than Nigel Farage
as history starts to repeats itself.
In my smothering dreams,
I walk into my year-nine class…
there’s a hat on my seat with a promise:
Hunting Means Hunting,
to Make the Woods Great Again,
to put the Great
back in Great Britain.
And it feels like someone
has drawn an X on my chest
with ninety lashes. It’s the same hat
that the children of my youth wear now.
They ask me to meet them halfway,
to reach across the shop aisle,
bypassing sugarcane and soy sauce,
nutmeg and chocolate; tea and coffee;
rice and tobacco; indigo and cotton!
They ask if I care
to walk over corpses
that look like me.
They ask me
to forget the countries
that their ancestors
put on their backs.
They ask me to forget
in order to compromise.
I walk through Northampton
to the sound of history’s cries.
I see my not-so-childhood friends,
they know what their parents did.
They feel guilty; they still feel
my brittle bones in their hands,
skull and crossbones raised at half-mast.
“The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”
But the Head Collectors said:
“The darker the meat the longer the noose.”
They hold my head in their hands and say
“You’re one of the good ones, but it’s hunting season.”
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.”