Genocide

So I wrote this poem in response to when I was scouting for venues for Soul Food Poetry Northampton; certain places got edgy when I explained that some of the acts that we get read poetry about things like current affairs, politics, war, mental health and so on.

You can’t censor poetry, I don’t think we should censor people’s topics to make it more comfortable. However, we do ask for acts to be creative in how they omit swear words (as there’s sometimes children in the audience).

Art comes in different forms: poetry, prose, theatre, film, photography etc. When an artist’s work isn’t designed to offend, to censor it because certain people disagree with it / feel uncomfortable with it is wrong (to me).

Me performing at Soul Food Poetry Amsterdam
Photographer: Jadzia Kurzak

Surely, if they can commemorate bloody, messy conflicts, poets can talk about politics, war, mental health and other such things in their performances?

These are the same places where come November 11, are decorated with bits of bunting donning the Union Jack flag celebrating the end of World War One, as well as remembering those who have died in other conflicts too (harsh topics indeed).

You can’t have different rules for different people. My poem ‘Genocide’ is inspired from ‘What’s Genocide?’ by Carlos Andrés Gómez.


The pub managers told me we couldn’t perform poetry with profanity,
they said poetry has to be nice, digestible and pleasant,
they said you can’t read poetry that dealt with difficult subjects.

So I ask them:

“Raise your hands if you have heard of The Armistice?”

In congruence, they raised their hands
like mustard gas climbing out of a trench,
like raised bayonets at the Somme or Passchendaele.

“Okay, hands down. Now raise your hand
if you have heard of the Armenian Genocide.”

Vacant expressions blended with a curious ignorance,
like the quivering quiet at Gallipoli,
like throats coloured rotten with gangrene,
voices halfway murmuring,
like lone soldiers whispering from behind barbed wire.
Took place between 1914 and 1917,
massacred at the hands of The Ottoman Empire.

So, what is genocide?

 

They wouldn’t let me perform again
if I read these pieces,
poems that tell stories
of The Other during the World Wars,
works that raise bayonet
against Churchill and Kitchener.
Pieces of a real world war,
not just Europe as I was taught
in the hollow corridors of my schooldays.

I can’t teach grown-ass people
in the audience that the history we know
is part of a wider story
and that it’s okay to admit
the history we learn as children
is very one-sided,
that the nostalgic pride for
Britain’s past is often misguided.

How many glorified films
have we had about Winston Churchill?
A lot, yet he was instrumental
with Dunkirk and the Battle for Britain,
as he stands in Trafalgar Square staring
from the £5-note; though he
advocated for chemical weapons on
Iraqi tribes and called Africans “savages,”
talking about black and brown people
in the language of eugenics and averages.

So, what is genocide?

 

Your statues talk about Nelson’s victories,
but don’t talk about his endorsement of slavery.

World History books omit Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.
They don’t even mention King Leopold and the Congo,
titling it “Politics in the 20th Century”
calling them immigrants-settlers,
rather than land-grabbers and colonisers.

Like Cecil Rhodes, those De Beers
blood diamond mines; imperialists
and their measuring tapes
stealing tribes’ ancestral lands
in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia
laying the foundations for Apartheid
in the southern nations of Africa.

You wonder why Black and Asian children want
to hide in lighter skin with blue and green contact lenses,
history books made them ashamed of their melanin,
forced to build walls, barriers and concrete defences.

So what is genocide?

 

Genocide is Morant Bay, Jamaica.
When the children of slaves
rose up in anger against the British…
A courthouse destroyed. Places were looted,
some were executed; it was a riot
in a place that no longer mattered
in the eyes of the empire.

But it’s what happened next:

the reason every Jamaican has heard of Morant Bay –
the reason why it makes the locals so vex,
the reason why that history is so fresh,
the militia swarmed in like wasps,
hundreds killed in this brutal act of vengeance.
A penance to show the Jamaicans who was boss.

Chantelle gave her daughter
skin-lightening cream
the day before she starts school.

She exists at the end of a gun,
at the end of neo-colonial rules,
European beauty standards raised at half mast

of a bayonet blade cutting fine lines
into her beautiful brown thighs,
killing the sanctity of childhood innocence…

being told “She’s pretty for a dark-skin girl”
in Africa, in America, in England
this place that place around the world.

So, what is genocide?

 

You really

want to

know what

genocide is?

This,

right here,

is genocide!

Hunting Season

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.

Photographer: Ray Hennessy

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,

it says.

Photographer: Jerry Charlton

They promise
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
dead languages
in order to compromise.

At dawn,
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.

Photographer: Rebekah Howell

People say:
“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.”

Cannons (After ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade: A Sociolinguistic Interpretation’ By Nate Boston)

I wrote this poem inspired by ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade: A Sociolinguistic Interepretation’ by Bedfordshire poet Nate Boston.

Additionally, this poem is inspired from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Victorian-era poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809  – 1892).


Who can tell me who William Wilberforce is?
William Pitt? Thomas Clarkson? Josiah Wedgewood?
Am I not a man and a brother?
“I know I know,” came a voice –
“They’re the guys who ended slavery.”
I guess that’s a true story, but not the whole story…
no need for me to exaggerate this allegory,
because to British children of African and Asian descent,
Black stories, Brown tales, Asian past narratives dispensed…
are nothing more than unexplained footnotes in textbooks.

Look, time for an annual analysis,
ready to diagnose Britain’s historical paralysis,
not diagnosing the worries in me,
how Britain views
its nostalgic national pride and its history.
When it comes to that story,
I tell people to ignore the school books
they have been given,
because Britain’s story which is their story
is a book that has not yet been written.

Forward! Always forward!
One league, two leagues,
across perilous seas,
six hundred leagues, to battle!

Cannons!

British history is on every continent,
going from here to there
tooting trumpets, arrogance and dominance.
When it comes to this story,
I do not follow protocol; I do not follow
the half-truths of school history courses,
teaching normalised lies, ignoring how
Britain colonised with horses and naval forces.

Cannon fire all round,
bangs and whizzes,
sounds deafening
from the bellows of Lord Dunmore,
bodies wrought with rot and smell
into the jaws of Hades and hell itself.

Cannons!

I am not interested in five pages on the Slave Trade
when only white saviours are permitted,
not when we have Solomon Northup,
his captors acquitted from justice.
Not when we have Equiano and Nanny,
not when we have Tubman, Jacobs and Mary Prince.
I will not promote infinite whites fighting for abolition
when for screen time, my own people have to audition.

Flashed to sabres naked,
flashed to writhing white eyes,
battle under burning blue skies,
shattered and sundered,
slaves thrown drowned –
the seabed their new stomping ground,
the one hundred and thirty three
conjoined together swallowed by the sea.

Cannons!

I am done showcasing America’s Thanksgiving
whilst Columbus hides behind false fables,
as Washington hides behind Independence Day tables,
America – born from genocide… built by slaves,
tribes, immigration, refugees and more.
Let’s not pretend that that wasn’t a metaphor.
I’m not going to give Columbus the title of explorer.
Thief, outlander, coloniser is more fitting –
partaking in land grabs and splitting continents.

I hate to brainwash young children with these lies.
Check academia, check kid lit; how minorities
oft only see themselves as the set pieces in wider tales
but they’re in the details of news stories on BBC and CNN,
Black and Asian women, children and men condemned again.

The people with something to lose,
brewing wars with High-def cameras and news crews,
trying to convince you with their latest ruse.
They claim the perpetrators are monsters,
yet you have to ask if the narrators have something to gain.
Is there a narrative here or an ideology they’re trying to maintain?

Like captain and first mate
being pirates on the seven seas.
Cannons cannons everywhere
while horse and human fell,
a quelled quiet of thunder and lightning,
wind, rain and cold
whilst man protects his love,
not his life or fellow friends
but gunpowder and gold.

Cannons!

A history repeated
with the anger of an earthquake,
tectonic plates grinding against each other,
thrown into a pan and left to bake.
Starting off as a basic recipe book
and left to simmer, left to cook
and aren’t we quick to eat at the table
without questioning where its contents come from?

Cannons! 

Where Are You From? (After ‘Effing Swings And Roundabouts’ By Lauren D’Alessandro-Heath)

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).


Part I

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 cousin Kelvin, Granddad Sarge, my cousin Barbara, my mom and brother Photographer: Val Forrester

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.

Me, with my cousins Kahlila and Chelsea in Canada
Photographer: Chelsea Moore

Part II

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?

Photographer: Pascal Laurent

Part III

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.”

But of course, I don’t believe them.

#IfSlaveryWasAChoice

I wrote this poem directly inspired from Kanye West. His comments say that he believes the Slave Trade was a choice (for the slaves).

My poem comes from engaging with the memes and threads on the matter, including the frenzy on Twitter and the Facebook comments section.

I did not believe what he said until I saw it myself!


Kanye West said:

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”

No, Mr West, marrying into the Kardashian Family was a choice. Praising Donald Trump was a choice. Uttering provocative comments was a choice.

In 1619, the Dutch brought free blacks to America from Africa as slaves.

If slavery was a choice, master be like “I didn’t tell you to stop pickin’ that cotton, boy!”

And I’d be like “That’s my shift for today. I already signed out. This y’all problem now.”

Slavery was conscripted for the African, for those with black skin, button noses and knotted-hair; many thanks to covert and structural racism, what we now call White Privilege.

Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy in the Roots remake (liked it more than the original) was great
Roots, History Channel

And then master starts tripping, belt buckle flipping, his feet doing that late-night tripping down to the slave shacks, like in the Rape Houses of Bunce Island (Sierra Leone), where he and our ancestors would be together.

Refuse, and he’d get angry, his temperament would change like the weather. And at the same time, the free Blacks of the Americas, like the Maroons, who fled slavery for forests, stuck it to the colonisers and their profits.

If slavery was a choice, all you’d have to do is text ABOLITION to 1863. Mr West, If you really think slavery was a choice, you’re going to love what happened next.

Just text JIM CROW to 1865. Just text SELMA to 1965. Just text MONTGOMERY to 1955. Just text Malcolm to 1965. Just text KING to 1968. And that was the fate of The Slave Trade’s offspring.

But according to you, slavery was a choice, published in the meandering mind of Supreme Overlord Kanye West. This is the same guy who had umpteen hits. Great tracks,

but then proceeded to call himself God and pledge himself to fat cats like Trump, superseding Samuel L. Jackson’s Uncle Tom-figure in Django Unchained. I concede, that you are worse because this is real life not a film, not a kid’s storybook written by children’s authors like Malorie Blackman and A. A. Milne.

You spout your shit on Twitter and TMZ to insight reaction, which is followed by media traction but this is the last straw. Slavery is history. It’s raw. See, that’s how you became you and I became me.

Black people don’t forget. We’re not mermaids just looking pretty. We’re the sirens in the stories of Odysseus and the Greeks. We’re on the rocks singing songs to drag the slavers down to the depths where they buried our ancestors.

Rip muscle from marrow with nine-tail whip. We are remnants of our grandparents’ grandparents. We derive from those who survived the Middle Passage trip. Not all were so fortunate.

Just look at the Zong Case (Massacre). Look at Jonathan Strong and Granville Sharpe. Look at James Somerset.

“No master was ever allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever.” – Lord Mansfield

We are the descendants slavers feared. We lived. The strands of family trees survived the mutinies – Morant Bay, the Southampton Insurrection, the Haitian Revolution, the unruly witch hunts in the American South and in England – in places like Manchester, London and Liverpool.

If slavery was a choice, explain to me why the Underground Railroad existed. Truly. That’s history, sue me. Try telling Harriet Tubman who fled her master’s wrath and then went back to help others in bondage. She freed hundreds despite having a bounty on her head!

And that’s in a school of thought in ode to Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, Ottobah Cugoano from Ghana and Mary Prince, a West Indian slave. It was do or die.

Slavery is written into the dirt. It is written into places like Selma, Alabama. Edmund Pettus Bridge named for the grand dragon in the Klan.

White hoods and confederate flags – flame-bearing, torch-wielding, black-lynching, our bodies swaying in the breeze of Jim Crow and that bridge still stands to this day, still called Edmund Pettus Bridge.

If slavery was a choice, it would be Starbucks saying “you can work here, but twice as hard for not half as much as is the norm, but for no pay.

If slavery was a choice, it would be Applecare saying you can work for us in the United States and not pick cotton.

Actually, it’s Applecare Plus and you would need to opt in within 60 days of choosing to become a slave. Hand on the Bible and… woah!

Mr West, if you get hurt on the job, how much does the Workers’ Union pay you again? Pension, health insurance, equal rights? But you need to fill out a form on the employee Wi-Fi.

And when the overseer calls you nigger you need to call the white, HR official. You are then fired, because HR isn’t there to protect employees but to protect the institution, the company, the Klan.

If slavery was a choice, there would be a field cookout on Labour Day.

If slavery was a choice, I’d be raiding master’s fridge for the cookout.

If slavery was a choice, I’d be making super fly outfits out of master’s cotton.

If slavery was a choice, I’d be at Slave University looking like Prince walked onto the set of Coming to America.

If slavery was a choice, I’d be telling Master to pick his own motherflipping cotton!


“You can’t buy a slave, you’ve got to make a slave.” – Connelly, Roots (2016).