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 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.”