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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
We have to talk about the kick-ass PI in Hell’s Kitchen.
When you’re a vigilante, you don’t live life
by the same rules as everybody else.
When your agency is called Alias Investigations,
that’s code for “own your shit and protect yourself.”
And when you’re connected to a number of murders,
or if there are regular explosions outside your apartment,
shrugging it off and buying a big whisky,
or heading to Kilgrave Castle is not the best idea.
If you’re taking pictures of shadiness and then shady stuff
starts happening, like murder and torture, then maybe
it wouldn’t hurt to take a short break. If you killed the bad guy,
but he’s still in your head, a man that nobody else can see,
don’t just go to the public house cemetery –
in your neighbourhood, in your front yard, and in your bedroom.
When I tell you about the ghosts that live inside Jessica Jones,
when I tell you about the cemetery in her childhood home,
at Alias Investigations and everywhere she goes –
when I tell you trauma is a steep slide with no visible destination,
that the life of Jessica Jones is a photograph that shows
everyone she loves as a garden of bones.
That her panic for her loved ones comes from memoir,
that anxiety is the Grim Reaper and his scythe,
that depression is the bottom of the whisky bottle,
this is the part when most people run for their lives.
To love Jessica Jones is to love an alias,
fun to have for a little while but you will be tired before long.
Sounds like Kilgrave cherry door knocking her muscle memory.
Like the family she once had. Like the new sibling
who tries to love her, even be like her. You are not stupid or brave,
you are jealous and have never seen a haunting before.
This love will not cure me, and it won’t
scrape the glass from the floorboards, but it will turn the lights on
and give me focus. It’s the kind of love that sends chills.
When you tell the ghosts, “If you’re staying, then you better make room,” they start to fidget. We work the case. We turn the music up.
And you say “My God, this office, how whole it feels,
even in the days that nobody comes in or out of it, progress.”
The way that I love Jessica Jones,
like a gentle hand reaching out of the past.
“There are worse things than death. Once you’re worm food, it’s over. Painless. Quiet. While the rest of us are stuck digging holes, picking up the pieces and remembering.”