Growing Up Black

I wrote this poem as prequel-sequel to “Grandma’s House” and it’s very loosely based on “The Type” by poet Sarah Kay.


When you grow up in a West Indian household most things turn into a joke, eventually (whether you like it or not).

Growing up Black is me as a child opening the cabinet of glasses to be told no. They’re there for display like a museum exhibition.

It’s going to the cutlery draw to set the table for dinner and be told “not them ones.” They’re mash up. “Take these; them the good ones” – from a big container in the conservatory inside a box inside of another box behind something like it’s the fifth Indiana Jones film.

It’s Grandma telling me to hide when the Jehovah’s Witness come knocking at ridiculous times in the evening.

It’s answering the door to that one relative who turns up when the word on the grapevine is that Grandma’s been cooking – the fried chicken, the saltfish, the oxtail, the curry goat, the rice and peas, – the full shebang!

You had him at saltfish. He’s at the door within an hour. We call him The Tupperware King and he’s as persistent as an IOS update. Not even a lie!

Growing up Black is told tales of my great-grandparents, recited like urban legends. The Windrush Generation

listening to Grandma Cathy tell me about her mother is like hearing about Nanny de Maroon. Grandma Toile she was called –

she was no school. She was no speak English. She spoke French and double Dutch. She spoke a version of English that some understood but she was pure Patois, ready to survive with head, mouth and heart.

Growing up Black was going to watch my grandfather do gigs in his steelband. Tune after tune, whilst the band drink dodgy beers that look like they were made in a popup factory.

Growing up Black is cringing every time the English say Goat Curry. Growing up Black is learning about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam before you reach your tenth birthday.

It’s being introduced to N.W.A and Public Enemy at thirteen. It’s being told about your lack of privilege by your mom, that you ain’t like your white friends; you have to work twice as hard for half as much.

Photographer: Olivier Collet

It’s being followed around the supermarket by security seconds after walking in. It’s being at Grandma’s House and finding anything but butter or margarine in that container.

It’s having aunties and uncles and grandparents who buy everything big. And I don’t mean big, I mean flipping enormous! Two-kilogram bottles of ketchup. It’s being at weddings and funerals and there being the token Caribbean buffet. Sweet Christmas!

It’s being told that there’s no pepper in the saltfish fritters until it’s lodged in your throat. Grandma’s joke at everyone’s expense.

It’s walking into the living room met with mustard gas, and by that I mean fog that burns. Not hot sauce from Tesco, I’m talking sauce fresh from our homeland, the small islands – the Caribbean, the West Indies and the Dutch Antilles.

Yellow liquid gunge, filled with bits and pieces. Someone has home-grown the Grim Reaper and put him into a plastic water bottle, labelled Hot Sauce in black marker pen. It should be called Put This On Your Food If You Don’t Want To Live Sauce. 

Photographer: Ali Yahya

It’s watching my grandfather and his friends slap dominoes on the table. Bloodclart!! followed by laughs and gulps of Wray, Appleton and what I like to call Cerberus, named for that dog that guards the gates of the Underworld. One sip of Rivers Rum is enough to knock a person out for a fortnight.

Growing up Black is being told you’re a great cricketer. You’re like a Michael Holding or Clive Lloyd. And those pioneers became my idols – Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Colin Croft, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers. Top top players of the game at the highest level.

It’s testing what your white friends say to their parents to your parents. It’s safe to say I lived… just about.

Growing up Black is living on a fault line between identities, it’s telling your family about the first time you were called nigger whilst ticking British on the application form. They will understand.

It’s being looked at oddly when you show your passport at customs abroad. Where are you from? No, really, where are you from? Making you feel you like you don’t belong.

From Slavery to Windrush; from the Nationality Act to Brexit; from curry goat and rice in a butter container to a hostile immigration policy,

growing up Black is family and community. It’s dinner round the table. It’s history and politics and West Indian superstitions.

It’s kakaje, sleep dust. It’s a childhood and upbringing in Dutch pots and crisp n dry. It’s immigration in plastic. It’s a family that spans thousands of miles and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Windrush

“Windrush” is a poem inspired from David Lammy’s speech about members of the Windrush Generation being evicted from Britain.

The Windrush are the people who came from the Caribbean between 1948 and the early 1960s to help with Britain’s postwar labour shortages.

Thousands of UK families only exist today because of the Windrush coming here; many fell on hard times when they came in the 1940s and the 1960s.

People like my great-grandparents came in the second wave of immigrants in the early 1960s, my grandmother from Grenada was six years old at that time.

They came for a better life. England was a land that had this myth-status throughout the colonies. It was dubbed a nation that “was paved with gold.”

This poem is inspired by David Lammy’s inspirational speech but it’s also directly influenced by “Directives” by American poet Olivia Gatwood.


The first British ships arrived in the Caribbean in 1623, and despite slavery they came when the “Motherland” went to war against Germany. Twenty-five thousand West Indians fought in the world wars.

When my great-grandparents arrived in this country under the Nationality Act, they came as British citizens. I’ve heard there have already been deportations. My Grenadian grandmother came on her parents’ passports. She has been here since she was six.

Is Grandma at risk too?

If it happens to you and yours, predictably you will ask the question why? You thought this only happened to stowaways, to the people who are caught sneaking in, but not you – who came by invite.

Not you who have been denied your rights after fifty years and more. You’ve worked too hard to be booted through Britain’s backdoor – with your careers as nurses in the NHS, with your careers as mechanics in the car industry, with your careers in housing and social work and recruitment and the media and employment and sports.

Grandparents, it seems your best is no longer good enough. This is not a place to set up shop and you thought you played this game of chess right. Do not be fooled by checkmate. Do not think by “winning” the battle you have won the battle. These institutions love it when you win like this. When you are at their mercy like this. When your pawn is one square from the end of the board like this.

You were told about streets paved with gold. Our ancestors were transported, bought and sold at the market. And now, like slaves, their descendants will go to live in countries they barely know.

And you, your children, (like my parents) and by extension their grandchildren – like my brother and I, this country was built on the backs of our labour. If you have lived here since you were six years old, are you really an immigrant? Raised and moulded in the view of The Crown, you are not a slave… you are of this ground.

When you’re black and British, the struggle is constant – like living inside your own heartbeat. Ripping apart your veins and arteries, convincing yourself that the white man is more worthy of the transplant.

However, Windrush, you are the solution. You have more than paid your way and you’ve earned your place. You are the National Health Service; you are schoolteachers, and politicians and judges and so much more.

When the bulldog doesn’t know how to speak softly, remember he has been taught how to bark and ask questions afterwards. When he uses his body like a battering ram through a steel door, remember he’s been taught to plunder and devastate. When he doesn’t answer your call, how can you blame a rabid beast for its lack of table manners?

How many have been deported? The Home Office should know. How many have been treated like prisoners in their own land, banned from free movement… constantly watched by the white-collar overseer.

This is not a game of chess. Checkmate or stalemate, these are people’s lives – those who arrived after the war and into the 50s and 60s and made roots.

So, Home Secretary, this is where bad decisions are made.

Do not masquerade behind talk, giving it this.

You are not a victim. You are a liability. You politicians are magicians, into smoke when it gets too hard. You are loose boots and loot crates of money for wars, not for pensions. Your uniform has seen better days. Your rope is frayed.

Windrush is marching through France not knowing whether to kill the bulldog or the Nazi. Windrush is saving the NHS from ruin. Windrush is saving the coloniser and becoming the colonised. Windrush is centuries of hard labour.

Windrush is putting out the flames of a hostile environment policy. Windrush is saying no to Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech. Windrush is leaving paradise for a dystopia in hopes of creating something better for your children.

Windrush is a song in a strange land.

If you lay down with dogs, you get fleas.

Windrush is willing to burn in the apartment so the fleas do not get in.

Unremembering

This poem is inspired from grief, and a depression that grief can bring; I say “a” rather than “the” because it’s different for everyone and not definitive.

Furthermore, this poem is semi-inspired from “How to Fold a Memory” by Sabrina Benaim, in her book Depression & Other Magic Tricks. 


I remember the feeling of pain,
like the crater in my leg after climbing that fence
on that holiday at my grandparents’ Alicante apartment –
whether it be: physical, mental or emotional.
I remember it in hope of avoiding it tomorrow.

Let’s begin there,
I remember the imprint my hand made in yours.
Like a paper prayer, you can always start over.
I remember when Uncle Morten gave you the Evenstar,
and I recall the smell of homemade lasagne.
I can’t eat that anymore without getting hungry
for your sorrow smile and slow resolve of your soliloquies.

I remember your exaggerated anecdotes
at Grandma’s House. I remember how you
hummed Cameo’s Candy in flawless harmony.
I wish I could forget you existed.
I remember you carrying this child as a little one.
We marched, my hand in yours on the streets of London
and there was no map. We just walked.

Let’s go to the last stop –
Camden Town in the warm bohemian breeze
unfolding into silence. In the quiet, it’s hard
to tell what others think without entering their eyes
like Lucy Pevensie with her doorways to Narnia.

With every journey back into my past,
it becomes harder to find my way back again.

Since I have been practicing unremembering,
I’ve pondered living more times than not.
I take in the smoke of yesterday in attempt to pacify
the synapse between you and the scent of lasagne .
I drink beer as if I am trying to save the world from inebriation,
to get my childhood so pissed that the narrative changes.
But the trauma of daydreaming, the ache of muscle memory;
my body will always remember.

Like a goldfish, six-second slate wiped blank,
grief-stricken with an etch-a-sketch mind,
gumming the water I think is air.
The octaves of my voice box forget the long sounds
of the name my grandfather gave you.
How do I teach my ears to listen to song lyrics
free from your ghost inside of them?

I don’t know which way is up in these incandescent thoughts,
if the present tense is the present tense.
Or if the imperfections are slipping into past transgressions,
still my mind heeds your advice like proverbs.
I lose teeth like I lose days but you’re the wisdom tooth.

Photographer: Jian Xhin

We cannot control what we see 
but we can control how we see it.

I eat lasagne easily, without thinking of you.
I say your name over and over, and I am content.
I fold my depression like an origami plane,
crafting those paper wings into a pleasant amnesia,
a collateral beauty in this newfound adolescence.

Goodbye, Auntie Luisa.

Signed, Tré Ventour.

Demerara

I wrote this poem inspired by the many times my mother and grandmother have sent me to the supermarket on trivial errands.

Moreover, it’s also inspired by a documentary series called Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners by British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga.

However, it’s the seemingly trivialities that one sees on a supermarket run that turn out to be not so trivial. Everything has story, especially brands, and we often take things like this for granted.

My poem takes its name from the region Demerera , previously a Dutch colony in what became British Guyana, and then simply Guyana. But what most people know it for is the famous brand of sugar that comes from there.


When I came across Demerara,
my journey was cut short.

I weighed the packet in my palm
and thought about the blood of the yesteryear –

juice reserved for the Guyanese.
The shoppers around me minded their own,

one foot in the river of cane,
the other in the bank of Barclays and Lloyds –

a nationwide story. Rumour was, the pickers
had one and a half legs… like Kunte Kinte I suppose

just another a day at Tesco.

Photographer: Peter Bond

We take so much for granted
I said, watching the flag kill the wind.

The Brits said God Save the Queen,
taking a minute’s silence for the dead.

I declare war on their allegiance.
The Armistice forgets the colonised

and I’ll be damned if I keep this to myself.
So I put it in a poem, as you do.

I find Liz and Vic guilty of forgetting
their progeny’s childhood –

granules in their tennis shoes,
blood on their shirt…

a lazer to history, branding the pages
with a  poker like Samuel Johnson.

Photographer: Jack Finnigan

The man standing next to me puts
a Granny Smith in his trolley,

along with a box of PG Tips,
did they steal that too?

I see whips in the grains,
a tale in nine parts.

Demerara looks at me,
staring me down like a cat.

I look up to see bunting,
in rows and rows like plantations,

a loud arrogance to
those who know where to look,

like reciting the poem “Mandalay”
on the beaches of Burma.

Each time I look up, the flags stand taller,
floating into a Technicolor sunrise.

Photographer: Krishnam Moosaddee

I hold Demerara
in the cathedral of her youth,

where they belt God Save The Queen,
where they sing Britain! Britain!

They were calling her name.

Mother Ireland (After “The Troubles”)

I’ve written this poem (preemptively) for International Women’s Day on March 8 for which I’m going to be reading at an event next week.  I realised I don’t have many gender-related poetry so I put this one together.

It’s inspired from a very good nonfiction book called Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland – The Women’s War (1984) by Eileen Fairweather, Roisin McDonough and Melanie McFadyean.

It’s a book about a period in Irish history called “The Troubles”, also known as the “Northern Ireland Conflict.” Only the Rivers Run Free is written from the point of view of the women on the street-level.

Every wondered what it would be like to see the Vietnam War from the point of view of the civilians? This book takes the reader and puts you in the shoes of those who lived it.

I’m not a historian. The following poem is simply many thoughts and feelings I had when reading the book. Interpret it as you will.


I want to write a poem for
the women of Northern Ireland
who had their houses broken into by the English
before taking their kids to school –
who hacked and cursed,
and Shannon from Belfast who has
strong opinions about colonial rule,
says “it’s us or them”
ready to condemn those
from across the sea.

And her mother remembers
The Easter Risings.
Her grandmother’s mother
remembers the Potato Famine.
Shannon remembers The Troubles.
She breathes through her nose
and out through the mouth.
Thinking about this history,
she lights a cigarette
and calls her friend Siobhan
and they talk.

About:
The Suffragettes,
The Freedom Riders,
Angela Davis and second-wave feminism,
and Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique,
Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar
They talk about their
ancestors who sailed to the New World.

Photographer: Leon Bliss

But Shannon’s world was the Women’s War
in the streets of Belfast where
the rivers ran free with blood and bone.
Where homes were pillaged,
where families were broken,
where the workhouse had made a comeback.

Years later, the two women run into each other
on the streets of Belfast.
They ask one another how they’re doing.
Siobhan drops her shoulder. Shuffles away,
her gaze dazed by this awkward silence.
She knows her friend hasn’t changed.
Siobhan calls Shannon reckless.

If she was to ask her what she’d done all these years,
Shannon would have talked about her history degree.
She would talk about her pro-human rights activities.
She would have talked about the marches she’d been on
against the counter-productive, sex-shaming
methods of organised religion.

Photographer: Nathan Dumlao

I want to write a poem
for the women of Northern Ireland,
whose words stretch like elastic bands –
who fought like the Amazons,
who survived a red scare from
those who had a dystopia for a heart,
who sold their souls to the Queen and Empire.
An ode to the cloth – chaotic, broken,
the international anecdote of Victoria and Elizabeth.

And read it out loud through this land –
statues, stately homes and street names.
Flags like body bags. Great Britain.
What a metaphor for colonialism.
The women are a stitched seam.
Split-tongued like the Caribbean,
like India and Indonesia,
and Benin and Ghana and Scotland.

They had to watch their sons though,
because they couldn’t put it past the boys
to not do something stupid for glory.
Even their own kin who have their
fathers’ hands, sweat and blood
and last week when a boy was murdered,
that was a mother’s son, a sister’s brother.

Photographer: Christopher Campbell

The boys were simply jail bait,
primed for the guillotine. I want to write
a poem for the women of Northern Ireland,
who did the real work. I show them a gun
and they tell me it’s not a big enough.
They were waitresses and mechanics
and social workers and housewives
and so much more than our
hypermasculine history books suggest.

But life comes fast you know.
One minute you’re fighting the red coats
and next you’re in the midst
of fourth-wave feminism in your new job
at a university. And then it’s almost over,
life I mean. You fought your way through it
and I can tell by the way your daughters
talk that there’s power in oppression.

And when they call you terrorists,
say thank you. Thank you very much.