In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah looked back at the evolution of racism in Britain. In poetry and prose he presented evidence that is disturbingly topical in a week of continuing upheaval in the UK.
[That was written five years ago. It’s touching to see so many new views of this old post. It’s a tribute to the great humanity of Benjamin Zephaniah who died on Thursday 7 December 2023. His loss is mourned but his poetry lives on, shining a light in a sadly troubled world.
If you have six minutes to spare it is worth watching the short programme Benjamin Zephaniah made for Newsnight with his trade mark flair, fury, and some fun. Here (unsure of copyright) I transcribe sections of the YouTube video. The language has an energy and urgency which seems to fit the substance of recent Sceptical Scot articles on immigration and the revolutionary spirit of 1968 revisited.
Zephaniah (whose autobiography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah is BBC Book of the Week) provides a brief summary of the Britain of the late 1960s. ‘Back in the day’ when windows bore signs saying No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks (in no particular order), skinheads spoke of white power, and Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech warned of a day when blacks would ‘hold the whip hand’.
The poet speaks to camera from Nottinghill, from cafes and galleries, tube trains and street corners.
Time has moved on and racism has evolved
We don’t see gangs of racist folks roaming the streets like they did back in the day
They now wear suits and ties
Some form political parties
Some build websites
And some of them [leaning forward conspiratorially]
Enter: historian David Starkey
‘The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion”.
Zephaniah’s video then goes on to interview Siana Bangara, a poet and blogger, describing an incident when she was travelling on a train to Liverpool. A white man deliberately sat next to her. ‘He wet on my seat, you know, peed on my stuff.’ And he called her all the names you can think of and started making monkey sounds.
The next interview is with sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor wondering how to dump the colonial burden, the expectation that you have deal with your blackness in order to be cutting edge. And the insidious new direction of Islamaphobia brings a new need to understand what’s going on around us. “How watchful do we have to be? Very, I’d say.”
Death in custody
Racism has become more sophisticated, says Zephaniah, (well, apart from a white man urinating on the possessions of a young black woman on a train), but it is still deeply institutionalised.
While 22 April has now, in 2018, been decreed Stephen Lawrence day (officially acknowledged by Prime Minister Theresa May) ethnic minority communities are still suspicious of the police and British boardrooms (in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England) are very white.
In this 2015 film, Zephaniah cites the case of his cousin Mikey Powell who died in custody. In Scotland 2018 the family of Sheku Bayoh, the Fife engineer who died in custody in 2015, are suing Police Scotland.
Zephaniah ends with a message which is still right up to date “Society is more tolerant…but the struggle continues”. And a poem, I am not de problem which is characteristically full of compassionate confrontation, vigour and humour.
It ends with these lines:
As I get older I am positively sure
I have no chips
Upon my shoulders
Black is not de problem
Mother country, get it right
And just for the record
Some of my best friends are white
But there’s nothing to beat seeing and hearing the poet in action. Here is the video
Featured image. Multicolour: Benjamin Zephaniah receiving honourary degree of Hull University in 2010: image David Morris CC BY-SA 2.0