Benjamin Zephaniah (b. 1958) is a British-Jamaican poet who has considerable influence in contemporary poetry. He was born in Birmingham to a Barbadian father and Jamaican mother. As a child, he developed dyslexia and was imprisoned for burglary. He is also the author of novels for teenagers and a notable animal rights activist. He refused an Order of the British Empire from the queen, because it reminded him of “how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”
I read these simple lines that remind us of the connotations of the word ‘black’ in a powerful way that would make us smile if it wasn’t – still – such a serious issue.
I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded by a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.
People called me white jack
Some hailed me as a white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off the white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts
I waz condemned to a white mass,
I shall be writing to de Black House.
It’s a trivial idea (read it again replacing all instances of ‘white’ with ‘black’) but worth our while. In our culture of ephemeral twitter pleasure we need such mantras that remind us of the power of a single word, of the intricate web of connotations that very subtly influence the very building blocks of our reasoning.
Some of the white things he mentions do have a meaning, like whitewater or whitelisting, while others are simply the inversion of black metaphoric language: whitemailing, white magic, white economy, white death, whitesmith.
Such building on the public’s imagination is one of the strongest cards we can play against racism; stronger than the codification of righteous outrage in a language sanctioned by the ‘critical’ masses that fatally avoid self-criticism.
I was reminded of this beautifully maudlin* movie scene:
* kitschy, mawkish, gooey, schmaltzy, bathetic, hokey.