Lip Service: Reparations, Black History Month, and National Poetry Day

Last week, David Cameron refused to discuss reparations for Britain’s involvement in the slave trade when he was in Jamaica, saying instead that he would rather spend money strengthening trade ties between the two countries. This sounds good, until you hear his version of improving trade ties: building a prison to export prisoners from Britain to Jamaica (here’s the story on the BBC, if you missed it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34401412).

This was a rather unfortunate way to usher in Black History month (which in Britain is in October—in the US, it’s February). Founded as a UK celebration in London in 1987 (the American version was started in 1926), the month-long event is meant to increase the awareness (particularly among children in Britain’s schools) of contributions of African and African-Caribbean communities to Britain. Most of the events are in the greater London area or Birmingham, but Mr. Cameron is in Manchester this week for the Conservative Party Conference, and perhaps Black History Month has slipped his mind. Certainly his 2015 statement, which you can find on WiredGov (http://www.wired-gov.net/wg/news.nsf/articles/Black+History+Month+2015+David+Camerons+message+04102015110500?open) seems to suggest he has a habit of forgetting; contrast this line in his message: “Over generations, we have built something extraordinary in Britain – where people can come with nothing and in one or two generations can rise as high as their talent allows” with his comments at the Conservative Party Conference on getting tough on immigration.

In any case, it wouldn’t be too hard to miss Black History Month, at least in some parts of England. I walked down to Newcastle’s Central Library today to see the Black History month display of books, only to be disappointed—because there wasn’t any. I tried the local branch of Waterstone’s, to see if I could be sold a Black History Month book in the children’s section, but they were only celebrating Halloween.

No Hickory, No Dickory, No Dock–and no Black History Month or Poetry Day either.

But tomorrow, 8th October, 2015, is also National Poetry Day. (This was also not being celebrated by Waterstone’s, but the Newcastle Library did have a small display in honor of this—though the poets were not a very diverse group, and there were no books of children’s poetry represented.) The convergence of these two events made me look around to see if National Poetry Day events gave any kind of nod to Black History Month. There are so many brilliant Black British poets—Valerie Bloom, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Benjamin Zephaniah, just to name a few—that it would be a shame if the double celebration did not highlight this. To my relief, national poetry organizations and events do not elide Black British poets from their discussions, though not always in direct connection with Black History Month. The Forward Arts Foundation, for example, has produced a booklet for children in honor of National Poetry Day with a wide variety of diverse poets, each contributing a poem of their own and one that they like on the theme (for this year) of “light”. Through this booklet, I read for the first time (but I’m sure not the last) the work of performance poet Indigo Williams. You can download the poetry booklet here: http://www.forwardartsfoundation.org/national-poetry-day/resources/light-a-national-poetry-day-book/.

Perhaps some teachers will have BBC’s Radio 4 on tomorrow in their classrooms as well, during which time Andrew Marr is meant to be giving the history of “We” British through poetry. I’ll be listening closely to Marr’s definition of “we”; although the advance press says that the history includes the Slave Trade and mass immigration (though it’s not clear which masses Marr means—presumably not the ones that David Cameron is planning to block or send back, though), I want to know who will be telling this history. Will it be Amelia Opie’s “The Black Man’s Lament, or How to Make Sugar” or Louise Bennett’s “Colonisation in Reverse”? Wordsworth’s “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” or John Agard’s “Toussaint Acknowledges Wordsworth’s Sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’Overture”?

Will it be We British or . . .

We Brits?

Ideally, it will be both—all—of these. The BBC’s literal lip service to poetry and the concept of British identity should include as much of this small island as possible. I don’t think that poetry should be celebrated only on a single day or Black History in a single month, for that matter. Lip service is not enough. But since there is this moment when Black History Month and National Poetry Day come together—and it comes every year—why not do something to promote both at once? Find your favorite poem by a Black British author and share it with a child (no matter where you are in the world).

An anthology for all British poetry-lovers.

An anthology for all British poetry-lovers.

For inspiration, and especially for the display-designers at the Newcastle Library and Waterstone’s, I turn to the fantastic anthology Out of Bounds: British Black and Asian Poets edited by Jackie Kay, James Procter, and Gemma Robinson. The whole anthology is worth finding and reading for poetry- and history-lovers alike, because it tells an alternative story of the towns and cities and countryside of Britain. Poems celebrate and explore different regions of the UK, rejecting racism but embracing a history their authors have come to think of as their own, either as immigrants to Britain or as British-born subjects.  I’ll end with a couple of lines from one of my favorite poets, Grace Nichols, in her poem “Angel of the North,” found in the “North” section of the anthology. When Nichols calls the iconic Newcastle-area landmark “Just an angel emerging out of scrap metal/ and the conscience/ of coal” she tells in a few words a history about the lightness and darkness of British identity, and the possibility of what the nation might be for all its inhabitants.

The angel of the north by Antony Gormley.

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