Great British Poetry pt2: The Poets of Black Britain

Great British Poetry pt2: The Poets of Black Britain

Benajamin Zephaniah is an exceptional British poet; he has been named by ‘The Times’ as one of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers. He famously declined his OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2003, saying ‘I get angry when I hear the word empire, it reminds me of slavery”’. He previously wrote a poem called ‘Bought and Sold’ on the subject. Benjamin Zephaniah wrote an article in the Guardian called ‘Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought‘ on Thursday 27 November 2003, which features this poem and his reasoning.

A painting of a black womans head by Chris Ofili. Called 'No Woman, No Cry'
“No Woman, No Cry” by Chris Ofili.

In 2012 particularly, as a nation we have all been debating what it means to be ‘British’, what comes to my mind is spending life queuing or complaining about queues, traffic, our bi-polar weather, avoiding eye contact on public transport, avoiding people in general (unless you need the time or directions), writing stern letters of complaint and watching X-factor. However scholars such as Nasar Meer, Claire Dwyer, Tariq Modood and Ian Bell see nationhood and society as an intertwining of culture, literature, food, philosophy, and art etc.

Today we celebrate National Poetry Day; when most people think of great British poets they instantly think Shakespeare not many black and ethnic writers come to mind, yet there are many. Popular British music owes it legacy to African influence, from blues, to jazz to pop. And in Art, the influence of African art has long been acknowledged by painters like Picasso and later Britain’s Chris Ofili. We have just seen black athletes representing Britain in the 2012 Olympics and had our yearly Caribbean style carnival, now on Poetry day in black history month we recognise some of the great black British poets that have contributed to our vast and rich cultural heritage.

Image taken from:,8543,-19204774275,00.html

A photo of a black actor in Shakespeare's 'Julias Cesear'
A performance of Shakespeare’s Julias Cesear

One such poet is Ben Okri, he spent his earliest years in London, moved back to Nigeria and in the late 1970s returned to England to study, but when funding for his scholarship fell through Okri found himself homeless, living in parks and sometimes with friends. He describes this period as ‘very, very important’. ‘I wrote and wrote in that period… If anything [the desire to write] actually intensified.’ Okri’s success as a writer began when he published his first novel Flowers and Shadows. Okri then served West Africa magazine as poetry editor from 1983 to 1986, and was a regular contributor to the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985, continuing to publish throughout this period. Here is one of our personal favourites.

An African Elegy

We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.

There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things

A photo by stuart freedman of two laughing black people
Photo courtesy of Stuart Freedman

And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.

That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.

And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here

And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.

— Ben Okri

This poem was taken from:

Diane Abbott MP notes that ‘recently, the literary establishment has been willing to acknowledge the contribution of black and ethnic minority writers like Ben Okri, Alice Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundathi Roy, Salman Rushdie and Nobel prize winning Toni Morrison.’

Acknowledging literature written by minorities in the annals of British history can only serve to breaking down barriers, deteriorating the erroneous and deceiving image of Britain’s historic society as all white, or views of minorities as only having served as slaves with economic and no cultural contribution to Britain’s legacy. This is vitally important because how we collectively interpret ourselves and misinterpret ourselves creates an image of what it means to be British, and hopefully this identity will reflects our multicultural society.

By Natasha Holder

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