Benjamin Zephaniah’s untimely death reawakened in me the fight against racism those of us brought up as immigrants’ children fought in 1970s Birmingham.
Benjamin Zephaniah’s passing last week has rightly touched a lot of people. There are those of us who fell in love with his poetry and its beautiful delivery. There’s those of us who heard him talk about inequality and injustice articulated in a way they couldn’t find the words for themselves. Then there’s those of us who grew up in the same neighbourhoods of his city of Birmingham at the same time as him, and who have found his death to be a reawakening of our childhood’s challenges.
I am no poet, or even a half-decent writer. But I opened my latest book, The Race to the Top, with a description of what it was like being brought up as the son of an immigrant in a Birmingham working-class community throughout the 1960s and 1970s. I remembered how I was called a ‘nigger’ and a ‘paki’; how when Love thy Neighbour came on our screens, I was then called ‘Sambo’. The kinder ones would call me Sammy Davis Junior as the only black face on television who wore glasses, and the lesser kinder would say I ‘smelt of curry’ or lived in an Indian restaurant. I never did.
Constantly, I was told to go back to my country, but the dozens of people who told me that could never work out quite what country or continent that was (the ones who called me a ‘monkey’ guessed it was Africa). I didn’t have an accent — not even a hint of the Brummie burr from the city I was born — but these abusers would mimic accents they had overheard in shops or on television and pretend I spoke like that.
I was good at running, but I had so much practice that this shouldn’t surprise you, since children of immigrants spent much of our childhood sprinting from one potential attack to another. And if a police officer saw you running, they’d stop you and suspect you of shoplifting rather than taking the boys chasing you to task. There was no hiding place, no sanctuary, no respite. My crime was possessing an offensive face — I could do nothing about it but run.
In my life now, people often tell me ‘how far we’ve come’ or call me a ‘shining example’ of how little racism there is now and how tolerant we are as a society.” My one-word response is usually ‘bollocks.’
Zephaniah would say the same but more eloquently. He was from this same world. He always spoke of how Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was delivered just 10 miles up the road from where we lived. He was keen to recognise that the experiences we all had were both different and the same. When we had the rare opportunity to talk in recent years, it was to remind me that we may have left Birmingham, but that Birmingham would never leave us.
He would agree that the past isn’t a foreign country to us. In many ways, racists still do things the same now — just in a more ‘socially acceptable’ way because of our perceived status. If, however, you were poor, working class, a person of colour or a refugee, then they didn’t bother to attempt ‘socially acceptable’ to you.
I have been hounded by racists all my professional life, had thugs outside my home, been soundly harassed both online and in the real world. I have had professional colleagues treat me differently simply because of how I look. And the highlights of my career have always been tainted by a racist response from some quarter or other.
Zephaniah was better than me in so many ways — most markedly because I had accepted an OBE 20 years ago and he hadn’t. In fact, his rejection of one on the basis of the ‘offensiveness’ of the British Empire was what many have talked about since his passing. He stood up for what he believed in, and I always envied him for the courage he displayed in so many ways.
Those Birmingham back streets were no rite of passage, no sentimental tosh, they were the living embodiment of working-class struggles. I guess they made us what we are, only Benjamin Zephaniah would have put it so much better. We are so much poorer for his passing.Original post