BRITISH BLACK HISTORY THROUGH POETRY

A curated collection of poetry from Black British poets in celebration of Black History Month in the UK.



Barefoot Body is committed to inclusivity, and part of that commitment lies in amplifying melanated voices.


October is Black History Month in the UK, and we wanted to use the opportunity to showcase Black voices. As we often turn to poetry in our trainings to explore yoga and movement teachings, we've opted to trace Black history through the lens of poetry. So here's a curated collection of poetry from a handful of talented Black British poets.


We'd also like to signpost some great resources over on www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk that we invite you to explore.


JOHN AGARD


“Checking Out Me History” is penned by the amazing poet, spoken word performer, John Agard.


Born in Guyana 1949 in South America, moving to England in the seventies after an early career in journalism, his work is infused with storytelling and calypso rhythms and cadences.


Listen to the recording here.


Checking Out Me History


Dem tell me Dem tell me Wha dem want to tell me Bandage up me eye with me own history Blind me to my own identity

Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat But Touissant L’Ouverture no dem never tell me bout dat

Toussaint a slave with vision lick back Napoleon battalion and first Black Republic born Toussaint de thorn to de French Toussaint de beacon of de Haitian Revolution

Dem tell me bout de man who discover de balloon and de cow who jump over de moon Dem tell me bout de dish run away with de spoon but dem never tell me bout Nanny de maroon

Nanny see-far woman of mountain dream fire-woman struggle hopeful stream to freedom river

Dem tell me bout Lord Nelson and Waterloo but dem never tell me bout Shaka de great Zulu Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492 but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too

Dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp and how Robin Hood used to camp Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole

From Jamaica she travel far to the Crimean War she volunteer to go and even when de British said no she still brave the Russian snow a healing star among the wounded a yellow sunrise to the dying

Dem tell me Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me But now I checking out me own history I carving out me identity


(left to right: Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Toussaint Louverture, Mary Seacole)




MALIKA BOOKER



London poet, writer, performer, Malika Booker, was born to Guyanese and Grenadian parents and grew up in Guyana, returning to the UK aged 13.


Trials and Tribulations is one of two pieces of work commissioned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush and inspired by stories from Brent’s Caribbean community.



Trials and Tribulations. The stone which the builders refused… Psalm 118:22


Saturday night Aunty Cutie parts, then slides that hot

comb, scorching ear tips, lacing the room with the

sizzle of singed hair and scent of coconut oil, then

tightens pink curlers into rigid regiments. Corrie

presses her half-slip and pretty frock, then rests them

to cool, like her head on that pillow. Sunday morning

Aunty Cutie anoints Vaseline into her skin. Winston

polishes black shoes, bows his head to breathe slick

shine for Sunday worship. Cutie zips up her blue frock

stitched by May’s dressmaker from pretty pattern,

checks her hairnet and hat is fixed just right. Winston

presses sharp trousers seams then straightens his tie.

Aunty Cutie pulls on the little heel shoe, and white

gloves. Corrie counts out her collection money. But

this country is a heavy weight. And when ambushed by

white priests at church doors, your kind not welcome

here, is a heavy stone, your kind not welcome here is a

heavy stone your kind not welcome here is a heavy

stone dashed into an empty pail. Yet look how dignity

starch you back as they kick you teeth out of your

mouth.


Each Rose will find its bloom


The stone which the builders refused

was become the head stone of the corner Psalm 118:22


Black roses stretched to their own sun

to worship to worship


seeds planted in pots in living rooms

to worship to worship


till they began to blossom and bloom

in song in song


and they started to shiver and sway

in song in song


till their heads bent and bowed

in prayer in prayer


and the sunshine healed bruised petals

in prayer in prayer


their splendour and grace

in worship in worship


reaped bountiful grace

in song in song





BEN OKRI



Nigerian writer and poet, Ben Okri, wrote this poem in 2017 to raise funds for relatives and victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, and for survivors.



Grenfell Tower


It was like a burnt matchbox in the sky. It was black and long and burnt in the sky. You saw it through the flowering stump of trees. You saw it beyond the ochre spire of the church. You saw it in the tears of those who survived. You saw it through the rage of those who survived. You saw it past the posters of those who had burnt to ashes. You saw it past the posters of those who jumped to their deaths. You saw it through the TV images of flames through windows Running up the aluminium cladding You saw it in print images of flames bursting out from the roof. You heard it in the voices loud in the streets. You heard it in the cries in the air howling for justice. You heard it in the pubs the streets the basements the digs. You heard it in the wailing of women and the silent scream Of orphans wandering the streets You saw it in your baby who couldn’t sleep at night Spooked by the ghosts that wander the area still trying To escape the fires that came at them black and choking. You saw it in your dreams of the dead asking if living Had no meaning being poor in a land Where the poor die in flames without warning. But when you saw it with your eyes it seemed what the eyes Saw did not make sense cannot make sense will not make sense. You saw it there in the sky, tall and black and burnt. You counted the windows and counted the floors And saw the sickly yellow of the half burnt cladding And what you saw could only be seen in nightmare. Like a war-zone come to the depths of a fashionable borough. Like a war-zone planted here in the city. To see with the eyes that which one only sees In nightmares turns the day to night, turns the world upside down.


Those who were living now are dead Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.


Residents of the area call it the crematorium. It has revealed the undercurrents of our age. The poor who thought voting for the rich would save them. The poor who believed all that the papers said. The poor who listened with their fears. The poor who live in their rooms and dream for their kids. The poor are you and I, you in your garden of flowers, In your house of books, who gaze from afar At a destiny that draws near with another name. Sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation From its secret shame. And here it is every name Of someone burnt to death, on the stairs or in their room, Who had no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed. They did not die when they died; their deaths happened long Before. It happened in the minds of people who never saw Them. It happened in the profit margins. It happened In the laws. They died because money could be saved and made.


Those who are living now are dead Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.


They called the tower ugly; they named it an eyesore. All around the beautiful people in their beautiful houses Didn’t want the ugly tower to ruin their house prices. Ten million was spent to encase the tower in cladding. Had it ever been tested before except on this eyesore, Had it ever been tested for fire, been tried in a blaze? But it made the tower look pretty, yes it made the tower look pretty. But in twenty four storeys, not a single sprinkler. In twenty four storeys not a single alarm that worked. In twenty four storeys not a single fire escape, Only a single stairwell designed in hell, waiting For an inferno. That’s the story of our times. Make it pretty on the outside, but a death trap On the inside. Make the hollow sound nice, make The empty look nice. That’s all they will see, How it looks, how it sounds, not how it really is, unseen. But if you really look you can see it, if you really listen You can hear it. You’ve got to look beneath the cladding. There’s cladding everywhere. Political cladding, Economic cladding, intellectual cladding — things that look good But have no centre, have no heart, only moral padding. They say the words but the words are hollow. They make the gestures and the gestures are shallow. Their bodies come to the burnt tower but their souls don’t follow.


Those who were living are now dead Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower See the tower, and let a world-changing deed flower.


The voices here must speak for the dead. Speak for the dead. Speak for the dead. See their pictures line the walls. Poverty is its own Colour, its own race. They were Muslim and Christian, Black and white and colours in between. They were young And old and beautiful and middle aged. There were girls In their best dresses with hearts open to the future. There was an old man with his grandchildren; There was Amaya Tuccu, three years old, Burnt to ashes before she could see the lies of the world. There are names who were living beings who dreamt Of fame or contentment or education or love Who are now ashes in a burnt out shell of cynicism. There were two Italians, lovely and young, Who in the inferno were on their mobile phone to friends While the smoke of profits suffocated their voices. There was the baby thrown from many storeys high By a mother who knew otherwise he would die. There were those who jumped from their windows And those who died because they were told to stay In their burning rooms. There was the little girl on fire Seen diving out from the twentieth floor. Need I say more.


Those who are living are now dead Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See the tower, and let a world-changing deed flower.


Always there’s that discrepancy Between what happens and what we are told. The official figures were stuck at thirty. Truth in the world is rarer than gold. Bodies brought out in the dark Bodies still in the dark. Dark the smoke and dark the head. Those who were living are now dead.


And while the tower flamed they were tripping Over bodies at the stairs Because it was pitch black. And those that survived Sleep like refugees on the floor Of a sports centre. And like creatures scared of the dark, A figure from on high flits by, Speaking to the police and brave firefighters, But avoiding the victims, Whose hearts must be brimming with dread. Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.


But if you go to Grenfell Tower, if you can pull Yourselves from your tennis games and your perfect dinners If you go there while the black skeleton of that living tower Still stands unreal in the air, a warning for similar towers to fear, You will breathe the air thick with grief With women spontaneously weeping And children wandering around stunned And men secretly wiping a tear from the eye And people unbelieving staring at this sinister form in the sky You will see the trees with their leaves green and clean And will inhale the incense meant To cleanse the air of unhappiness You will see banks of flowers And white paper walls sobbing with words And candles burning for the blessing of the dead You will see the true meaning of community Food shared and stories told and volunteers everywhere You will breathe the air of incinerators Mixed with the essence of flower. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.


Make sense of these figures if you will For the spirit lives where truth cannot kill. Ten million spent on the falsely clad In a fire where hundreds lost all they had. Five million offered in relief Ought to make a nation alter its belief. An image gives life and an image kills. The heart reveals itself beyond political skills. In this age of austerity The poor die for others’ prosperity. Nurseries and libraries fade from the land. A strange time is shaping on the strand. A sword of fate hangs over the deafness of power.




JACKIE KAY



Scottish writer and poet, Jackie Kay, was born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father, and was adopted into a white family as an infant.


The Kindness of Trees was commissioned by the Royal Norwegian Embassy (who give a Christmas tree each year that is displayed in Trafalgar Square, London) and written in collaboration with local children from St Clement Danes School.


The Kindness of Trees


Deep in the forest there stood

A tree whose heart beat in the winter wood

Who understood everything that was bad

And everything that was good.

It extended long arms to woo you

As the winter wind blew and blew

And every thing a child could think,

The tree already knew.

And every time a boy was sad,

The tree dropped a pine.

And every time a girl got mad,

The tree roared in the wind.

In the dead mid-winter night,

The tree blew a hello, goodbye;

When every child was asleep in bed,

The tree sang a lullaby.

And when Christmas time came round

The tree’s song soared and soared.

And when gifts adorned the ground,

The tree blushed, made a sssh sound.

And people gathered round the tree:

To sing the winter song, in harmony;

One to keep the bright light glowing,

A song of what we know without knowing.

It had a sad and piercing melody –

A worry for the ash, sparrow, bee.

The polar bear, the ice melting.

A worry for you, me, dear tree.

In the depths of the winter wood,

The friendly tree stood, kind and good,

And breathed a word that caught the mood:

A pledge, a promise, a plea for good.




SAILI KATEBE & LOUISA ADJOA PARKER



Our fifth poetry offering for Black History Month in the UK is actually a link to a podcast from poet and researcher Louisa Adjoa Parker exploring the theme of black and brown experiences in rural UK. It features the poem Finding Eden, written and performed by Saili Katebe.


Finding Eden


I never grew up with rainbows, and could never count in colour. I couldn’t read light, the city blurred the borders between hills. Hidden flocks, painting brushstrokes into trees, turned me towards a blessing, a freshly baked promise, hanging from branches.


Stumbling into a congregation of pine trees and water, I watched everything I knew about music stop. A babbling brook, wedged into a gasp, draped its body over pebbles. The neighbourhood around it purred in immutable chorus. Red-breasted poets sang, petals whispered, stinging nettles spoke out of turn. I, all vowel-mouthed and awkward, slurred, trying to teach myself the consonants of forest.


Looking for the laughter lines on trees, I tried to understand its comedy. Did we, I, me, know my England well enough? A curriculum for survival without maps lacked birds and views. The few who knew about them spoke in secret, bird-less feathers knotted in the wild.


I witnessed the other side of the fence by accident, by accident I found paradise as swollen as Eden. I’d gamble the city for birdsong, all the money in the world couldn’t tame this orchestra. By way of lost footing, I found what I was missing, only a stone’s throw from my brick castle. Fierce acres that swaddle sirens and dims them down to static. Eden taught me how to breathe again.



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