On 23 March 2020, Britain went into lockdown. Two months later, George Floyd (a Black American man) was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
This crime was streamed into smart devices worldwide, sparking the biggest anti-racist movement in history. We are now in a perfect storm, where Black Lives Matter is being discussed across society as both a police issue and a health issue in the middle of pandemic – but also in education, finance and more. In the protests that have happened globally there have been performances of poetry, as is custom at all protests for equality, which has allowed me to think about poetry as a political act to alter minds and bring new ideas.
Since the pandemic, open-mic nights have moved online, which has allowed poets to perform internationally – from the United States and Australia to Germany, the Netherlands, and the African and Asian continents. The open-mic circuit has changed exponentially because of Covid-19. Events are no longer limited to people living in our countries or communities, but are open to a diversity of acts worldwide. An artist based in London can perform in Chennai, Melbourne, or Accra in a matter of clicks, and through these events, my network has expanded tenfold.
Poetry in protest
In July 2020, PhD student and performing spoken word artist AFLO. the poet performed ‘Decolonised Rhymes’ at a Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton. Spoken word – poetry written for performance – is not always political, but there must be a reason why a lot of it is. In Brighton, AFLO talked about inclusive curricula in higher education, the awarding gap, the history of Black intellectuals, and more. Her poem showed me the importance of Blacktivism within institutions, especially universities. In protest, there is a history of Blacktivists using creative writing as a tool of political thought, though I was not shown this on my creative writing degree. A degree that failed to mention how Black writers and poets have been voices of change in responding to the socio-political violence happening around us. During August 2020, a Black Lives Matter event in Buckingham also featured spoken word performances – as a tool to open conversations about race and anti-racist politics.
A century before this year’s wave of protests, Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay came to Britain. He would go on to be a literary titan and become a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. McKay took Britain by storm, combining his enthusiasm for poetry and verse with radical politics, arriving onto the scene with the sonnet “If We Must Die” – an unrelenting commentary of racial injustice in the United States. Whilst in Britain, McKay made links with suffragette and political activist Sylvia Pankhurst and was published in her periodical, “The Workers’ Dreadnought”, first responding to E. D. Morel’s article “Black Scourge in Europe” published in the Daily Herald in 1920 (This was not Morel’s only spout of racist commentary. In 1921, his Horror on the Rhine would be published in response to the fear of Black colonial soldiers in Germany). McKay was adding value to both British poetry and journalism. Not only was he the first Black socialist to write for an English periodical, he participated in a tradition that comes to so many writers, poets and journalists today – speaking truth to power.
In “Insurgent Empire”, Priyamvada Gopal writes
…McKay stands at the head of a long line of West Indian and African intellectuals – among whom C. L. R James and George Padmore are only best known – who formed productive, … alliances with radical figures on the British left, and helped shape the contours of interwar British anticolonialism.”
Writers in 2020 that campaign for equality stand on the shoulders of people like Claude McKay, C. L. R James, George Padmore, and Sylvia Pankhurst. Gopal continues McKay “also brought a vital transatlantic dimension to bear on questions of race, colonialism and radical politics.” His poem foreshadowed much poetry produced today, about all sorts of issues – from class to race, immigration, gender and more – and is something that needs to be taught, not only for its historical significance but also for its timeless appeal.
In higher education’s bid to decolonise English, drama and creative writing, we need to be looking at what texts forgotten or ignored through history produced by writers from non-traditional backgrounds can say to today’s students. What can a poem by a Jamaican living in America about racial violence say to young people living in the 21st century amidst the perfect storm of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19?
Before Claude McKay, there was another important writer called Lewis Howard Latimer. Today, he is most known for being a patent draftsman, the brain behind the lightbulb and assisting Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone. But Latimer was also a gifted poet. In 1890, ”The Ebon Venus” was published.
My heart like a needle ever true / Turns to the maid of ebon hue”
It is awe-inspiring to think, during America’s 19th century, within spitting distance of American slave abolition, there was a Black man writing in awe of Black women, who today are still discriminated against. This discrimination is denoted in terms like misogynoir, first coined by Moya Bailey in 2010.
Violence, protest, and academia
Britain’s history of protest in this country and the former colonies goes back centuries – from the Peasants Revolt of 1381, to the Suffragettes, through to the miners strikes in 1984 and 1985. British dissent against the state is an act blessed by history. There is a history of rebellion and rioting – from slave rebellions, to Irish immigrants and Jewish refugees kicking Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street in 1936. Violence created by the state both happened within these isles and what was the British Empire, including the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1849, and the Mau Mau Uprisings of 1952.
What do we mean by violence? Is austerity not violence? Is the Windrush Scandal not violence? What about denying healthcare, pensions and employment? Literature has been responding to the world around it for as long as history has been documented. The days of only teaching poems about fields and valleys are over. As the world falls apart, why wasn’t Chinua Achebe’s ”Things Fall Apart” on my degree? What about “Weep Not Child” by Thiong’o, Ngugi, on the Mau Mau Uprisings? Art has always responded to the world around it – from poetry and plays to film and television. The poetry taught on my course was presented in a way that pretended the world didn’t exist. It was apolitical – and the students brave enough to speak up were condemned.
The poetry I saw among the ivory towers of academia sat in direct opposition to the poetry I hear at protests, demonstrations and open-mic nights. From my first class, it was made abundantly clear that “spoken word is not poetry” and there was no room for social justice. I could not write the poetry I wanted to write because it did not sit within the agreed axiological and epistemological frames. In this, I mean that poetry on the page by mainly white [male] writers was on the inside of reason, and oral storytelling, spoken word, and page poetry by Black and Brown writers was on the outside. In three years, I saw an axiological approach to a form of storytelling that had been part of my life since childhood… that some forms of poetry were valued more highly than others: the sonnet, the villanelle, the ode – methods often tied to the Eurocentric rather than oral traditions, with a more international, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and diverse appeal.
I agree individuals do not have to be on the same page in relation to enjoying art. But in excluding spoken word from my degree, and being told “it is not poetry”, is as narrow-minded as it is historically inaccurate. In his book “A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry”, Guante writes
…the history in which poetry was primarily about the page is shorter than the history in which poetry was primarily oral.”
Spoken stories were the norm, growing up in a West Indian culture. Moreover, oral storytelling is English as well. In my locality, there has been – in many forms over time – an open-mic night called “Raising the Awen” – Awen, originating from the Celtic word for bard. Even in the English pre-colonial context, oral storytelling was an ascent and this can also be argued to be spoken word in all but name. Yet, as a student, it was considered intellectually inferior.
Contemporary artists and publication
In light of Black Lives Matter, there have been artists using their space to speak at both protests and open-mic nights that have gone global because of the pandemic. Spoken word gives communities a voice without the feeling of being pigeon-holed by narrow definitions of poetry dictated by the rules defined by academia. A definition that one can’t help but notice has racist and classist undertones – that it must be metered, be published and / or follow established rules dictated by an industry that has been criticised as racist, classist and sexist.
Spoken word needs to be a constant on English, creative writing and drama courses. Some of the most gifted poets are also multi-disciplined performing artists. In early 2020, Roger Robinson became the first Black British author to win the T.S Eliot Prize, for his most recent book of poetry “A Portable Paradise”. Not only is he a poet, but the lead vocalist for King Midas Sound. His latest book is a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter UK, whether that was intended or not. In 2018, “Good Immigrant” contributor, poet, and essayist Salena Godden performed her poem ”Courage is a Muscle” at a gender equality protest. Dean Atta’s “I Am Nobody Nigger” is a call to action. Riz Ahmed under his stage name Riz MC speaks truth to power through spoken word – though unpublished as a poet, poems ‘I Ain’t Racist But’ and ‘Where you From?’ are aptly placed to open discussions about decoloniality (as far as race) on English, creative writing and performing arts courses.
No time to drag your feet
Some of the greatest artists working today are our neighbours; some of the greatest writers today are unpublished performers, and are no less worthy of being part of the decolonial fight. This year, the Guardian has reported that “Only a fifth of UK universities say they are ‘decolonising’ curriculum”. It is noted that “just 24 out of 128 [universities] asked about reforms to address colonial legacy are committed to the idea”. It’s been five years since “Rhodes Must Fall” and universities still drag their feet on decolonising the curriculum.
I work as a poet and an educator, and I feel strongly that it is the unpublished writers that are in some of the best positions to help universities decolonise English, creative writing and performing arts degrees. The existence of unpublished writers making waves in 2020 challenges the idea that being published is the magnum opus of achievement in the industry. I am not biting my thumb at the published, but when there are poets using social media to make things happen without any publications to their name, it acts as a challenge for publishers with histories of prejudice and discrimination to make change in-house. It is telling publishers that not only do they need to decolonise but also, they must convince new writers that being published is necessary.
Writers are still using their voice to protest on a local, national and international level, but we must understand they are not the first. Hindsight must be applied to writers like Buchi Emecheta in the 1960s, dating back to the ex-slaves that wrote autobiographies as tools to help dismantle slavery and the slave trade. When my degree took an apolitical stance on a subject with a far-reaching history of activism and pushing boundaries, this is when privilege rears its many ugly heads, showing that decolonial thought is not only a necessity but a moral obligation.