Benjamin Zephaniah interviewed by Tom Bennett: The wisdom of Professor Z

7th October 2015 at 00:52
Earlier this year, I interviewed Benjamin Zephaniah – one of Britain's best contemporary poets, writers and performers – at Brunel University, where he teaches creative writing and English. The focus of our meeting was meant to be Black History Month, but it quickly broadened out to include the cultures that surround that discussion. Normally, when you meet someone for an interview, you load up with questions in case the conversation doesn't deliver. That wasn't an issue with Zephaniah, who spoke eloquently and forcefully for an hour; I would have happily stayed for several hours more. A fascinating, persuasive man. Here is the transcript of the conversation, almost entirely as given, with minimal editing.

Tom Bennett (TB): Thanks for agreeing to speak to me. So: why should schools have a Black History Month?

Benjamin Zephaniah (BZ): Well, I actually don’t think schools should have a Black History Month. Let me back up. We need one now. But we need one now because black history is not an integral part of the history we get taught in schools. You know, black history is almost sold as if it’s something to help black kids to give them self-esteem, and I can see the point, but it’s just as important for white people and black people if you like, because some people will have a very narrow view of what black history is and if there’s a ghetto for black history, in practical terms I’ll tell you what happens: people apply for grants, black people apply for grants to do something connected to black history in Africa or the Caribbean, and they get told, “Oh we’re not doing that now, but if you apply again…or we done it last year so you can’t get it.”

And people use it as an excuse to dump everything there and they try to get everything done in a month, and it’s not possible. So don’t get me wrong, I think right now we have to have Black History Month because if we didn’t have Black History Month, we wouldn’t have no black history.

TB: Do you mean to try to restore balance to the rest of the curriculum, in that sense?

BZ: Yes. I just think the history of black people – and that’s a massive thing…that’s bigger than African history, that’s bigger than Caribbean history. You could never teach all of it, just like you could never teach all of the history of white people. But, generally speaking, black history should be an integral part of the history of the world; we’ve got to become world citizens you know.

And as a young person growing up in school in Britain, one of the things that made me angry – and I guess in some way led to me going to prison, because me being angry led to being on the streets, led me to when a copper confronted me, laying him out, that kind of stuff. Umm, nobody cared. The police didn’t care for me, the teachers didn’t care for me… the teachers probably cared for me but you know, my history, which I knew a little bit of, was not important.

TB: Did you feel that as a young man? Were you consciously aware of that or was that something you retrospectively figured out?

BZ: I remember being in a classroom when a teacher told me that just in passing she was doing Christopher Columbus… and CC went to this island and discovered black people.

And I was like what do you mean discovered? Why is it that we don’t exist in history until some white guy discovers us? When we take about slavery, we talk about the slaves being given freedom, as if we were born slaves and we didn’t have a long history before slavery. We weren’t human beings. Slavery was imposed upon us and even when we talk about slavery, unfortunately it’s still so much about Wilberforce, it’s never about the great people: Nanny of the Maroons, Paul Bogle, Toussaint L'Ouverture, all these people fought against slavery and actually made people sitting in Hull and all these places know what was going on, telling all their real stories and personal struggles rather than just ‘there’s them and there’s us.’

So, I had heard about these people. Where did I hear about them? reggae records. You know? Bob Marley and stuff like that. That’s why I knew our history wasn’t the one we were being told…well, it was more than what we we're being told in school. And I just think that’s… a shame you know? There’s a whole system in Britain of supplementary schools, and they're literally just schools in people’s front rooms where black people go. I was talking about this the other day to people who attend them, and they were saying, “White kids go as well now, to learn about black history, stuff that you won’t get taught.” (laughs)

TB: I’m going to confess I’ve never heard of this. Tell me more.

BZ: Oh yeah, I’ll tell you an interesting person to talk to about it is Akala, the rapper. I mean, he was really big on these; he was a student in one. And I remember when I left school, it was a really big thing because it was people of my generation who was setting them up, like we’d come from school and we knew nothing about ourselves. And if you were lucky, you could rent a community hall, but usually it was people’s front rooms. And they just tend to happen on Saturday morning, and you can get the whole history of Marcus Garvey, the slave rebellion of Haiti, the first country… they freed themselves from slavery. You know the Maroons?

TB: No

BZ: The Maroons were in Jamaica and the British controlled them, so they went up into the mountains and formed the republic there, their own state but in Jamaica. And they were independent, and Nanny of the Maroons was this female leader of them.

TB: It’s funny you said that ironically, the voices you heard were people from other continents.

BZ: Yeah, Burning Spear….

TB: Where were the voices of people – first generation immigrants who had come here – why had their history been dislocated?

BZ: Because…you mean like my parents?

TB: I don’t mean that personally…

BZ: Yeah (laughs). I’ll tell my Mum. You know… my Mum was more interested in kind of being a Christian. Almost being a good subject to the Queen. That generation will talk about how outraged they were to come to Britain and find that the people in Britain didn’t have pictures of the Queen in their house! Because they had them in Jamaica, you know.

A friend of mine who’s like a white English guy I used to live in the East End of London with on the same street – we were sports partners – saw himself as a complete non-racist. He confided in me one night; he said, “When the Afro-Caribbean and Asian community was moving into the West End, a lot of the whites were saying get me out of here, moving to Essex, and if they had enough money, they moved to Spain.” And he said, “I was never like that. I loved the idea of mixing with other people, and all that stuff, the multi-cultural idea. But I’m beginning to question myself now. Because I’ve got these Eastern Europeans living next door to me and I bloody hate them. You know. And they… I try to speak to them and they won’t speak to me and they won’t speak English and…”

People looked at the blacks as, “the blacks are going to be a problem” and Enoch Powell talked about the blacks are, “swamping the country”. But we had the same kind of Christianity. We spoke the same language. We thought of ourselves as British.

TB: Isn’t that amazing?

BZ: Yeah. And now you get people of that generation, and even some of the younger generation, complaining about the foreigners, the Poles and the Latvians coming over, because they see them as aliens!

TB: Astonishingly true.

BZ: So, my mother was more obsessed with being more British than the British. And because of that she was also taught that Africa was a place of savages. I remember when we started listening to reggae music, and it was telling us to go back to Africa, to not be ashamed of being black, and my mother was like, “In Africa they swing on trees” and that stuff. She had no idea, and when I even suggested that as a part of after slavery that the Christianising was kind of part of it, she was like, “I’m happy for slavery…if it made me a Christian, if it gave me Jesus Christ, that’s good”.

Um. So, that generation didn’t really question…and when they arrived in Britain they kind of wanted to put their heads down and say, “We’re guests here. We don’t want to make too much trouble”. I remember when my mother would get racism in the shops and I would say to her, “Mum, you were first, but he served all the white people, and someone commented about you and said let the black or the coloured lady wait.” And she would say, “Oh no son, it’s their country, they have the right to be served first.” So, we were like, “This is our country.” We just wouldn’t accept that. In a way, it not only brought us into conflict with the authorities and the racists, it brought us into conflict with our parents, who were telling us just to put our heads down.

TB: It must be difficult to be fighting on two fronts.

BZ: It is. Which is why the gang became important. But this… if you are constantly told that your people haven’t achieved anything; need civilising by the white man, and are savages and need Christianity, and some may even say Islam, because in a way they're both foreign to Africa… then you begin to feel, especially as a young kid, that you can’t achieve. That this is your place. I remember being at school once, it was a pretty terrible school, where I was struggling with reading, and actually it was all about dyslexia – nothing to do with my colour – and I was struggling to read, and I was not engaging with the text, looking out of the window. And the tutor came up to me and said, “Don’t worry about it, because people like you on the whole are not that clever, and you don’t need to be clever, because you’re good sports people.” And literally said to me, “It’s ok, go out now and for the next 15 minutes kick the ball.” And I was like, “Oh! thank you!” All the boys in the class were like, “[makes tutting sound] He’s going to play football!” It was a terrible thing to do. I didn’t realise that at the time. But looking back now….there was this idea that we could achieve in sport maybe, and as musicians, but not in other areas. But if it’s not an issue for you, it may not feel that important. But I’ve had to talk to gangs of kids, 15 years old, who are sitting there, tooled, guns in their pockets, who are saying, “Well you know in this country we’re not going to get anywhere.” Their whole self-esteem is low. What they think they can achieve is low. They’d love to be rappers. But they know not all of them is going to be a Dizzee Rascal. So they’re just going to be street rascals. And that’s it.

And when you’ve got a lot of them sitting in front of you; angry, armed, dangerous, then you realise what I’m saying here is really important. It affects a whole generation. Many generations. That why I think, going back to the original question, that we’ve got to hurry up. Sometimes when I look at the way black history is talked about in the media, I just think, we’ve hardly moved on. I mean, we’ve got Black History Month and there’s a lot of teachers who, I think, who know better, but if you look at the television… I can’t remember his name now… this historian who…

TB: Starkey?

BZ: Yeah. I wrote a poem about slavery, it’s called Mr Africa. It’s like a child’s letter to a teacher. And to paraphrase, “When I sail down the Nile, civilisation began. When I started to think, universities were built.” And I think it references Timbuktu and the library there, and it ends, “So teacher do not say Columbus discovered me, check the great things I was doing before I suffered slavery.” And teachers would say, “This is great”, because our curriculum doesn’t go beyond this.

TB: It doesn’t, you’re right.

BZ: So, this poem, given to a student, to a teacher, and ask the teacher to respond.

The only time – I’ve noticed – black history intersecting with history as it is on the curriculum, is when it intersects with European culture. For example – the Egyptians. Because you can draw a fairly clear line between that and Greek culture, Roman culture, European culture. So you've got that chronology.

Well, I was going to say. This is really, really important. I say this as someone who was an angry young black man, who’s now an angry old black man. When I discovered various aspects about the history of black people, it was like I just felt so enlightened, and I walked with my head up and it was, “Wow” – it was such a big moment for me. You know, the same thing happened when I discovered the history of the Luddites. You know, people like the Tolpuddle Martyrs… all the white history I wasn’t learning in school. I was like “What?!’ You know? I have always wanted to do a TV series, and the BBC won’t let me do it, I have tried to get it done with others, they won’t let me do it. They always have some reason – wrong time… and it’s about the real history. Actually, I wanted to call it Benjamin’s Britain.

TB: (Laughs) You’ve sold me. I’m in.

BZ: There’s load of little stories, I’m fascinated with. In Tranent in Scotland, after the French revolution, when the British thought the French were coming over here, and they got militias all over the country. In Scotland this little place called Tranent went, “No. We’d rather have the French come.” And no militias would form there. And the English sent an army to get them, and they fought. And they were led by this woman, again – if you go there in the town centre you’ll see a statue of her with her dog… Obviously people locally would know about it, and they lost of course, but they fought.

TB: Sounds like Asterix.

[Sound of tumbleweed rolling endlessly by, on Mars, at night]

BZ: Loads of stories like the women in Birmingham where they used to make the shackles for slaves, this is important. They used to make the shackles for slaves in the city where I was born, Birmingham, and some women said, “We’re not going to sleep with our husbands if they keep making these things.”

TB: Really?

BZ: Yeah, and some other women that refused to use sugar because it’s a product of the slave trade. And these are just normal people, people who made a stand, loads of stories gathered. People who hid slaves. Slaves who came to Britain who literally did speaking tours…you don’t get that stuff in white history.

TB: I think it’s a wonderful idea. When you see the procession of people who do all the history programmes right now… there’s about four of them.

BZ: I remember trying to pitch this… I’m hesitating now, but I don’t give a fuck, and I remember being at the BBC and I came out of the elevator and I came out and I met an old friend, and he said, “What you doing here?” and I said I wanted to do a programme about the history of people who fought against the establishment. And he went, “Benjamin, this is the establishment.” When you go in there and talk to these people, and there are only, like you said, four people who do history, and I say, “This is not Simon Schama”, then you’re pitching to the person that commissions Simon Schama. And I think, “How can you win?” And everyone I talk to about this project goes, “What? It’s brilliant.” Originally, I was talking to… I did a project called The People Speak with Colin Firth, and it was kind of that actually, but on stage, and people reading poems and speeches of rebellions that happened in Britain. It’s based on somebody who did the same thing in the States. Colin Firth wanted to do it here, so the book came out. I performed Shelley. These actors just came out and just read it, speeches by the Tolpuddle Martyrs. So after that, I told Colin Firth I really wanted to do this, and they were like, “We’ll work with you on it.” But we just couldn’t get no backing.

TB: I’m sorry to hear it.

BZ: It’s really strange. I’m no expert in history and I’m never good at keeping dates in my mind, Just before you came in I was looking at Robin Lane Fox, the historian. One of my favourite books, The Unauthorised Version, takes The Bible, takes it apart. I didn’t realise his daughter started and he’s the gardening correspondent for the Times. I love his work. I’m passionate about history. But I hated history at school. How does that work out? I was fascinated in learning about the history of my people. Not just my people, I remember these gypsies used to come to my town with their poems and songs, and I would ask, “Where did that song come from?” And they would say, “Oh we originated this, that and the other,” and I would be like, “Wow!” Then I would go to school and it would be [voice becomes monotone] Henry the Eighth.

TB: Devil’s advocate: is there not a case to be said for learning about histories beyond your own context?

BZ: Well, that’s my point actually; I’m not just talking about black history or the history of Britain, but history of the world. And I know it can’t all be told. But yes, I am as interested in history full stop. But what we get is history of the government.

TB: That was my next question: what’s going wrong with the way history is being taught? Why were you switching off?

BZ: We get the history of the government, and the Establishment. Now of course, I want to know how Parliament came about… I want to know that so if I’m on Question Time and I’m battling somebody, I want to know. But I’m also interested in the history of the Occupy movement. I know that didn’t come out of nothing. But there’s a long history that goes back hundreds of years of people occupying things. I didn’t realise that someone from Yorkshire went and occupied a mound – just a walk now. The point was people should have access to the land. I didn’t realise that when I read John Clare the poet, of this moment in history called the Enclosures. It was when people had the right to the land, but they took the land and said you can’t use this. And they closed it off, and it was a big thing for John Clare. They call him the peasant poet. He was into the land and people being able to kind of enjoy the countryside rather than hand it over to lords. I was reading this poet; I first heard of him in a folk song, so I went and read about him and realised what he was about.

Now, these things are important because there are lots of things we take for granted, like our freedoms. I’m interested in people. We were talking about Black History Month in Britain, there’s one in America of course. But yeah, I grew up kind of believing that there wasn’t a real big difference between the Nazis and the Germans. Later on, I realised Germany has a really interesting culture, arts, painters. Where I came from, Germany was about Nazis, and still is for many school children, I would argue. That’s where they ‘interact’ with us. Which is sad. Sorry I sound like I’m ranting

TB: I’m very much enjoying the rant. I’ll finish by returning to Black History Month which I ostensibly came here to talk to you about. So then, given that Black History Month has been running for about 50 years, adopted from the American tradition. I think it was called Negro History Week – yeah, I know. A month now. A lot of schools do this. Given that it’s an existing thing – perhaps inadequate – how should they do it? Who should deliver it? Who should it be for? Because I’ve worked in schools where Black History Month is threaded through the curriculum… or I’ve been in schools where it’s extra-curricular, lunch clubs, after school clubs, assemblies. But almost exclusively black children. Is that ok? Is it about black children learning about black heritage? Or is that not ok? I don’t know.

BZ: I think I would rather it be threaded through the curriculum. I’d rather it was just part of mainstream education, and not a Black History Month. And I wasn’t aware of this… are you saying schools say, “We’re not going to have a Black History Month?”

TB: No, they do, the delivery varies from school to school. History is the obvious vehicle, English, religious studies. But there are some schools where it’s more extra-curricular, or assemblies performed by students. But because of the voluntary nature of these actives, very often it tends to be children from black communities. I’ve always been uncomfortable about that.

BZ: Like I said earlier, Black History Month shouldn't just be for black kids. Umm… there could come a time when if supplementary schools take off, and if some important people in the black communities take this up, a time when the black history that kids know from supplementary schools is way advanced of the black history in schools.

TB: That might not be difficult…

BZ: But it’s not just for black people. You see, somebody told me, they mentioned Black History Month to a school in rural England and they said, “We don’t have that problem here, (laughs) no black kids here, so…” They need it more than anybody. In Lincolnshire not so long ago children… there was a big debate about Golliwogs in schools. When me and our sister went to school, the way they celebrated our arrival was by bringing in Golliwogs

TB: Jesus.

BZ: Yeah. And then…

TB: Was that meant well? Did they think, “This’ll make you feel at home?”

BZ: Yeah. I remember kids saying, “You look like that.” We were scared, we were five. They were, “Does your dad look like that?” But, like I said, in Lincolnshire they were still doing this. An area with no black people. So they see it as harmless. They’ll talk about, “My grandmother gave me this golliwog, it’s been in the family a long time, I’m not going to get rid of it. And it’s not offending anybody.” And those are people on the whole who are very unlikely to see somebody or even know somebody who’s experienced racist attacks or racist stereotyping in real life. So I always tell them if you’ve got a Golliwog and you feel so attached to it, keep it in your attic. I’m not saying burn it. But it’s not a work of art. It’s not a representation of black people

TB: Don’t put it on your mantelpiece.

BZ: Yeah. And don’t take it to school. In the area where I live, in Lincolnshire, out in the Fens, real country area, the issue when it comes to multiculturalism is the Poles, and the Latvians, and I see schools where they will have a day and the kids will dress up Polish, put on traditional clothing… stuff the Poles aren’t wearing themselves.

I don’t really have a problem with it. I was going to say – I’m going to start contradicting myself now – I don’t have a problem with poets and people going into schools and saying, “This is a black writer writing about black experiences” and performing their poetry, people going in and doing Anansi stories, stuff like that. Talking about slave rebellions. The reason why I’m being careful in case I contradict myself is in terms of saying, “that’s ok”. Why it’s not ok is because come bloody September I get hundreds of requests to go into schools… hundreds. And they’re always really late.

TB: I had two people on Twitter last might saying, “Ask him why he can’t come to my school.”

BZ: Only two?

TB: Couple of very quick questions to satisfy the people on Twitter. What literature would you like to see on the syllabus? Secondary or primary. What should they read? Be selfish.

BZ: Gosh. Really… off the top of my head… It’s a really big read though… Staying Power, Peter Fryer. Book written by a white guy. It’s about the history of black people in Britain.

TB: Really?

BZ: Yeah, but it’s great. And then I’d get them to go - right now, unfortunately it’s not on in Black History Month – to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, and see the exhibition called Staying Power.

TB: OK. How do you teach poetry?

BZ: You can’t teach poetry. You can show them what poets do…what a sonnet is or whatever. I guess you can teach them structure and certain poets. But to actually get them to write good poetry is something they have to feel themselves. I had a student in here the other day, he’s seen some of the questions just generally when I’ve been on Question Time or whatever, that people should be more angry, he came to me and said, “I am angry. I come from a very privileged background. I’m a white guy. My dad is paying my tuition fees, but I’m still angry. Can I be?” And I said, “Of course you can. You see racism you must be angry about it. Not all black people… it shouldn't be left to black people to fight racism, and the fact that you come from a life of privilege and you can say you know what, regardless of this, I’m ready to give some of this up in order to have a more equal society… that’s good.”

I saw something in a school the other day. Just after Tony Benn died and they must have talked about him in the classroom, and this kid said, “I don’t understand it. So many people are trying to do all kinds of things to get awards and honours …and he went to court to get rid of his?” (laughs). And the kid was like, “This is a guy who went to court…”

TB: You yourself sent back a gong.

BZ: Yeah, but I wasn’t even born with it.

TB: One last question. Should we make children memorise poems?

BZ: We should try to encourage them to. The thing is, if you force kids to do things – I’m just picking up on the word make – in my module you have to memorise poetry.

TB: Because it is part of the curriculum now. Key stage 4 children now have to memorise poems.

BZ: If you come to do my module here… you do a lot of reading, a bit of writing, You're spending most of your time memorising and performing, and I want you to get it so memorised it’s like when you perform it you’re doing it for the first time. A lot of people complain that kids are not memorising Kipling and Shakespeare. But if you go into the playground, they're memorising their own poetry. And I find that really interesting. They're writing their own poetry a lot more now, and I find that really interesting. Some of them will call it rap, and some of them will go into a rap stage, and then they come back to poetry. A lot of the rappers in Britain now are beginning to call themselves poets.

TB: Isn’t that amazing how that happened organically?

BZ: I knew it would happen. Because after rap you've got nowhere to go. It’s so, “[makes stacatto noise] Da-da-da-Da-da-da.” That’s alright when you're young and you want to show people your flow on the street. But when you’ve had a kid, when you may have lost the kid, when you may have really fallen in love, you don’t want to just, (imitates rapper) “Bang! I got a job! I had a baby!” (laughs) It doesn’t work.

TB: (laughs) You’ve been so kind, I should stop now.

BZ: You got any more of those Twitter questions?

TB: I had about 40. I picked six. OK: what did you have for Christmas dinner? I believe it’s a reference to your famous turkey soliloquy.

BZ: Yeah; I just stayed at home. I can’t remember. It was so ordinary. I remember I had a great big vegan chocolate cake.

TB: Nice. What was it like meeting Mandela?

BZ: A bit embarrassing, because he kept thanking me for all I did during the struggle. He said I had been an inspiration to him; I do know that he was given a parcel of my poetry and tapes while he was in prison.

TB: Amazing.

BZ: Yeah. More importantly, I met him later on and worked for his charity and went round some of the townships performing poetry and getting kids to perform and memorise poetry – they couldn’t read or write, so I got them to memorise it. By the time I left, they were all doing poetry.

TB: What about novels, plays, poems? Pick one all kids should read.

BZ: Black history?

TB: In general. No Bible, no Shakespeare.

BZ: Um.. that’s thrown me. I’m trying to think of something inspiring that will stand the test of time. [Long pause] Secondary school kids?

TB: Or primary.

BZ: I tell you what. I’m going to go with primary level… and it’s not really a novel. Anansi stories. Anansi is a spider. In the Caribbean there’s a big debate – is it literature? It’s mainly an oral tradition. When our parents wanted to illustrate something, they'll say, “Well you know what Anansi spider did?” If I was running and fell over, my mother would say, [adopts accent] “Well Anansi…he was building a web one way from one place to another place. And then him fall over. And then he met another spider. and the spider, him say…” That kind of thing.

TB: Sort of fables?

BZ: Yeah. And the reason it’s controversial nowadays is because they have been published and some people say they should not be published, they should be spoken. Because that Anansi story could be about a bicycle; it changes with the times. And they say they came into the Caribbean from West Africa with the slaves. If you go to the children's story place in Oxford… there’s a film of me there dressed up as Anansi. And their stories… they’re all full of wisdom. There’s kind of formats, and they change with the times. There would be Anansi stories now with computers; the arc of the story stays the same.

So I will say primary kids should be taught Anansi stories alongside other stories. Because they're always moral. He always finds a way out of trouble.

TB: Prof Z, thanks for your time; it’s been an honour to meet you.

BZ: Thank you.