Culture Matters is proud to commemorate Black History Month 2023 and mark National Poetry Day with the first of four new poems by the award-winning writer Jenny Mitchell, under the heading British History is Black. This work examines the legacies of British transatlantic enslavement, looking at the impact on shared identities, ambition, personal safety and home.
Why four poems? Because Black History Month can often seem like a tick box exercise, and Culture Matters is committed to publishing work all year round that aims to challenge outmoded notions of ‘race’ and equity.
These poems have been written to stimulate new thoughts and lead to new questions. Culture Matters will post one poem a week during October; feedback from readers is welcome on Twitter/X at #Culturematters and on Facebook at Culturematters2019.
Great British Voice
by Jenny Mitchell
When mother sails to England – 1958 –
chin higher than a ship’s carved figurehead –
she’s followed by a huddled mob, white
faces coming close as if a dozen moons have
dropped, fists clenched, breath thick with beer,
each spit-stained curse shadowing the hospital
where she works at night, sun rising like a coin,
earning measly pay to be sent home, as she called
Jamaica then – aging mouths to feed. The mob
tears at her clothes, grabbing for the pay, coins
spinning on the road, but she stands her ground.
I is a British citizen. Me passport have a stamp.
You want to see me cry eye water? Never.
Not for you. Me farder fight in World War One.
Two bruder fight in World War Two. What medals
do you have? Men kick her to the ground, shout
above her screams, Listen to the monkey grunt!
They cough up phlegm, shower her with thick
contempt, running as she stands, limping to the
small bedsit shared with all those mice, crying
as she bathes the wounds, thinking it’s her voice
that has to change as skin cannot be white.
She puts Jamaica in a box, accent jailed for life,
no more haitches dropped. Adding them
to oranges doesn’t really help, still a victim
of attack walking down the streets, even when
she cries for help, using her Queen’s English.
Jenny Mitchell is a winner of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, the Poetry Book Awards 2021 and a joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. She also won the inaugural Ironbridge Prize, the Bedford Prize and the Gloucester Poetry Society Open Competition. The best-selling debut collection, Her Lost Language, is one of 44 Poetry Books for 2019 (Poetry Wales), and a second collection, Map of a Plantation, is an Irish Independent ‘Literary Find’ and on the syllabus at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her latest collection is called Resurrection of a Black Man.