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OPINION Still struggling after all these years

The poet starving in a garret is a well-known literary trope, but a black woman poet writing about the enduring legacies of British slavery is less so. JENNY MITCHELL explains why

MY SECOND poetry collection, Map of a Plantation, examines why the contested history of transatlantic enslavement ensures a structural path or “map” that restricts black people, on the whole, to servile positions within Britain.

My starting point is my own working life and long journey to becoming a poet. Although born in Britain, I often felt unwelcome and see that my education in a “failing” Kilburn school was preparation to work in a shop or a hospital.

This path was diverted when, at 15, I was one of 10 winners in a London-wide poetry competition. My school labelled me exceptional and I was supported to get into a good university.

During freshers’ week, a fellow student — clearly upper middle class — mocked my north-London voice, saying I had a “quaint accent.” Soon after, one of my new white friends laughed at me for coming second in a university-run poetry competition.

Other examples demonstrated that I might be exceptional in Kilburn, but in the hallowed halls my voice was to be undermined. I quickly lost hold of my childhood dream to become a writer.

On graduation, I walked straight into a job as a shop assistant, lacking the confidence and family contacts of my fellow graduates. The best I could do after that, despite my 2:1, was work my way up to office clerk, as if I had left school without any qualifications. Meanwhile, my white university friends were going to drama school, working in PR or becoming film directors.

I knew I was underachieving and decided to take a journey through six African countries alone. It proved my awakening, although on returning I simply became a secretary in a large media-based organisation.

But now I finally had the confidence to tell my new employers that I wanted to be a writer. They seemed delighted when two of my travel articles were published in the Guardian and the Observer and encouraged me to write for the organisation’s in-house magazine while continuing my secretarial duties.

After a year, and with the full support of the editor, I asked to be regraded to his assistant. This request was declined and I was given the message that none of the few black staff were above the lowest grade.

I went to tribunal on the grounds of race discrimination and equal pay and won an out-of-court settlement. I made the decision to commit myself to becoming a writer.

Following another racist incident involving an irate white stranger, I began research into Britain’s involvement in transatlantic enslavement. I learnt about a history that includes mass rape as a form of control, children sold away from parents, enforced illiteracy and wholescale denial of basic human rights.

I also learnt about black resistance and the continual fight for freedom. The idea that Wilberforce freed the enslaved became ridiculous, like saying Boris Johnson is curing Covid.

But this historical lie helped obscure the fact that with abolition former enslavers were given £20 million of British taxpayers’ money — about £20 billion today — for the loss of their human “chattel.”

However, the formerly enslaved were give no money and no land, which meant they were forced to stay on plantations to work for a pittance.

While not claiming any comparison to my own situation, I was able to see that the settlement I received from my former employers allowed me to create a new life. No such luxury was afforded black people in the Caribbean. This led directly to the Windrush Generation and the need to leave the Caribbean to come and serve in the “mother country.”

My first poetry collection, Her Lost Language, examines this direct link and legacy, while Map of a Plantation is set on a Jamaican cane estate and gives voice to enslaved people and enslavers.

In the recent Sewell Report, there is a demand for a “new story” on ‘the making of modern Britain.” This demonstrates a wilful blindness to the continued devastation of the legacies of enslavement, as can be seen with the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black people.

My connection to this past is encapsulated in the poem How I Write About Enslavement, first published in the poetry magazine Dust, reprinted here.

How I Write about Enslavement

I dig bones from a grave carried on my back,
lay them on the page — blood full-stops.
Chains are brought up next, a tangled weight.

Whips the overseers soaked in salt
start a fire on my skin. Deep wounds
turn into welts, flower into sentences.

My body folds, neck wrenched to feel the rope
pulling at my neck. Knees quake. Each organ
fills with names, the children sold,

their cries tamped in my throat, locked away
for safety’s sake until they scream,
break free, demand a page.

Jenny Mitchell is winner of the Folklore Prize 2020, the Segora Prize 2020, the Aryamati Prize 2020, the Fosseway Prize 2020 and a Bread and Roses Award. Her debut collection, Her Lost Language (Indigo Dreams), was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Award 2019 and is a Jhalak Prize #bookwelove recommendation. Map of a Plantation is published on April 16.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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