“Beware the Black Sainthood”: my speech at Edinburgh University’s Student Union.

On Monday 13 October 2014, I gave a speech at Edinburgh University’s Student Union, “Beware the Black Sainthood”. The speech examined how the legacies of great black figures throughout history are often sanitised, and how black history is often marginalised if not destroyed altogether. The transcript of my speech is below.

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The title of this evening’s talk is “Beware the Black Sainthood”. I should probably start, then, with an explanation of what the “Black Sainthood” is; and, during the course of that explanation, it will quickly become clear why we should be afraid of it.

The “Black Sainthood” is a status given to a revolutionary black leader after his or her death. This status is typically bestowed by those who vigorously opposed him or her in life; and its intention, conscious or otherwise, is to soften the edges of their legacy, to stop them living in our minds as a symbol of resistance.

If any of you in the audience tonight wish to qualify as a Black Saint, you must have the following four characteristics.

Firstly, you must be a black leader committed to the racial equality of his or her people.
Secondly, you must have lived a public life of astonishing dignity and restraint in the face of horrifying provocation.
Thirdly, you must have a group of troublesomely radical allies from whom, after your death, all connections can be conveniently severed by historians*.
Fourthly, you must make at least one major speech or declaration which allows your life’s philosophy to be nebulously defined after your death as “peace and love for all mankind”.

If we go through those characteristics one by one, we can see that the most illustrious recent member of the Black Sainthood is Nelson Mandela. Committed to racial equality? Check. A life of astonishing dignity and restraint? Check. Troublesomely radical allies? Let’s see: Mandela had Cuba, and the Communist Party. Check. And finally, peace and love? Check.

Following Mandela’s death, he was celebrated by many of those who had either been apologists for apartheid, if not actively enabled it. Their tributes were characterised by one common element: they chose to remember Mandela merely as the elder, possibly cuddly statesman, the supposedly anger-free great-grandfather, and not also as the young trial lawyer of fearsome resolve. What also passed largely without comment was why Cuba was given such a prominent place at Mandela’s memorial ceremony, with Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel, giving an address. For many years, Cuba was a staunch ally to Mandela in fighting apartheid, even supplying training and troops. Indeed, Mandela visited this country shortly after his release from prison in 1991, and told Fidel Castro that “the Cuban people have a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa.”

The benefits of such a selective remembrance are clear. They allow those who perpetuated perverse systems of injustice to scuttle away from the scene of the crime. They allow them to make a clean break with the past, to treat the Black Saint’s legacy as some form of holy water which washes away all of their responsibility for the wrongs which he or she had to overcome. They allow them to say, for example, that apartheid was just what people practised back then, as if there were not significant numbers of citizens – and countries – who were horrified by it at the time.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who elevated Nelson Mandela to the Black Sainthood did so deliberately. He led a remarkable life, and was an inspiration to millions; the temptation to regard him as more than merely human is immense. Yet to do so actually diminishes his power. Because every time that anyone working towards social progress states that Mandela’s deeds were beyond emulation, they are simultaneously telling themselves that “oh, well, I could never do that”. And that, I think, is contrary to the true spirit of activism. As activists, all you are ever really doing is chipping away at whatever wall of oppression you face. You never know if it will be you who makes the breakthrough, and if you do, you will owe everything to those who came before you. Activists, whether or not they end up their names in lights or on street corners, are nothing more than ordinary people responding to extraordinary challenges. That, if anything, makes Mandela’s achievements even more praiseworthy – that he was just a man, like anyone else.

The danger is that we are so dazzled by the glory of the Black Sainthood that we ignore those who contributed to their success. We forget the names of those who were in jail alongside Mandela. We forget those who came before them, like Steve Biko. This, of course, is a mistake, because those who helped to devise these strategies often have the most compelling stories to tell. In fact, whenever we look at a Black Saint – someone who is hoisted up on history’s pedestal – we should always ask ourselves: who were their contemporaries? Who were their friends, their mentors? By doing this, we can better understand the complex narratives that existed at the time.

For example, many people know that Rosa Parks was not merely some disgruntled black woman who got spontaneously fed up with the back of the bus. What Parks did that day was the result of a carefully-plotted protest. What most people don’t know, though, is the name of Claudette Colvin, who did exactly what Parks did almost a year earlier. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Colvin refused to concede her seat to a white person, and was arrested for her trouble. Colvin, who was only 15 at the time, then went on to become one of four plaintiffs to challenge Alabama’s bus segregation laws; in Broader vs Gale, a case which they won. Yet Parks, and not Colvin, was chosen as the face of the civil rights movement, and Colvin herself has no doubts as to why that was.

“They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable”, she told Margot Adler, in a 2009 interview with National Public Radio. What’s more, she noted that Parks’ physical appearance was more socially acceptable at that time. “Her skin texture”, said Colvin, “was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit that profile.” Colvin, along with being teenaged and dark-skinned, was also a single mum; she was therefore not deemed wholesome enough to be a figurehead for progress, even though she was probably more representative of the protesters at the time. As the author David Garrow has noted, “the reality of the movement was often young people and often more than 50 per cent women”.

Colvin’s story is so important because, when we glance at the Civil Rights movement, we mostly see heterosexual black men at the helm. If we look no further than Black Saints like Dr. Martin Luther King, we therefore end up with a misleading picture of history. Our refusal to recognise the central place of many women and gay men in that movement has implications for how we regard those groups today.

Again, for example: as several people know – but still more do not – Dr. King’s mentor was a man called Bayard Rustin, whose role in the movement was largely downplayed because he was openly gay. It was Rustin, after all, who taught Dr. King and his peers the techniques of non-violent resistance that would go on to be so effective. Yet the names of Rustin and Colvin do not ring through the ages like those of King and Parks. Their unashamed homosexuality or their youth or their teenage pregnancies were an inconvenient truth, and in some minds they still are.

The Black Sainthood exists because too many people like their history to have a happy ending. But, of course, history does not end. To quote a character from the film Magnolia – a quote I use far too often – ‘We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us”. The structures that fortified apartheid did not all crumble the day that Mandela left jail. Indeed, given the economic inequality that persists in modern South Africa, some would insist that many of those structures are still firmly in place, and that Mandela accepted them too readily. I say this not to attack Mandela’s legacy, but merely to state that his work was not yet finished, that his life did not remove these entrenched injustices; something which he himself might have been one of the first to accept.

You might think that I am being unnecessarily reductive in my analysis – that no-one is using Mandela’s death to skim over the past. But if we look around, we see that historical revisionism of this nature has been taking place for years.

To quote a recent example, there’s this Guardian article from 18 April 2012, titled “Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes”:

“Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded.

Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.”
….

“Clear instructions were issued that no Africans were to be involved: only an individual who was “a servant of the Kenya government who is a British subject of European descent” could participate in the purge.”

“Some idea of the scale of the operation and the amount of documents that were erased from history can be gleaned from a handful of instruction documents that survived the purge. In certain circumstances, colonial officials in Kenya were informed, ‘it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast’.”

But back to more recent times. Barack Obama’s election was greeted with joy by many, who perhaps hoped that America was on its way to becoming a post-racial society – whatever that means. A few months later, President Obama found himself a somewhat unwitting candidate for the Black Sainthood, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama, who stated that he was “surprised” and “humbled” by the award, was nominated for it just a few weeks after taking office. The Nobel committee gave him the prize, in its own words, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. Those “extraordinary efforts”, by the time of the awards ceremony in October 2009, consisted of little more than a few encouraging speeches on how to tackle climate change, nuclear proliferation and reaching out to the Muslim world. Given President Obama’s subsequent expansion of the drone programme and continued supply of arms to the Egyptian government, the Nobel committee may feel that this prize was somewhat premature. That is, of course, assuming that they didn’t award him the prize – as I still suspect – for the feel-good factor that he gave the world to see an African-American sitting in the Oval Office.

Of all the reasons why people would choose to promote Black Sainthood, perhaps the most insidious is white guilt. By “white guilt”, I mean the sense that many white people have that they may have been decisively complicit in maintaining a system of racial supremacy. When figures such as Dr. King, Mandela and Obama emerge, they are seen by many black people as symbols of liberation, but by many white people as impossibly clean-cut symbols of redemption. It is remarkable how kum-bay-yah the story of Dr. King has become; the lesson of his life supposedly being that you can have all the equal rights that you want, so long as you ask warmly and nicely. Yet Dr. King was much more than that. The sanitisation of his image has been so profound, even among black people themselves, that we must reassert his achievements. This has been done most effectively, in my view, by an article written in 2011, by Hamden Rice. This article is so good, in fact, that I will quote from it at length.

“Dr. King’s main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.”

Rice then goes on to describe a conversation with his father, in which he criticises Dr. King for not being radical enough – a perception which, I am sad to admit, I once shared. His father responded, ‘with a sort of cold fury”, that “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the South.”

As Rice notes, the Deep South was not merely a place of segregation, where black and white people merely used different drinking fountains. The real problem was that “white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually black men, and lynched them. You know all about lynching. But you may forget or do not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment. This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.”

Dr. King and his peers taught black people to take beatings – they actually gave classes on how to brace themselves so it would be less painful – how to maintain their composure in jail, and generally to absorb the greatest assaults on their person and psyche that white people of the time could inflict upon them. And this is a part of his legend that is not so often taught, and that, I think, is that it emphasises too starkly the brutality of white supremacy at the time. Far better to focus upon the Dr. King whose message was one of compassion, collective healing and dreams, than of the one whose work held up a mirror to the horrors of his age.

How to prevent this from happening? How can we stop people and institutions from sweeping their darkest misdeeds under History’s carpet? Well, the only answer is: by maintaining constant, passionate vigilance. By reminding ourselves of the names of those whose struggle for racial equality and black self-determination has never made them eligible for Black Sainthood; people like Thomas Sankara, Chris Hani, Angela Davis. By remembering, whilst we talk of Black History Month, that a great deal of Black History has either been carefully curated or destroyed altogether. We should be wary of those who try to ascribe happy endings to history; who spend longer praising the abolitionists of slavery than they do in deconstructing why slavery was allowed to persist as long as it did (and, indeed, still does today). We should beware the Black Sainthood, and its attempt to Disneyfy the past. Instead, we should treat these great black historical figures with the nuance they deserve, learning from both their strengths and their flaws; because there, and there alone, is where true progress lies.

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*The correct word here would have been “revisionists”; indeed, it has been historians who have been most committed to nuance over this issue.  Many thanks to Simon M Stevens, History PhD candidate at Columbia University, for alerting me on this issue.

After the Shaw Shooting, a new hit US TV series, “The Anger Games”

Media industry experts are ecstatic at the news that a brilliant reality TV show is set to go ahead. Following a pilot programme that broke all records, The Anger Games is due to hit small screens across the US from January 2015. “This show is revolutionary”, gushed an executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. “When we heard the concept, we were like just, wow, this is incredible.”

John Bowman, the show’s creator, is “blown away” by the reaction. “I hoped we were onto something, but when we saw the numbers of people tuning in, me and the crew were – I mean, just tears of happiness,” he says, shaking his head. Bowman believes that the simple yet addictive format of The Anger Games is key to its success. “Every 28 hours, we choose a black community in the US at random, and then we get them to nominate a tribute – normally an unarmed black teenager”, he explains. “The tribute is shot dead by an unnamed policeman, and then we send the cameras in. That’s when it gets really exciting.”

As soon as the black teen dies, viewers across America are encouraged to place bets on how soon it will take black people to start crying, swearing, cursing, acting undignified in the face of yet another intolerable injustice, or just generally losing their shit. There is also a sweepstake for anyone who correctly guesses the minute that a Negro first burns an American flag. “John is a genius”, says Jenny Vale, the show’s co-creator. “He realised that there’s nothing more entertaining in America than black rage.” Bets can currently be placed using the red button on their remote controls, though there are rumours of a deal with a major smartphone company.  “An Anger Games app!” says Vale.

“We’re very excited about Season 1,” says Bowman, “we’ve got all kinds of ideas. We’re even going to allow one lucky viewer to join the police in the community, where they will be given one police uniform, a mask and a free can of tear gas. We really want our audience to get hands on.” He shakes his head. “I’m telling you, wow. I knew people would like the idea, but this – man, this really humbles you.”

Australia suffers horrific humanitarian intervention.

Australia was in turmoil today as a terrifying invasion took place.  “The people are in shock”, said former Prime Minister John Howard.  “We’re really hurting here.”  The invasion occurred yesterday night, and was apparently triggered by Mr. Howard’s entirely innocent comments that he did not believe that a genocide of Aborigines had taken place in his country.  No sooner had he uttered these words that a group of radical academics descended upon Australia, armed to the teeth with a set of irrefutable historical records. “We didn’t stand a chance”, lamented Howard.  “it was a massacre.”

Full details of the conflict are only just emerging, but the early reports are horrific.  According to Howard, he and his fellow troops of genocide-deniers kept trying to blame the laziness of the Aborigines for their current plight, but the academics “just kept shoving us back into historical context.  Man, they were really rough with us.”  The academics, having landed in Sydney under the cover of darkness, advanced at dawn to all the largest educational institutions, where they established safe havens for rational argument.  From here, they spent their first day broadcasting from self-made radio stations, and generally telling the awkward truth about past colonial misdeeds to anyone who would bloody listen.

So bewildered was Howard by this ongoing assault that he is unsure what to do next.  “We might contact the UN”, he said. “Every country has a right to self-determination, and my Australia has the right to remain as firmly in denial as possible.” Howard also had strong words for the promoters of this dangerous new ideology.  “Militant realism is spreading everywhere like a cancer, and it must be stopped”, he warned.  “The violent progress of facts is the single greatest threat to Western civilisation.”

To you men who joke about assaulting women.

Every time you make a remark about assaulting women, and then defend it by saying “it was just a joke”, I think I know what you mean.  It’s not just a joke, really.  It’s not just a joke to the women, or to those who care about them; and, what’s more, it’s not just a joke to you.  It’s really important to you.  You’re saying, under the mask of laughter, something that you genuinely mean.

Don’t get angry at this fact.  You’re angry enough already.  You’re angry that you even have to disguise your intentions.  Because you know there was once a time when you could openly boast absolutely anywhere about the women you assaulted or were about to, and it would go unpunished.  Now, though, you’ve got to be a bit more careful.  Now you have to use jokes, and you hate this.

It’s obvious that you hate this, because when someone says that you are being offensive, you become furious.  Not immediately – at first, you try to patronise them, or laugh them off.  But if they persist with their accusation just once more, you skip past irritation to rage.  You might even start threatening them.  And this is why you’re pissed off – because you’re fed up with the whole fucking pretence, aren’t you? Hate having to bite your fucking tongue.  You wish this fucking bitch would just shut up like the other fucking bitch who had that smack coming.  Fucking hell.  You can’t fucking talk about anything these days, can you?

This is how it feels, isn’t it.  Your blood is up.  Fuck.  What you really want to do is say what you think anywhere anytime.  But you can’t.  Your hatred is like your cock – you want to fuck the world with it, unprotected.  But you can’t: you have to clothe it, so the joke is your condom.

And you hate having to use that condom, but it’s the only way you’re going to get any action.  Because if you hang out with your mates, and tell them straight-faced about the woman you took home who was too drunk to stand, there won’t be so many of those mates any more.  This way, if you joke about it, you can all sit in that pub and you can laugh and the cowards can cower into their pints and you can carry on.  That’s why you hate it when we call you out on your jokes.  Because what you’re really saying is Bitch don’t fucking make me take this seriously.  Because deep down you know it’s not funny and you try to think about that truth as little as possible.

It’s OK, I’m done now.  Go back to your beer and your banter, which is where you feel better.  Just don’t think that we don’t know, and that we don’t see you.  Because we see you just as clearly, when the beer clears and there’s nothing left but the bathroom mirror, as you see yourself.

 

When the UK dared Scotland.

Tell you what, let’s all really patronise Scotland. Scotland – Scotland, what are you thinking. Snot dripping from your nose from all that cold. Listen, take a seat. – No, not over there; away from your oil. Right here, at our knee. Scotland, look at the state of you. All poor and banged up. Pimpled from your poor diet. Scrabbling south for our scraps now and then. Look – stop eyeing the door over our shoulder. It’s freezing out there, you’d never have the guts to run for it. – What’s that? You’d rather risk death by exposure than being smugly smiled at in the comfort of our log fire? No, no you wouldn’t. Tell you what, we’ll even open the door, turn our backs and count to three, and when we turn back you’ll still be curled up right here. You’ll see. – Here goes: One. Two. Three. -

Scotland?
Scotland?
Scotland?

The LMA’s statement: a power move that may backfire.

They are laughing at us. I am beginning to think that, in some boardroom in some part of London, behind tinted windows and a table decorated only with a bowl of untouched imperial mints, they are laughing at us; they being whoever at the League Managers Association (LMA) carefully put together their statement in defence of the comments of Malky Mackay. What other conclusion can be drawn? When the final text of that press release was approved and dispatched, it may as well have been accompanied with a collective cackle from the assembled group of male white heterosexual Gentiles. There’s just no other way that the LMA’s strategy makes sense. To state a case so boldly as this, in the face of predictable public outrage, is nothing other than a supreme power move.

A brief paragraph to bring anyone up to speed who is not aware of the story in question. The former Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay has just been reported to the Football Association for allegedly sending text messages that have been construed as offensive to gay people, black people, Asian people, Jews and women.  The LMA, in the words of its website, is “the collective, representative voice of all managers from the Barclays Premier League, the Sky Bet Championship and Sky Bet Leagues 1 and 2″. As that voice, one of their key six aims is to “protect the rights and privileges of its members.” In offering such protection, they described Mackay’s messages as “letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter”. The statement has been superbly dissected by two football writers, Henry Winter and Seb Stafford-Bloor (the owner of the Premier League Owl website), and you can read their analyses at @henrywinter and @premleagueowl or at the footnotes below this post.

Let’s now consider the further implications of the LMA’s statement – which reads as an expression of contempt not only for gay people, black people, Asian people, Jews and women, but for absolutely anyone who cares about them. That’s a lot of people to offend and think that you can get away with it. It’s a spectacular level of entitlement, of belief in your infallibility. The LMA seems to think, given its representation of all those managers and given all those commercial partnerships that it apparently enjoys, that its position is unassailable. It has gambled that each of its members – whose voice it after all claims to be – will agree that: “nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers” is just the kind of thing that you casually come out with when faced with the pressures of football management. It has bet that none of its members will be offended by the LMA’s dismissal of the phrase “fkn Chinkys” as “friendly banter”.

Well, that’s a big wager; and it’s a wager that will doubtless be put to the test by a range of journalists at press conferences or in private correspondence over the next few days, or as long as this news cycle lasts. One wonders, too, how the LMA’s sponsors – themselves multinational companies with diverse workforces – will view all this. And as if that wasn’t enough, the LMA has one other thing to worry about. Its statement seems to be a perfect representation of what the Macpherson report, in considering the murder of Stephen Lawrence, described as “institutional racism”. In that report, institutional racism was defined as:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

The LMA’s sixth and final major aim on its website – mentioned last of all, as if an afterthought – is “to encourage honourable practice, conduct and courtesy in all professional activity”. Yet its most recent pronouncement appears to be doing precisely the opposite. It may well be that this all blows over soon enough. But in their boardroom, or wherever they are, they might not be well-advised to smirk just yet.

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References:

1. Mackay messages: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2731219/Malky-Mackay-s-text-message-victims-What-said-response-followed.html

2. LMA statement on Mackay messages: http://www.leaguemanagers.com/news/news-7418.html

3. Henry Winter analysis of LMA statement: http://t.co/a5C1X1CLXx

4. Premier League Owl analysis of LMA statement:

5. LMA’s six major aims: http://www.leaguemanagers.com/about/aboutlma-2.html

 

A growing fear for Captain Ronald Johnson.

Captain Ronald Johnson, by most accounts and all appearances, is a brave, decent, and compassionate man: and that’s why I fear for him. Over the last few days, Johnson has emerged as a key figure in the standoff between the mostly aggressive police and the mostly peaceful public, hugging here, speaking and mediating there. It is an example of which his fellow officers should be proud. Unfortunately, recent events suggest that he is the exception to the rule. Whilst he calls for calm, his colleagues behave with an unbridled belligerence. He has therefore become the reasonable face, the acceptable face, of his region’s police force, a role which has an inherent danger. He is the proud, eloquent, dignified African-American to whom the protesters’ critics can now point and, however inaccurately, can say: “Look at the dignity with which he turns the other cheek.  Look how commendable he is under fire. He is the standard by which your dissent is now judged.”

I fear for Captain Johnson because, given his prominent role in Ferguson, he may become a focal point for discontent if a detailed investigation into Mike Brown’s death is not forthcoming. Part of the reason that he has been trusted to dissipate tension is that there is a sense that his actions are part of a march towards justice, or at least a clarity as to what happened that afternoon when an unarmed black teen was gunned down. Yet I suspect that there are those in Johnson’s police force who see his efforts not as a catalyst for progress, but as an end in themselves: that if he merely stands in front of enough crowds, if he makes enough beautifully empathetic appeals, then the problem will go away.

I do not envy Captain Johnson his role. He is surely not naive as to the difficulties expressed above, seeing his intervention as vital to alleviate his community’s concerns but also wary that he may be seen merely as the front for an organisation burrowing itself ever further into national disrepute. He must also be aware that, in a twist of irony, his name and face are far more readily identifiable with the events following Mike Brown’s death than the name and face of Mike Brown’s killer.

For this reason, I was happy to see that some people defied the curfew imposed by Ferguson’s police last night. Not because I wish Captain Johnson any professional embarrassment, or any ill to the protesters who stayed out after midnight: but because these activists further exposed the feral obstruction of justice by police for whose deceit Captain Johnson’s humanity has become the unwitting shield. As those police withhold Darren Wilson, the man who shot Mike Brown dead, from the scrutiny of the law, Captain Johnson’s role looks increasingly forlorn, which is exactly as many of them seem to want it: that he should be one more blast of tactical tear gas, one more strategic smoke bomb, that prevents us from staring unrestrained at the truth.

For Mike Brown: The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent.

The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent.

Rogue states have been watching America with interest,
Where it seems that a young Black man can be weaponised
Just by walking home.
The black boy is so terrifying to America,
That now all of its enemies want one.
North Korea has just put in an order,
Offering twenty thousand black boys and their families
Free schooling, room and board,
In return for their promise that, when America next threaten sanctions,
They will march to the centre of Pyongyang, put on their hoodies,
Look into CNN’s quivering cameras, and scowl.
The black boy is the new nuclear warhead.
He is so dangerous that American police will try anything to stop him going off,
Every time he steps outside.
To stop him, these brave, brave policemen,
Working deep under the cover of anonymity,
Will leave no bullet unfired,
And after he has been defused
No grieving parent will be left unharassed,
No community left unteargassed.
The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent:
Nuke is the new black.
Now black women are becoming a threat too:
Each womb of theirs, an undeclared arsenal.
Iran are sending cheques to African-American mothers pregnant with sons,
Along with notes saying that, “look, when the boy grows up,
Come with him to us, we’ll never need to set off another bomb again.
We’ll give you a nice villa in Tehran,
And every day the overhead US drones
Will quake at the sight of him merely falling in love, or shooting hoops.”
So black boys can relax, since their deaths are not in vain;
For at least they’re now a weapon
Their own suburbs can’t contain.

 

 

 

 

 

A World War One post: “Lights out; but also, lights on.”

Lights out; but also, lights on.
Lights should be shone into every corner,
Into every corner of each battlefield
and each soul of those sending them to die.
Lights should go on in our minds,
when we recognise the pattern of all this happening again.
Lights on in Israel-Palestine, Ukraine; in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria;
Lights on in South Sudan, in Congo;
Lights on in the regions of our globe
That our tongues and our history books do not yet know,
but soon will.
So lights on for the Central African Republic,
For the Rohingya and for West Papua,
Because this is War;
A virus in endless search of new hosts,
Settling on those who have not yet developed resistance,
Whilst those who survive it
Are not yet eager enough to share the cure.

Inspired by Israel-Palestine, 1948: The Sailor and The Farmer.

Having read about Israel and Palestine a great deal of late, I thought I would post this piece, “The Sailor and The Farmer”.  If of interest, please share.

———–

The sailor, stunned, started to shake;
By Fate’s grace, he had just escaped
From a scene of matchless horror
Since he had acted upon a
Hunch and forced some friends to board
His vessel, whilst some who’d ignored
Warnings that they were in danger
Were condemned to taste death’s flavour,
Gas and ash, in sombre chamber…

They’d all been rounded into herds,
The sailor’s friends, and then one-third
Of them had disappeared within
That tomb – but two-thirds came with him…
Previously, they’d lived happily
With people they now had to flee;
That’s why the sailor was struck dumb
That those that they’d once lived among
Could turn on them: but he had dreamt
Of such a day; yes, it was meant
To end like this – or start like this;
That, heartlessly, they’d be dismissed
And, as survivors, set adrift
To find another, safer part
Of Earth. And so, this sailor’s ark
Set sail. The waters were rocky
The crew’s members murmured softly
In a circle, heads bowed, hoping
They’d find homes across the ocean…
Yet this vessel’s journey was hard;
Their flesh was burned by sun, they starved
Halfway to death, and they implored
Their Lord that he’d reward their faith –
The sailor, praying for this grace
Looked out across the shoreless sea
And pleaded: “Please, there ought to be
Some land where we can rest our souls –
Our soles…” The sailor’s forlorn thought
Was that he’d never known a port
Where he’d been welcome: throughout time
There’d been suspicion of his kind -
The script, timeless, had never changed:
They’d come ashore, and they’d remain
There for a while, put down some roots;
They’d swap their sailor’s clothes for suits
Of good, land-bound professionals,
Then some would have exceptional
Careers, leading to jealous hosts
Who’d chase them from their lands, their coasts;
Or worse. The sailor knew of friends
Whose entire bloodlines had been cleansed,
Whose family trees had the sap
Ripped from their veins; he’d seen all that,
The sailor. Coping with this nomad’s
Life was often difficult,
Yet easier than getting caught,
Stranded on dry land at the hands
Of angry clans…yet as he made
His slow progress across the waves
He vowed, both wary and weary:
“My people’s eyes will be tear-free
One day; I will turn the servant
To the served; yes, I’m determined
That the next place where my anchor’s
Shade cascades, will see us anxious
No more; there will be an ending
To the terror we’ve been feeling…”
Then, as if the wind was heeding
Him, it gave wings to his craft,
Which harnessed the storm; came at last
To harbour on a continent
Most of whose folk were competent
At working all day in the fields…
As they landed, a plan revealed
Itself to this smart sailor, who
Barked some sharp orders to his crew.
The first order was “Burn the boat”:
The sailor intended – not hoped –
To stay here, and would not be swayed
By fear; he would cower in shade
No more. The sailor ordered, secondly –
As result of the heavenly
Instructions he’d received in dreams –
That all vacant homes should be seized:
See, there were plenty of empty
Homes, since they were owned by farmers -
All of whom – kids, mothers, fathers –
Toiled between the dawn and dusk
In deep soil that adorned Earth’s crust.
Thirdly, he told them all to strip.
When some refused, the sailor ripped
Their garments from them, shredded them;
Told them they had ahead of them
A future where they wouldn’t need
Sea-gypsies’ clothes. A chilly breeze
Then struck them, left them shivering;
Although they were still listening
To what their leader had to say
They weren’t keen on this naked state;
They felt exposed, humiliated.

“Finally”, ordered the sailor,
“You must all assume behaviour
Of people who are entitled
To live here; this is your tribal
Stomping crowd from here on in.”
They thought that they weren’t hearing him
Correctly; some of them had doubts;
They were guests; was it right to pounce
Upon houses of those who’d left
For work, to leave them dispossessed?
Though, in breasts, they felt uncertain
They felt, in same place, a surge of
Pride – they’d claimed the upper hand,
They’d made their mark upon these sands…

The farmers trod their routes home.
Keen to enjoy fruits of their stoves,
They drove their toothless mules down roads
Towards their towns, streets far from smooth
Beaten anew by horses’ hooves;
The adults, in their sweaty droves
The children in scuffed, dusty clothes,
Shuffled to their front doors, and stopped
In shock: since their front doors were locked.

To start with, each of the fathers
Thought that this was just a harmless
Prank. They never locked their doors.
They laughed. There was even applause:
Then, of course, they slowly took note
Of fact that this was not a joke.

“Open up!” they cried in despair.

“I will not. I live in this lair
Now,” the sailor said. “Who are you?”
Asked the farmers. “We’ve not harmed you.
Why have you chased us from our homes?”

The sailor’s people, in abodes
That they’d chosen, felt pangs of shame;
But they were anxious to remain
Inside, because if they now moved
Then they would be seen in the nude:
So they blocked all entrances,
Imposed on themselves sentences
Of long confinement. Now and then,
For food, they’d sneak out, grab a hen
And run back in before the stones
Were thrown by angry farmers whose
Returns to homes were overdue.

The sailor grew older, and died:
But storm he’d caused did not subside;
Some of his descendants, restless,
Charged out as if with a deathwish,
Went to live among the farmers
Naked, but clad in the armour
Of faith that was absolute:
Some sailors, though they at the root
Of themselves knew they’d crossed a line
Pretended all was fine, and slept
Uneasily, whilst farmers stepped
Slyly past their guards by night
So that, in vengeance, they might strike;
Most farmers camped out in the fields,
Becoming deaf to all appeals
For peace by sailors, and increased
In rage with each passing decade
Until once-succulent olives
Of that land’s trees tasted horrid,
Watered as they had been by the
Sour tears of those inside the
Farmers’ homes, those trapped outside…
Even now, you’ll hear the outcry
Of both tribes: cries of the sailors,
Who for years were homeless, aimless,
Who are now landlords, with tenants
Of extraordinary menace;
And you’ll hear cries of the farmers,
Wandering through their vast pastures,
Scared they’ll find no place to rest:
Feelings the sailors once knew best.