Some years ago, after a reading in Ireland, a major British poet wrote about me in a disparaging way on his own blog. He accused me of playing the ‘race card’. I had read from a sequence of poems called ‘In This Country’. The poems explore a range of feelings a black Caribbean body might feel living in the UK for the first time – the unfamiliarity of the cold; the profound familiarity of spaces such as Brixton or Moss Side; the harsh acceptance that for all the loneliness of Britain it might indeed be a better space than the one that was left behind; the subtle and unsubtle experiences of racism. It was this last category that upset the major poet. To put it crudely, he thought I was being an ungrateful immigrant. Perhaps he dismissed me as yet another black poet who had gone on stage not to perform poetry but to perform identity – the problematic kind of poem that shouts, HEY! I’M BLACK! YOU MUST APPLAUD ME FOR MY BLACKNESS! IF YOU DON’T, THEN YOU’RE RACIST!
The black poet who writes about his or her own daily experiences – some of them negative – faces this constant risk, of being nervously applauded but silently dismissed. This is part of the anxiety of being a black poet in Britain. Yeah yeah yeah – the black poet imagines the audience saying — we’ve heard this song and dance already. Boohoo! Grow up! Get over yourself! The anxiety is sometimes a quite useful one, for every poem has its world and its history of clichés that must be recognized, avoided, and then made new.
If I am to be kind to this major poet (and in subsequent meetings, he has always been kind to me), I would say that sitting in the audience, hearing and not actually reading the poems, I can understand why some of the complexities might have been lost to him – why he might not have appreciated that the poems were not all singing the same note. And indeed I am grateful that he was willing to offer a public critique that many others might have thought but would have been too polite to express.
This having happened in my first few months living in Britain, was a disciplining kind of thing. For it said to me (again, to put it crudely), Kei – you’re black. But do not act black.
This isn’t going to be a coherent blog-essay. I am jumping from story to story. This now is another night, years later, and a night that has nothing to do with poetry. I am walking down the road with a Scottish friend. Unknown to me, my friend, a classically trained musician of sorts, is listening with increasing annoyance as I hum a song to myself. Finally when he can take it no more, he snaps. ‘Kei, could you please stop blacking it up!!’
That was over a year ago, but I keep on returning to the moment. I keep on turning it over in my head – this suggestion – this reminder that my blackness, in certain contexts, is an offensive and inappropriate thing, a thing that ought to be managed and kept at bay. I try not do the thing a writer might do – to make out of this a larger symbol. But then again, it is hard to make that moment larger than it was. By itself, it was a pretty big thing. The argument that ensued was seething and passionate. The end of a friendship that came in its wake was painful.
In the moment I did not respond immediately. Instead I looked away and bit my lips. I imagined my lips as big and caricatured. I imagined my face as the kind that might advertise a coon or a minstrel show.
And then I focused on irrelevant things like the smell of the night, like the cars passing by and the brightness of their headlights. I focused on the simple things like trying not to cry. It is strange to me that now, a year later, I cannot remember the smell of that night though it seemed so desperately important then.
It suddenly occurred to me that the offensive comment probably wasn’t meant to be offensive. Maybe this was just politically incorrect humour of which I have always been a fan.
No. It turns out my friend had indeed spoken from his heart. He did not find his position at all ridiculous. His was a genuine annoyance. He had firm opinions about music – opinions he felt he had earned through years of study and practice. Whatever it was I had been doing to the song, whatever inflections I had given to its melody, however it was that my blackness had crept into it – it upset something very deep inside him.
I was calm. It was only after that it occurred to me that I could have shouted or I could have stormed off or I could smacked him in the head and all of these would have been perfectly reasonable responses. The restraint I practiced was perhaps another way in which black bodies are always trying to discipline themselves, to make themselves acceptable even in the face of racism. I tried to explain, carefully and rationally, why his comment was hurtful to me personally and to black communities and artists generally – why it was built on certain cultural ideas of what a CLEAN note, or a PURE note ought to sound like, and by extension, how one might distort, dirty or spoil such a note. In it is the notion of what is NORMAL and how that thing can be made ABNORMAL.
In Black American music culture there is this idea of the line – perhaps not just the line of music but the cultural and racial lines that we must fall in, or the lines that we must toe. To ad lib, to warble, and to give certain Jazz or Gospel inflections to this line is to “worry the line”. Professor Cheryl Wall remobilizes this concept as way to understand black poetics. The act of writing black poetry is an act of worrying the line. It is a dangerous thing to do. Almost always, it creates anxiety.
Black academics, black artists, black poets — often have to come to terms with this dilemna – that our success in life, our acceptance by the academies we work in, is often directly proportional to the extent to which we appear to be unlikely products of the cultures that did in fact produce us.
Here is yet another true story: in Manchester, I give a reading. To me, it feels like a successful reading. The audience seems to agree. An older gentleman comes up to the table after to have his book signed. He shakes his head smiling as he looks at me. ‘What was it like,’ he asks – his face is kind and gentle, ‘to have a talent like yours and to grow up in a place like Jamaica?’ And this despite the examples of Lorna Goodison or Dennis Scott, or other regional writers like Kamau Brathwaite, VS Naipaul or Derek Walcott.
To this man, I am an unlikely product.
I am an unlikely product of the Caribbean.
In New Zealand just a couple months ago I give some readings and some interviews on stage. They go well. A day after it all I am walking through the streets of Wellington and a man stumbles up to me. He grabs my hand and shakes it. His face is also kind and gentle. He says to me, ‘I just loved listening to you! And it’s so amazing – the shocking disparity between your eloquence and your physical appearance.’
To this man, I am an unlikely product.
I am an unlikely product of black skin and dreadlocks.
It seems the act of writing certain black experiences has to be one of translation – as surely as we translate from one language into another. Blackness itself is still seen to exist in a place outside of language, or at least outside the refined language of poetry. Blackness supposedly exists in a place of the overly visceral – in a place of grunts and ecstasy. We are required to translate blackness – to make it palatable. But, of course, so many of my experiences are not palatable.
And I do not know whether the old dictum about the economy of translation is true – whether or not something is always lost. Things are not so simple. There are gains and there are losses. And there are other processes that have nothing to do with gain or loss. The metaphor is insufficient. But this much seems to be important, that we keep blackness in check.
It’s just that sometimes we probably forget ourselves. Sometimes the blackness intrudes – just like that, when you don’t even know it has. Like it might happen one night when you are walking down a street and you begin to hum to yourself. And of course we are ourselves to ourselves. We might forget that someone else is looking on, listening – and that to their eyes or ears we might have suddenly become too black.
In this way, the anxieties of being a black poet in Britain are obviously part and parcel of the broader anxieties of being black in Britain.