Jenny Mitchell

Jenny Mitchell

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.

The True Story of a Sable Maid’s Appearance in the 18th Century
Tuesday, 16 April 2024 11:21

The True Story of a Sable Maid’s Appearance in the 18th Century

Published in Poetry

This poem was commissioned by Culture Matters as an act of solidarity with Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (above) who has recently suffered racist abuse for having the audacity to play Juliet in 'Romeo and Juliet'. See here. For the story of Rachael Baptiste, the black singer and actress who played Juliet in the eighteenth century, see here.

The True Story of a Sable Maid’s Appearance in the 18th Century

by Jenny Mitchell

My skin’s not black as night but close, yet I played Juliet. When chains were held
towards my feet, I danced across the stage – a quadrille at a ball – and though
his skin is white – not dove but tanned, Italia close to Africa – my love
was booed into the wings when first he saw my face and said –

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night,
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
beauty too rich to use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows –

The rest was lost as slow hands clapped till rebels in us both said Kiss. A long, slow
grind with hips as well, my Romeo alert between the folds of a white dress,
diaphanous enough, they said, to show I was no virgin child but broken
by a team of men as all black girls are damned as whores.

Those villains in the audience threatened to bombard the stage, then pull it down.
And with the weight of envy on their heads, they also called for blood,
expecting mine to run black as the heart they said I had. To save our lives,
my Romeo and I ran to the balcony where he adored me more with this –

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief.

We gulped a drink, but black or close enough is never weak so death
was not our fate. No poison in the end but Romeo and me asleep. Believing
we were robbed of life, the audience walked from the hall with howls
that echo still, insisting on a clear divide when white descends from black.

Miss Una Marson Speaks
Tuesday, 20 February 2024 17:09

Miss Una Marson Speaks

Published in Poetry

Miss Una Marson Speaks

by Jenny Mitchell

Call me glutton as I gorged on every English
word – a book-mad child in Santa Cruz, Jamaica –
my first and only love the far-off Mother Country,
high-toned language on my tongue to sound as good as her.

At ten, when father died – a man who breathed for books –
money fell into his grave. We moved from
our small market town where every name was known –
to Kingston – wild. At night, bedlam disturbed dreams.

My hopes of higher learning were all drowned
by waves of unpaid bills, typing in a pool – no Shakespeare
in dry memos – till I learned how to swim, became an editor,
my paper aimed at women battered by life’s flow.

Poems always helped to lift their heads, calmed
unsettled waters, till money swam away from me. By then,
my poems won a prize. A play had strength enough
to sail me to the Mother Country, glad to see white cliffs.

Coming close, I found that they were grey, Black
hurled at me by English men – no high-toned
words formed on their tongues. In time, I met like minds,
became an activist as race could not divide us up.

I had to sail back home to rest, recuperate, working
for a charity until the Mother called me back. Before the war,
I became the first Black woman working at the BBC,
Calling the West Indies where our Black soldiers spoke.

Soon Caribbean Voices were heard above the Blitz,
a programme I produced with pride, though still called filthy
names, whispered at my back by passing whites,
hating skin the same as theirs although a different shade.

In time, my writing curled up in a ball and drowned.
I went back home, became obscure, heart giving way at sixty,
falling in a grave. Rising as you hear me now. Rising,
on this day at least, because you know my name.

This poem was commissioned by Southwark Libraries for the launch of the Una Marson Library, the first named after a woman and a person of colour in the UK. 

A brief biography of Una Marson is here, and an article by Lenny Henry about her is here. Below is a short film made during the Second World War by the Ministry of Information, in which a group of West Indians, led by Una Marson and Learie Constantine, assemble at the BBC in London and describe how people of the Caribbean are helping in the war effort.

Disturbing Blacks in Custody
Wednesday, 24 January 2024 17:30

Disturbing Blacks in Custody

Published in Poetry

Disturbing Blacks in Custody

by Jenny Mitchell

One by one, I free them from the cells,
trudging back to pick up bodies in torn clothes,
placed screaming in handcuffs, enslaved
for raving at dark clouds, black
a constant threat, beaten by new masters in blue-
bruised uniforms till every breath dies down.

They’re carried gently in my arms, hardly
any weight at all as if the spirit once disturbed –
crying out for God, arms waving in the street –
was lightened when they called for Help!
in the prison cell, or failed to breathe
that word, arm clamped across their throats.

I lay the bodies on the ground in a careful row
even when it rains so they can be baptised
before the soil becomes a shroud. We’ll pray
for those who lived close to the edge, tipped
over by their nights in jail, not helped
to stand, unbalanced by the past.

It flowed inside their blood, wrists clamped
in chains abroad slave ships, crying out
for women raped by overseers in high cane,
made to hold that pain for generations. If only
we could see ourselves reflected in each face,
know there’s no such thing as lawful death.

The Day Mr. Zephaniah Died
Monday, 11 December 2023 12:15

The Day Mr. Zephaniah Died

Published in Poetry

The Day Mr Zephaniah Died

after Frank O’Hara

by Jenny Mitchell

On the seventh day of the twelfth month
2023, at the National Maritime Museum, a minute
since the break began, I wish the woman in my class
would not look at her phone, tell us you are gone,
leaving this behind – a chill that traps
the room when freedom is our aim – to write
that poetry can open prison doors. Your voice was key
to that great task, Brummie to your core
with a prophet’s force, labelled worthless by police
when only a young man, growing strong enough
with words to decline an OBE, your stated aim
to bring empire down – rhythm and not guns,
rhymes instead of bombs.

We fill the break with Is it true? Perhaps
a dreadful hoax,
checking every phone, the chill
ten minutes long – seeing it writ large,
your birth date and your death.

Now the class must share a poem –
Langston Hughes alive again – Freedom
will not come… through compromise and fear.

But the man who reads this out in a gentle voice
has to stop, contain his tears the day that you are gone.

A Greater Loss
Thursday, 23 November 2023 10:43

A Greater Loss

Published in Poetry

A Greater Loss

by Jenny Mitchell

The first report is of a dozen migrants –
eight men, three women and a child
battered on the rocks, boat a pile of sticks
floating on the surface with the dregs of clothes.

As the camera swerves, it reveals a house
beneath the waves, a small brick shack,
the kind a family builds by hand, enlarges
over generations, bodies on the roof.

A church is underneath the foam, a giant
baroque raft that’s sunk, people floating
near the steeple. When the camera pans inside,
there are children on the pews, at the feet of Christ.

Libraries are washed up next, empty now
of books, dirty water rolling into cabinets,
tables bobbing with computers smashed
against the shore as waves beat hard.

Museums start to tilt, artifacts drift off,
decorate the surf. Gold and silver goblets
sparkle in the sun, noble heads of bronze
weighed down by people clinging tight.

When the camera moves again, a woman calls
for help, pulls herself onto a rock, whispering
these words My country is out there. She points
towards the sky, a dazzling blue.


British History is Black: The Queen Turned Black
Monday, 30 October 2023 11:28

British History is Black: The Queen Turned Black

Published in Poetry

Below is the last of the four new poems by Jenny Mitchell to mark Black History Month. For some background to the poem, see here and here.

The Queen Turned Black

by Jenny Mitchell

When granny dies, her skin transforms,
not limb by limb but all at once –
dark brown becomes red, white and blue.

Her hair has lost its kink, becomes a stately crown.
I’m not surprised. She loved Great Britain
even when in ’56 a turd slipped

through her letterbox. Neighbours called police
in ’58 to say her bible class – loud prayers
to a blond-haired Jesus – sent them mad.

More than once in ’63, the local press reported
that her house became a den of vice – Black
Madame Must Be Stopped!

She used the settlements to build a large extension.
Most recently, the man next door, caped
in a Union Jack, ordered her to go back home

with the other immigrants. Home was called
the Mother Country where the Queen
once welcomed her, waving from a balcony.

Now ever since she died, the Queen has been
transformed, her skin turned black,
her hair a tall, soft afro. She lies

next to my granny in a special plot, white
roses planted close. Are they holding
hands, having shared so much?

British History is Black: Plantation Yard to Council Flat
Sunday, 22 October 2023 14:31

British History is Black: Plantation Yard to Council Flat

Published in Poetry

Plantation Yard to Council Flat

by Jenny Mitchell

Once there was a slaving house battered by the sun, rays
like golden fists, blood oozing through the floors, women
forced to breed a child, sold by master with a whip.

Now there is a tower block beneath harsh clouds, unemployed
in damp-filled flats. Torn curtains take the place of bars, cracked
open by a breeze wending through the sink estate.

Walls quake with noise from lifts used as urinals, graffitied
stairs a chance you have to take, running for your own front door,
pounded by the sound of feet. Voices from the past echo

down communal stairs. Loud music thumps through ceilings,
infiltrates the skin like war is on the march in hobnailed boots,
taking a deep breath. Slaves once trudged through fields

where tenants cross the rec – a roundabout that does not turn –
stopping at the food bank, hands held out, mumbling thanks,
made to crock a knee as if a bag of food resembles God.

Once there was a hanging tree to stretch the runaways, bodies
left to twist all night, pulling down the stars. Rent long
overdue can’t be called the same, but think of bailiffs at your door.

Across the street, a large white house is owned by whites, blind
drawn up to point at blacks, skin all that can be seen as they
walk to the flats, heads high, still enslaved by need.

British History is Black: Black Hair
Wednesday, 11 October 2023 10:00

British History is Black: Black Hair

Published in Poetry

Black Hair

by Jenny Mitchell

Entering the gallery, you’ll see it in a case,
dark strands gathered close, size of a fist,
taken from a Negroid head. Long-denigrated
in the West
a sign explains – Known in the past
by several names
Bush, Wool, Nest.

Nothing indicates why it was kept,
low temperature maintained, no air
beyond the seal, light so dim I must bend down
in order to look close. Did hair fall from a head
blighted by disease, gathered up like gold?

Was the owner male or female – afro worn as crown
or Black Power sign? Did a master pull it out,
punishment for burning crop? At night,
a woman screamed, scalp alarmed,
forced to make this sacrifice.

Is she screaming still, running through the woods,
bald patch covered up? Or standing firm
in jail, blood trickling down her face?
Does she demand her hair returned,
placed back on her head, a self-made wig?

People shuffle past the case to see
much grander sights – Turner’s painting
of the Zong – black hands raised above the foam.
Who cares to contemplate the hair
that could be mine – Bush, Wool, Nest.

British History is Black – Black Hair

Writing about Black hair is like using a language I barely understand, one that speaks of culture, status and the unbearable loss and legacies of British transatlantic enslavement.

Haircare for Black people can take time and includes, at its best, an aspect that is meditative and bonding, allowing for stories to be created and histories shared. However, time (or free time) to enjoy this process was one of the many things stolen from the enslaved ancestors who survived enforced labour on Caribbean plantations for only seven years, on average. It seems clear that in such harsh circumstances there would have been very little time for leisurely haircare and familial bonding.

Was a whole language and map of well-braided hair destroyed? Was damage also done to the contents of the mind, leading to chaos and confusion about self-esteem? Does this destruction still impact Black people/family dynamics? How can financial reparations for enslavement, even if it ever became available, take this into account?

Besides all this there are huge fortunes to be made as a result of the dysfunction unleased on Black hair by an outrageous history. The fake hair industry is worth billions worldwide, and so we have the situation where Black women buy the hair of Asian women from predominantly white-owned companies, whilst patriarchal armies of white officials seek to ensure Black people do not wear their natural hair to school or in the workplace.

My poem Black Hair tries to bear witness to this historical chaos, and to honour a natural source of power, connection and love.

The poem is in the forthcoming pamphlet Family Name, published by Nine Pens.

British History is Black: four poems from Jenny Mitchell
Thursday, 05 October 2023 11:42

British History is Black: four poems from Jenny Mitchell

Published in Poetry

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.

Saturday, 16 September 2023 14:57


Published in Poetry


by Jenny Mitchell, with above image by Chad McCail

This is not a campus for the poor. The posh,
in drab designer clothes, labels on the outside –
wealth flapping in the sun. A coddled generation,
prepared to have it all, held up as leaders
of the world, when I hail from a council flat –
the first child in my family to ever sit exams.

The rich must sense I do not know my arse
from elbow – how to cook a bechamel.
Is it the same as a white sauce? Black girl
begins to hide her voice – How now brown cow?
Call me Eliza Doolittle. Who knows about
the rain in Spain? I’ve never been abroard.

Debt is accrued by lounging in a coffee shop –
scones filled with cream and jam, hot chocolate
poured up to the brim. I’m awed by silver spoons
between thin lips. The upper one is always stiff.
Money sharpens vowels – a cut-glass voice,
words I long to speak trapped down my throat.

First published by Poetry Wales.

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