British History is Black: The Queen Turned Black
Monday, 20 May 2024 16:33

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: Black Hair
Monday, 20 May 2024 16:33

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
Monday, 20 May 2024 16:33

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.