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Professor Deirdre Osborne, co-founder of the MA Black British Literature, pays tribute to the celebrated poet and writer who has died aged 65.
The poet, literary activist, campaigner and pioneering figure in contemporary British culture Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah, who has died aged 65 of a brain tumour, was an irrepressible and generous public figure.
Benjamin truly brought poetry "off the page" and his writing, performance and unstinting sense of holding power to account, of anti-racist protest and of naming the consequences of discrimination globally and locally, has enshrined a legacy for this nation and beyond.
Black British poetic traditions have emerged from alternative schools of performance and writing that evolved outside the narrowness of mainstream educational curriculum and the constraints of the white canon.
In particular, Benjamin’s poetry for schools and young people showed a compassion and activism, in poems that flip the history of Empire, to expose the imperial underbelly, presenting a challenge to what has remained pedagogically consolidated by the British education system and its curriculum.
Born and raised in Birmingham, England, Benjamin noted on his website: "He cannot remember a time when he was not creating poetry but this had nothing to do with school where poetry meant very little to him."
Through his poetry the combination of contexts and responsiveness to diasporic heritages, Benjamin opened up possibilities for intercultural communication to take place, and taught readers how Black British perspectives were at the heart of national culture. His own school experience was one of being stereotyped, and also, in having non-diagnosed dyslexia, meant that he struggled with reading and writing.
He recalls how he evolved his poetry from these experiences - remaining faithful to his need for authentic expression amid the pigeonholing. "I wrote a lot of my poems phonetically: 'wid luv' for 'with love'. People didn’t think they were dyslexic poems, they just thought I wrote phonetically."
Benjamin’s acutely empathic understandings of oppressed and persecuted identities is strikingly conveyed through ironic and wry registers. There are no self-heroics. His vision is of a collective project for the reassessment and scrutiny of beliefs and standpoints. A recurring motif in his work is one that foregrounds the fears of infiltration that underpin imperial history at the European epicentre (even as these nations aggressively invaded countries across the globe), and how such fear remains a contemporary political and ideologically-driven issue. This is no better represented than in Zephaniah’s haunting and unsparing eulogy to Joy Gardner.
She’s illegal, so deport her
Said the Empire that brought her
Nobody killed her
And she never killed herself
In this single, singeing, sentence spanning five lines, from his poem "The Death of Joy Gardner" (1996), Benjamin captures the on-going consequences of Britain’s violent imperial past and its continuing adverse repercussions for certain groups in contemporary British society. "We all came here from somewhere," he wrote in his poem "We Refugees" (2003) – which surely remains the salutary reminder for our times. Benjamin was a unique chronicler of the history he lived and made, Britain’s bard, of a generation to whom the post-war nation owes a remarkable cultural and ethical debt.
- Professor Osborne is the co-founder of MA Black British Literature, and is the the author of "Black British Literature: Benjamin Zephaniah’s Didactic Poetics" in The Cambridge Book of Intercultural Communication ed. Guido Rings and Sebastian Rasinger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp.i-538, 412-21.