by Sally Nolan
The names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed and more ring in our ears as life-changing events have unfolded in the past few months. It has left people with the urge to protest, to tear down statues and fight for justice.
However, there is an aspect of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has not gained much attention, and that’s poetry. Beautiful art has been created throughout this movement, and one thing is for sure: it’s not going away. I spoke to some of the poets who took pen to paper in order to express themselves on the events over the last few months.
If I Wasn’t Brown
Tania Caan, 27
If I wasn't brown —
Would life have been easier?
Would my dreams have been closer?
Would the streets have been safer?
Would I have been judged on my merit
And not on my brown skin?
Would my son walk without fear?
My pigment is skin deep but their hatred is deeper,
If I wasn’t brown —
Perhaps oxygen would have been cheaper.
Perhaps death wouldn’t always have to be murder.
If I wasn’t brown perhaps I would matter.
Tania is a 27-year-old South Asian single mum from London. As a freelance writer poetry has always been a way for her to express herself and heal through times of trouble. In an interview, Tania said: “ I think poetry is incredibly therapeutic for both the reader and the writer. It penetrates the soul and heals.”
In a statement, Tania added: “Black people have gone through an enormous amount of suffering and we as a society owe a great debt to them. I pray for love, light, and peace. I hope the world will change for the better and racism will be a distant memory but since we as developed countries are still fighting against such a backward mindset, it may be just a dream.”
When asked about her experiences of racism in the UK Tania said, “I have experienced several instances of racism throughout my life. At times it has been crippling, especially during the EDL rallies.” Incidents like this have made Tania worry for her son growing up in a society in which racism is so prevalent.
Tania added “I wrote this poem in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter and in the wake of the horrendous murder of George Floyd. My heart is perpetually shattered by the frequency of these heinous crimes against humanity. You don’t have to be black or even a person of color to support a movement that in its core is about something as simple as human rights.”
More of Tania’s work can be found on Medium.
I Can't Breathe
John Devey, 39
John Devey, from Preston, has always turned to poetry to vent his frustrations, but recently took to Twitter to voice his comments on the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
John’s poem centres on George Floyd’s outcry “I Can’t Breathe” but ties together years of systemic racism as he comments on the history of black slavery, black education, black prison sentences and police brutality.
“We arrive in this foreign land you make us work.
I’m now owned by someone and my name is not my own.
I can’t breathe.
Fast-forward, I’m in America the land of the free.
I can’t breathe.”
John ties in names in history that ring in the ears of black people every day such as Rodney King, Donte Hamilton, and Michael Brown Junior.
“We march from Selma to Montgomery.
I can’t breathe.
You kill Martin you kill Malcolm.
I can’t breathe.
You leave us in destitute areas, poor housing, no jobs, lack of education and you beat Rodney up live on TV.
I can’t breathe.”
In an interview John said: “Music and the arts are really the place people can go to vent their frustrations and emotions and that’s how I felt. The overwhelming feeling of hurt, frustration and simply “not again” came to mind and that’s what I wanted to come across.”
John works in HR in Preston, and so doesn’t make a living off of his writing. This is the first poem that John has shared publicly.
One of the most important things for John is the power of poetry. When speaking about his poem he said: “I’ve realised from having and using our voices people listen. Now is no longer the time to stay silent.”
Click here for a link to the poem being read aloud by Devey on Twitter.
Hafsa Abdiqadir, 23
Hafsa is a 23-year-old masters graduate in conflict and security and has been expressing herself through poetry since she was a child.
In our interview, Hafsa said: “As a young female black Muslim, I can absolutely relate to what is happening to my people so everything I write is coming from a sensitive place.”
Hafsa’s poem focuses on the black men that are being targeted by the police through spoken word. In the opening of the poem Hafsa says:
“How many more times can we shed tears for the loss of our men?
Until the tears dry and we painfully say goodbye.
Before we shed tears for the next black guy.
Heartbroken mothers die, questioning themselves why?
I just want you to imagine the life of the black man in America.
Mama’s teach them from young to behave and keep your hands where they can see them.
‘They’ as in the police who are supposed to protect them from danger.
But how is that possible when they see the black skin which equates to danger?”
Hafsa said, “I use my voice to help raise awareness because right now that is my strongest tool.”
Hafsa added: “Regarding my poetry, I have been expressing myself in the form of poetry since I was a child and it is my version of sharing how I feel.”
Hafsa frequently posts her poetry on her Instagram page. She uses her page to share her thoughts and hopes to talk about important and relevant issues.
More of Hafsa's poetry can be found on her @poetical_wave Instagram.
“I Can’t Breathe”
Kawthar Alli, 26
Kawthar Alli is a 26-year-old trainee therapist from Croydon and has been writing poetry for a number of years, frequently writing about social justice and mental health. Her most recent spoken word poem expresses her reaction to the death of George Floyd.
“I can’t breathe.
My rage is choking my throat
I can’t breathe
Since I saw that video I’ve been angry
Yes. I’ve been an angry black woman
Shouldn’t you be too?
Angry that I live in a world that this keeps happening
Even after a black president, this keeps happening
I can’t breath
My soul is wounded for witnessing evil
The evil in his eye as my brother was lynched with a knee dug into his throat
Dug into his throat in a public space.”
In our interview, Kawthar said, “I find writing poetry cathartic, it soothes my soul. It helps me process my own thoughts. There is no need for an introduction, it just gets right at the heart of what I’m feeling.”
On asking why she felt the need to record her spoken word Kawthar said: “I wanted others to feel my rage, to feel a sense of unity and share my piece in the collective trauma with other black people and also with humanity.”
More of Kawthar's poetry can be found on her @kawthi Instagram.
Inherited Caskets and Wars
Zhay Valentine-Whensu, 19
Zhay is a 19-year-old freelance writer and content creator from Manchester. In her most recent poem, Zhay took to Twitter to inspire people to go out and protest for #BlackLivesMatter.
In our interview, Zhay said: “I couldn't go out to the protests cause I am high risk and I really wanted to do my part in inspiring those who were going out and protesting, so that’s why I wrote the poem.
In the piece Zhay says:
“For the black boy who trained all his life to be an athlete,
But never realised that he should have been training to outrun a bullet.
For the black woman who will either mourn or be mourned,
But cannot live independent of a graveyard.”
On discussing her poetry Zhay said: “Poetry has always been the way I felt like I had any impact on my immediate environment. I believe that when fighting something as big as systematic racism and racial injustices, the best way to tackle it is from all angles.”
Zhay, who suffers from bad asthma, went on to say: “There are people starting petitions, going on protests, there are people actively trying to change laws and policies. Then there are artists who are using what they know best.
“At the end of the day, we all need to do whatever we can to bring this age-old giant down.
So I used what I have always known, poetry.
Zhay, who usually turns to poetry when feeling overwhelmed, finished the poem saying:
“For my kin
We will never rest
We will never stop fighting
‘Til this war is won.”
Poetry has always been a powerful tool of expression, and for these young writers, their work has voiced some of their hurt, pain, anger and emotion of the events over the last few months. Their poetry is something we should all be hearing.
If you want to hear more from these poets, you can follow them on Twitter:
Sally Nolan is a writer for Radical Art Review.