Benjamin Zephaniah: how the poet’s linguistic anarchy and abolitionist politics impacted training – and me


Like so several others who function in education, I was devastated to hear the information of Benjamin Zephaniah’s loss of life. His work has profoundly formed our understandings of race, language and training – and his do the job continues to have massive influence in classrooms all around the globe.

I initial encountered Benjamin’s producing when I was at secondary faculty. Our English teacher utilised his poetry to investigate troubles of neighborhood and international injustices. Like him, she encouraged us all to challenge normative means of applying language and reject the linguistic hierarchies that form faculties. She, like Benjamin, noticed instructing as a political act.

My faculty was situated in a racially various, doing work-class location of a post-industrial city in the north of England. The challenges that Benjamin examined – race, whiteness, capitalism, colonialism, injustice, hostile policing, point out violence and, of training course, language – had been so pertinent to us all. He wrote about issues that young children, mom and dad and teachers alike recognised.

For many of the children in that college, Benjamin’s get the job done will have been the first time they encountered printed literature that was composed in a language that represented how they spoke and that talked about the matters that mattered to them.

This paucity of numerous academic products proceeds to this day. By much, the bulk of literature that youngsters research in educational institutions is penned by white authors. It overwhelmingly characteristics white protagonists and is overwhelmingly created in “standard English”– a colonial wide variety of the language that Benjamin outrightedly rejected.

Benjamin’s function, by contrast, is formed by his anarchist and abolitionist ideas. It worries visitors and listeners to take a look at how language education policy, discipline methods and curricula normalise anti-Black linguistic racism.

Linguistic injustice

Benjamin’s operate draws its electric power from the simple fact that he refused to independent out concerns of language injustice from broader dimensions of social injustice. For him, anti-Black language policing was just portion of the similar logics of anti-Black policing additional broadly. His operate is part of a extensive background of Black resistance to British policing – which incorporates the policing of language.

His 1996 poetry assortment Propa Propaganda, for illustration, introduced alongside one another problems of racist policing, Black lifestyle, hostile immigration rhetoric, and linguistic colonialism. The opening strains to his poem, Neighbours, capture just that:

I am the style you are meant to anxiety

Black and international

Large and dreadlocks

An uneducated grass eater.

I talk in tongues

I chant at night

A black and white photograph of Benjamin Zephaniah and Maya Angelou on stage.
Benjamin Zephaniah with Maya Angelou at the 2002 Hay Pageant.
Kathy deWitt|Alamy

My 1st long-lasting educational submit was in the Division of Schooling at Brunel University London, exactly where Benjamin was Professor of Artistic Creating. Our workplaces were in the very same making. I will never ever ignore the time that he came to communicate to my pre-company English teacher schooling group – mainly designed up of learners of colour from working-class backgrounds.

He showed up and simply mentioned to the course: “What do you want to listen to about?” “Linguistic justice,” arrived their reply.

For 3 hrs, we sat, captivated, listening to his stories and wisdom about anti-Black linguistic racism in educational facilities, the criminalisation of Black youth in Britain and the colonial histories of conventional English. He firmly rejected the mainstream narrative that speaking in conventional English is the answer to granting marginalised children justice.

These discussions influenced my students to have interaction in very similar anti-racist attempts in their very own training. I went on to collaborate with just one of my students, drawing on Benjamin’s thoughts. We facilitated workshops with younger small children the place they critiqued ideologies of linguistic prescriptivism and how England’s education insurance policies are linguistically oppressive.

Benjamin Zephaniah poses for a photo in a room with a group of trainee teachers.
Benjamin Zephaniah with a team of PGCE English students.
Ian Cushing, CC BY-NC-ND

A long time later on, Benjamin agreed to collaborate on a study venture I led on language and race in faculties. Portion of the undertaking associated secondary faculty pupils in London reading through his 2020 novel, Windrush Boy or girl. The teacher utilized the textual content as a springboard to stimulate the kids to take a look at how language, colonialism, race and discrimination intersect in Britain.

At just one place, Benjamin’s protagonist in the reserve claims:

There are some white folks who assume that white is de most effective, de conventional, and all people else is colored. And since they think they are the greatest, they assume they have de ideal to rule above us. You know ‘bout slavery?’

As aspect of the challenge, we interviewed Benjamin on digicam and showed the films to young children in the classroom. They have been enthralled.

They talked over how their very own ordeals of schooling have been shaped by whiteness, linguistic expectations and colonial curricula. This encounter reminded me of my have schooling in the 1990s – of hearing his poetry for the first time and of listening to my teachers discuss about language, activism, and social injustice.

Benjamin experienced an unbelievable ability to discuss about sophisticated difficulties with razor sharp clarity. He confirmed how linguistic hierarchies were a product or service of colonialism and slavery.

He rejected any theories of social justice which place the load on marginalised communities to modify their language. He was an abolitionist and an anti-colonial activist as a result of and by, rejecting, in 2013, an OBE due to the fact of its language of empire.

In spite of his untimely passing, Bejamin’s phrases will keep on to drive again towards the techniques and constructions of language policing which are so embedded in just them. His perform is essential a lot more than at any time prior to.


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