by Laila Benhaida; Trainee Archivist
The opening page to this book is a dedication to himself ‘there was a time when I thought I wouldn’t live to see thirty, I doubled that and now I’m sixty, well done Rastaman, you’re a survivor. A black survivor.’ It is only when you read his journey you realise he truly is.
Benjamin Zephaniah was born in Birmingham in 1958 to Caribbean parents. He came into the world at a time where racism was blatant, vicious, and widely acceptable and sadly at a time where people of colour just sucked it up and dealt with it.
This autobiography traces Benjamin through his childhood and adolescence trying to make sense of the world; his world in Birmingham, which he found ran parallels with what was going on in other parts of the world.
From his birth the grim and hostile environment he found himself in told him that he wouldn’t be anything. His passive parents didn’t want to kick up a fuss, his teachers told him repeatedly ‘you’re going to end up in prison or dead’, lack of opportunity and support from the state (Thatcherism) told him ‘you are not wanted’, and then you have the brutal attacks from the National Front and the racial police violence. Death was around him and the death of a black man was a certainty at a much younger age than the death of a white man. Benjamin has no problem saying how it was with his open and frank style of writing.
Although this book contains no poems (he has written many books of those) it reads so poetically. He came from nothing to be everything he wanted to be, and more. This is captured through his resilience and determination to become a famous poet.
From a young age he recalls his mother always speaking in rhyme, ‘its normal it’s what Caribbean folk do’. Rhyme was in his blood and he was not going to let anything stop him, although many times it nearly did.
Benjamin’s motivations to write poetry came from the streets, the forgotten areas and the grass roots. He clearly cares deeply about inequality and cruelty in all forms (not just racism, he is an avid animal lover too and has campaigned for animal rights). He wrote and expressed his thoughts about the wrongdoings of establishment, of a messed up society and institutionalised prejudice quite bluntly through his poems which he has performed all over the world.
He was involved and spearheaded some of the most memorable political events in British and global history such as Rock against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League, The Miners’ Strike and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He also supported many small community projects and organisations through his work as a poet – not to mention going far beyond by almost becoming a counsellor to those in need.
This read not only captures the strength and self-belief of a man but also the true power of art; the spoken word. I am sure without that power Benjamin would not have survived until 60.
The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography is available in our library, shelf location: AR.2.03/ZEP*
*Please note that following government advice our library is unfortunately closed until further notice.