When Benjamin Zephaniah and his twin sister went to St Matthias school in Birmingham, their teacher told the other pupils to bring in their favourite golliwog doll the next day, to ‘welcome’ the new kids.
Benjamin Zephaniah told this anecdote to a packed Birmingham cathedral, sending a wave of gasps and incredulous laughter though the audience. This was his way of emphasising what a long way we have come in terms of racial integration and understanding.
The evening event was billed as an ‘urban sermon’ on multiculturalism, led by this inspiring poet – a local hero here in his hometown of Birmingham.
He warmed up by performing two poems in his typically lyrical, expressive style, switching between thick Brummy and Jamaican accents. At times his poetry leans so far into the sing-song style that it really does become straight song, an unmistakable melody and rhythm enveloping the words.
Benjamin Zephaniah is clearly most at ease when performing his poetry. Suddenly having to strip back the performance and simply talk, this celebrated orator seemed to be a little out of his comfort zone. Nevertheless, he was evidently passionate about the subject of multiculturalism and is certainly qualified to discuss it – his mother is Jamaican, his father Barbadian, and he grew up in Birmingham as the city evolved to become the cultural melting pot that it is today.
Interesting ideas were explored during the ‘sermon’, such as the contrast between real-life multiculturalism and the state-prescribed version, plugged by politicians to keep everyone happy. He also highlighted the fact that countries where a government-imposed monoculture is enforced tend to be the most oppressive cultures for women to live in.
He said that multiculturalism should be a natural, organic process of various cultures growing and intertwining gradually, but the problem is that when it is working, you just don’t tend to notice. The media is unlikely to splash with an exclusive on multicultural harmony when they can single out the head-on culture clashes instead.
Benjamin Zephaniah’s kind of multiculturalism is the one where you can pop round a neighbour’s house to cook them dinner, and they will say: “I know a different way to cook that.”
Whilst the talk was stimulating, the event would have benefited from a panel of speakers. Benjamin Zephaniah is a fabulous oral poet with strong opinions on multiculturalism, but he does not claim to be an expert on the subject, and his anecdotal observations could have been bolstered by input from other relevant speakers.
The highlight of the event for me was seeing Benjamin receive a poem and an ‘I love Birmingham’ mug from a lovely little girl called Alanna, a die-hard fan. He had mentioned earlier in the evening how he thinks it is nonsense for someone to claim to be ‘proud’ to be black, white, Jamaican, British or any other racial or ethnic label, because you are what you are, you did not achieve this.
As he took the poem from Alanna, he looked up, an enormous toothy grin breaking out, and said: “Now this I am proud of!”
This event was introduced by Catherine Ogle, Dean of Birmingham, who we spoke to earlier in the year after the Church of England voted ‘no’ to women bishops