Black British poets

Tatiana Savchenko

I chose my thesis topic after a lecture on children’s literature with Prof.  Přibylová . The lecture was on “ethnic literature in the UK and the USA” and one of the poets that Prof. Přibylová introduced to us was Benjamin Zephaniah. His rhymes enthralled me right away! They were cheerful, urgent, simple, yet innovative. Zephaniah spoke about racism, environmental issues, politics, and cultural diversity. I had never come across such themes in children’s poetry before. I started exploring Black British poetry, which Zephaniah’s works officially belong to, and gradually discovered many other brilliant poets of West Indian descent.

Finally, for my research, I chose five Black British poets: James Berry, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom and Benjamin Zephaniah. Black British is an umbrella term that defines people of an African or Caribbean ethnic background who either were born or (have) spent the major part of their lives in the United Kingdom.

I examined and evaluated the selected work by the above-mentioned poets with the focus on thematic, genre, formal and linguistic peculiarities in these texts. I had anticipated that West Indian literature for children would be considered a part of the mainstream of British literature and my expectations were confirmed my discovery of similarities between contemporary traits of British literature and West Indian poetry for children in terms of topics, genres and forms. The specific features of West Indian poetry for children, such as the use of Creole and a close connection with poetry performance, did not exclude it from the category of British literature; indeed, it enriched it.

I discovered that in West Indian literature for children the greatest emphasis was given to topics dedicated to Caribbean life, notably its nature, food, weather, folklore and traditions. The children’s poetry by James Berry, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom and Benjamin Zephaniah demonstrated an inherited connection with the indigenous African culture as well as a deep love for and respectful attitude to nature. The authors fondly painted a Caribbean life full of sunlight and the taste of tropical fruit and compared their childhood experience to the foggy and cold United Kingdom:

You go to church in England,
cleaned-up people listen to parson
but trucks aren’t parked in palm tree yards
when loose boys fix bicycles,
birdsong stripes the day like ribbons,
the sea has a Sabbath day sea song…
(“A Different Kind of Sunday”, Berry, 15-16, 2004)

As my analysis revealed, the West Indian Black British poets ingeniously used such means of expression as personification, rhythmic construction, repetition, epithet and metaphor to introduce readers to their land of origin. The Caribbean poetry was equally full of authentic folklore characters such as duppies, spider tricksters and distinctive carnival traditions and tall-tales that the West Indian authors carefully collected and preserved in their books.

The problem of racism and migration was approached by representatives of both generations of Black British authors: the first migrants who came to rebuild Britain after World War II and those who relocated at an early age or were born in the United Kingdom. The poetry of James Berry, of the first generation, dealt with such problems as the lack of career and educational opportunities, alienation and the low level of acceptance from the white population. However, with the development of anti-racist movements and the considerable success achieved in this sphere, Benjamin Zephaniah, of the second generation, took the problem of racism beyond UK borders. To cure the historical and novel problems of racial treatment, Black British writers suggested equality and respect for authentic cultures:

There is one race
The living race,
Spread love mankind, spread love mankind,
…And let us live as one people,
(“Be Cool Mankind”, Zephaniah, 88, 2000)

West Indian poetry showed its ability to be modern and up-to-date when it raised such topics as modern technologies, vegetarianism, environmental protection, creative work and the role of the artist in society. Thus, Black British writers introduced fairy-tales characters into the modern world to add new meanings to stories that are well known in world literature. However, their views on modern technologies were devoid of blind admiration and captured such problems as the depressing influence of the TV news, senior citizen adjustment, gadget dependence and the degradation of real-life communication.

Based on contemporary academic texts related to children’s literature, I found out that since the middle of the 20th century children’s literature has seen some major changes in its canon as well. Poets and writers have not only started to speak on various, often previously avoided, topics but the young heroes of children’s books have changed from white, middle-class kids to children of different ages, social classes and ethnicities. Poetry have undergone change concerning genre, form, authorship, target audience and increased interest in folklore and poetry performance. I explored how these contemporary trends manifested themselves in Caribbean poetry for children. I came to the conclusion that the target audience of West Indian poetry for children saw similar changes as in world literature. Originally, it portrayed only black children and was consequently aimed at a primarily black readership, but recent volumes of poetry included characters of different ethnic backgrounds and demonstrated multicultural diversity. With regard to the age range of the target audience, I believe that Caribbean children’s poetry can be enjoyed equally by children, teenagers and adults due to the serious character of its topics.

Apart from diversity in terms of theme and readership, West Indian poetry for children is characterized by its high variety of genres. In the thesis I looked at the genres of parody, poems based on art, themed anthologies and concrete poems; I also looked at the graphic design of certain poetic texts.

Due to the fact that Black British poetry is strongly, but not always positively, associated with the performance medium, it was necessary for me to study the history of performance poetry and its development in modern Britain. I came to the conclusion that Black British children’s poets intentionally stuck to the performance traditions of African griots and developed many ways of connecting with the audience and readers.

The last matter for me to tackle was the Creole language, which was frequently used in poems by West Indian authors. In my research I presented phonetic, grammar and lexical features of Caribbean Creole and spoke about Creole roots and the social status of Creole in modern British society. After further analysis of poems by James Berry, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom and Benjamin Zephaniah, I concluded that by mixing Standard English with Creole, the authors broadened their choice of literary devices, created special rhythmic schemes, imitated the speech of Caribbean people, saved Creole from obsolescence and promoted West Indian heritage:

“Done baby, done cry, yuh madda gone a fountain
…Sweetie water never dry, yuh get i’ dung a fountain”.
(“Outdooring”, Bloom, 62-63, 2004)

I venture the opinion that Black British poetry for children has managed to overcome the boundaries of Black literature as it is conventionally perceived, in terms of style, themes, expressive means and forms, and that it can rightfully claim its place in the mainstream of British literature. The children’s poetry of James Berry, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom and Benjamin Zephaniah represents different cultures, first of all Caribbean and British, in its astonishing diversity and even brighter unity. The modern literary trend of embracing and celebrating cultural variety adds a particular value to their writings. The promotion of authentic Caribbean culture through poetry has already resulted in the inclusion of many poems by West Indian authors in collections of poetry from such leading publishing houses as the Penguin Group and Macmillan. Now the unique historical experience and cultural heritage of Black British writers, as well as their linguistic skills, are not only recognised by academics but also enjoyed by the general public, not least by a new generation of Britons who will find them not only amusing but also instructive.


Berry, James. Only One of Me: Selected Poems. London: Macmillan Children’s, 2004. Print.

Bloom, Valerie, and David Dean. Whoop an’ Shout! London: Macmillan Children’s, 2004. Print.

Zephaniah, Benjamin, and Sarah Symonds. Wicked World! London: Puffin, 2000. Print.