Yellow Teeth

I wrote this poem last year inspired by the these leaflets going around Bristol which got me thinking about Englishness and different white identities. This piece also somewhat comes inspired by ‘White Teeth’ by English novelist Zadie Smith.

This would be an opportune moment to direct you to a great piece of poetry by Northamptonshire’s own Will Reid with his ‘My England’

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

A few months ago

there were leaflets going round Bristol

saying “it’s okay to white”

but that is not the same as being English

race and culture split like Brexit

I have been told I am English

but what is English culture

cus the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh

have theirs, with a pride in self

the etymology of English / England —

etymology meaning word history — comes from

the Old English pertaining to the Land of Angles

who were Germanic in origin

so, when the far-right boast English nation

history replies with songs of immigration

what does it mean to be English

is it Dickens, The Bronte Sisters and Jane Austen

Conan-Doyle, The Woman and Dr Watson

Shakespeare, Othello and the Moors

because Will’s Eare listened to the England he saw

which was Black, Brown, White and Mixed

Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash

so is black-brown-white society really English

at school in those history lessons

the teachers tip-toed round diversity with discretion

trying to be nice, English and polite

but English history really ain’t that white

yet overseas, the be all and end all of Britain is English

but talking to language experts, I mean linguists

you will find out that the English tongue

has histories of latching itself onto the rungs

of Latinate tenses, French, Scandinavian and Viking raids

so this is how our Englishness got to where it is today

but Britain First and the English Defence League

are quite happy to extinguish me to protect English history

and culture which is diverse, so it is really a mystery

to me that the thing they want to protect

is a conglomerate of things they ideologically detest

what is English culture

is there one separate from the Scots and the Welsh

from colonialism, and stories of the Celts

when I think about English culture

I think about names like Warleggan and Penvenen

Cornwall, Poldark and the West Country

sort of a nation within nation with its own history

a region of the country I have never been

I also think of Harry, Kate Middleton and The Queen

is to be English to be white

I don’t know the answer to that

but findings in Cheddar Gauge, Somerset

tell me the first Britons in England were Black

(or more or less close enough to it)

the revelation of Cheddar Man

dated around 8000 years before the Romans arrived

speak to an English culture that derived

from people that looked more like me

and that’s going way into English-British history

Cheddar Man (Source: The Guardian/Channel 4)

so what does it mean to be English

is it to put Churchill in a church of hero-worship

or is it to take part in the

annual Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Race

is English culture, armistice and VE Day

fetes, street parties and victory parades

slavery and sugar with nice cups of tea

tucking into a curry, or Indian-born kedgeree

is English culture village cricket

and that COVID-19 British blitz spirit

is it billboards covered in ashes

Photo by Cristiane Teston on Unsplash

is it taxing the poor, and village fascism

blaming Ireland for the Potato Famine

is it putting Victoria on a pedestal

whilst there is no justice for Hillsborough

30 years on, for the good people of Liverpool

what does it mean to be English

Englishness speaks to a past

of mixedness — from languages to class

wars and injustice and immigration

sexing up violence and colonisation

afternoon tea and fish and chips

a country that would rather deport

its members of the Windrush than lose a battleship

it’s pubs with bad carpet and wallpaper

and austerity floating like water vapour

it’s both Benjamin Zephaniah and Agatha Christie

it’s Ken Loach, Enid Blyton, and shipwrecks by the sea

Fish and Chips came to Britain in the c16th with Porteguese Jews (Photo: Mai Quốc Tùng Lâm on Unsplash)

a complex culture that goes way beyond colonial history

values more three-dimensional than Churchill and Victory

what does it mean to be English

it’s a country moulded by immigration

in the sense immigrants built this nation

you can’t talk about England without Scotland, Ireland and Wales

you know like highland culture, Jacobite, Culloden and tales

of the Cornish, Welsh bardic traditions of Awen

poetry pop-ups in Northants, Beds, Peterborough (The Fens)

Merlin, the Druids, Romans, and stone circles

a history rich with violence and journals of pain

stories of families, the ones we know and those without name

England is at war within

it always has been

looking at itself through others’ eyes

Engl(ish) twoness, two souls:

the English and the British

two Jedi and two Sith

two thoughts, two war paths

whose raw resilience stops it being torn asunder

what is it to be English

what is it to be English


Writer-Poet | Muses: Black and Mixed-Race histories, inequality, identity, arts et al| Race and Black History Educator | | E:

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