From April 25th – May 9th I was invited on a poetry teaching and reading tour of Baltimore, Chicago and DC.
My friend Zeina once told me “You have a look that’s foreign everywhere”. People think I’m from every country except the two I’m actually from. England and Jamaica. While travelling this can be difficult. I rarely get through an airport without the “random search” or being escorted into a backroom for questioning. Anticipating this I arrived at Baltimore airport suited, booted and clean-shaven. I also put rosary beads in my pocket in case I was searched.
Why are you travelling to the states?
I’m a poet and teacher. I’m here to work with young poets at a local college.
You’re a teacher?
Really? … and poetry?
Yes, I teach poetry.
…and you get paid for this?
OK, I need to check this out. You wait there for me.
Man walks away with my passport.
Soon I’m led into the backroom with four other young black men, one of them is wearing a bright yellow and green shirt, brown trousers and sandals. He is holding two folders of paperwork and is smiling but tapping his foot nervously. We make eye contact, his look says, “If you deserve to be here I have nothing to do with you”. As we wait to be questioned I’m already picturing myself on a flight back to London with my rosary beads, having to explain to people in the U.S. what happened, already saying in so many ways I look too much like the enemy of white supremacy to come to your country. After an hour and two interviews (given in my best Queen’s English), I’m let in. To celebrate I sat in the terminal, threw away the rosary beads and waited to be picked up by Ailish Hooper while playing Nina Simone in my headphones.
Ailish had driven to the wrong airport so it was a long wait. We’d only met virtually after she came across #RayRecommends, a poetry vlog I ran for a year. I was already aware of her poetry published in POETRY magazine and that she is a teacher. When she arrived we instantly connected, talking education, poetry, Trump and May, Brexit and all things dominating the airwaves.
Over the next few days she introduces me to other poets, teachers and community leaders in Baltimore. I also got to sit in on her lessons at Goucher College and listen to seminars on peace talks, the Black Lives Matter movement and intersectionality. Ailish Hooper is a white woman who writes about race in America, a minefield to navigate. When I ask her about this she is tactful and compassionate, telling me about the work white America needs to do to acknowledge racism as a major part of its construction and that she has used her privilege to curate spaces for her white students to go on their own journey to examine the lives of marginalised people who are treated differently at the benefit of white America. She tells me about her time being taught by Cornel West and her friendships with poets who have challenged her journey. Reading Dark-Sky Society, her book of lyric poems. She writes on “the many lines I am told / not to cross”, examining the position of whiteness.
While sitting in the discussions in her classroom I was asked my thoughts on Black Lives Matter from a UK perspective. In England, a seminar with teenagers talking race and colonialism is rare. Our culture doesn’t have its own language in race politics. The average person hasn’t heard of Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy or Bonnie Greer. England in and of itself has a different history with its colonies, so a different landscape and language has emerged, forming a separateness, which is more connected than most people in England care to know. It was absurd when Michael Gove removed American Literature such as Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’ and Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ from the English curriculum. I said this in Hooper’s class that awareness of “Post-Colonial” politics is growing. A few weeks ago I saw the documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ in Stratford Picture House, half the audience was white. I don’t think this would have been the case pre-Brexit. In fact, I never spoke to my white British friends about race until a few years ago and that was only because they started asking me "if race was a thing in the UK like it is the US?"
Talking about race in America for me was necessary but exhausting. I want to be careful how I say that because Donald Trump isn’t my president and although I’m racially profiled as a brown man in the UK I’m not living in constant fear of being shot by the police like black Americans. I’m not trivialising the discussion I’m saying it’s tiring. I do worry that a lot of the anger is unproductive but also I’m aware that I’m 30 years old and the students are mostly 19. When I was 19 I lived in Ohio for 3 months. A black marine solider who had served in Afghanistan threatened to “Take me outside and shoot me” because I asked him if he’d ever considered America as the terrorist. Stupid shit, I had no tact in these conversations. I was emotional and self-righteous.
Baltimore is known as the drug capital of America. I came to understand this while sitting in Red Emma’s coffee shop. A black man with a bandage wrapped around his head and skinny veiny arms slumped onto the table next to me. I almost asked if he was ok, then I looked around and saw at least another 40 people, black, white and brown in a similar condition. People with shriveled faces and no teeth as if the air was trying to suck them out of existence. They shout and sing and groan and no one answers them. You end up feeling complicit in their suffering. But what am I going to do? I’m not completely naïve; I lived in South Africa for four months and saw a similar pain there too but this had a different intensity, there were no whales jumping out of oceans to romanticise it. Of course I walk past people in desperate situations in London. In Hackney where I’m from, I know some of them personally, staggering out of bookmaker shops, passing out in parks, some of them used to drink with my dad. They’ve known me since I was a child and I’ve seen them on park benches shouting at passers by where I’ve turned around and sucked them out of existence in my own way. The privilege to make these comments feels gross but I’ve learned to stop apologising for things out of my control. Becoming a teacher made me realise that if I’m to be there for my students, my friends and family, I need to know what I can and can’t give my energy to. If everything weighed me down I’d be no good to anyone.
On my last night, after a successful performance at Goucher College with two student poets Soledad and Jaida, I returned to Red Emma’s Café with Ailish. We were served by a tall energetic dreadlocked dancer called Talbot who couldn’t stop smiling, “I got it right man, finally, my steps coming together, the universe be moving my way”, he said this while making us a pot of mint tea, “I’m not even trying to do right and I’m doing right”, he was moving in flow with his body and his words, his energy radiated the whole café’. As we sat I told Ailish about what I saw when I was last in here, the people in need that barely exist, “Well, there’s a methadone clinic next door, and this café feeds a lot of these people for free so it’s something”. I then thought about her students, particularly students of colour who are growing up in and around these environments. I thought about the pictures of the Baltimore uprisings and all the young protesters that took to the streets to make themselves heard. “You know things like this café and that methadone clinic exist because of the kinds of people you met in my class, the one’s who are deeply concerned with equality”, this clicked with me, this was why I had felt so unsure of myself speaking in AIlish’s class to people who are living all the dimensions of life here. In many ways I’d need to learn more of the language in the states if I’m going to be able to speak it when I get back home.