I am artist in residence at The Southbank centre part of which is The Royal Festival Hall – the patron is The Queen. I have at time of writing a piece of art
inside The Royal Academy. The Queen’s head is on every bit of money I spend. I
made a documentary series for BBC radio four called The Queen’s Head. I am not a monarchist.
Nor am I not accepting a Member of The British Empire “on behalf of the community” nor “on behalf of others like me.” I am definitely not accepting it “because my mum wants to go to the palace”. It feels disingenuous or discourteous, possibly even deceitful, to accept an award then say you’re accepting it on behalf of others when in fact it is given to you. The MBE is offered for “services to literature.”
And when the letter came through my door from The Cabinet office about a month ago I admit I was shocked. I called Caribbean writer and friend Fred D’aguiar to talk about it and I take his advice to heart. Should I reject it or accept it? I have already decided. In most cases the award is rejected privately. Famously the great poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah rejected the OBE citing disgust at the term Empire. He said in the Guardian Newspaper in 2003
“Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it
reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised. It
is because of this concept of empire that my British education led me to
believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were
born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our
caring white masters.”
I am writing an adaptation of Benjamin’s widely studied novel Refugee Boy for West Yorkshire Playhouse. And in July I invited him to read at The Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank centre. I am an ally and fan of Benjamin’s and the Caribbean writers (and publishers) who initiated and supported me into the world of literature in the crucial early years. I accept the right for any artist
to reject the award as a public or private symbol of resistance. My resistance, my anger is focused in my work and if I accept this award it is in recognition of my work.
I am a born writer from my first published poem in the Leigh Reporter and my first pamphlet at eighteen years old in the Lilliputian mining and mill village of Atherton in Lancashire. I paid for it out of my dole money and then sold it to the striking miners who supported me. From then to my present role as artist in residence at the Southbank centre I have been propelled by the will to write and the belief that creativity is the heart of experience the exploration of which is a human right often denied without recourse but with devastating effect on society.
I can think of as many people whom I respect who have accepted the award as those who have rejected it. Only last month the actor Patrick Stewart
awarded me an honorary doctorate from University of Huddersfield where he is
Chancellor. He will also be in the honours list tomorrow declared a knight.
There are worse anacronyms; BME for example . I have a Nigerian friend who is an OBE and many assume it’s her surname. I am the boy from the children’s homes that became a man, that spent his adult life trawling the world to find his birth family, I am the boy that wrote books of poems alongside this sojourn. I work hard but I have fun and believe you can have your cake and eat it.
There were none of my newfound family at my awards ceremony for the doctorate, none at the publication of my books, none at Christmas, such as it’s been since I as long as I can remember. I spent seventeen and an half years of childhood in the care system. The government was my legal parent throughout. And between alot of denial of responsibility I could’ve, I should’ve slipped down the ravine and disappear, but I didn’t. I stood to prove what happened to me only to define who I am.
Benjamin Zephaniah was the man from whom I first heard the phrase “think Globally act locally”. I accept this award, this honour, whole heartedly on behalf of me, a child of the state, a child of the estate, a man of the world? The empirical structure is a whisper lost in the wind of a climate of change.