Should I accept The MBE?

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.

19 thoughts on “Should I accept The MBE?

  1. You know what I think about this already, I think. But just do whatever will make you happy. And be very proud, either way.

  2. We talked briefly about it when I last saw you at the SBC; the reason to decline it would be (as with Zephaniah) for the symbolism, which can be very powerful – but I'd argue that the symbolism of your accepting it could be an even greater good. (Not that you'd accept it *because* it's an example to others – I'm sure you're right, you accept it for the work or you don't accept it at all – but incidentally I think the acceptance would be symbolically important to lots of people too.)
    It depends too, I guess, on whether your instinct on first being offered it was to be proud or to be angry/ashamed; simply put, if you were proud to have been offered it, I'd have thought it would seem strange to turn it down. I'm guessing that wasn't how Benjamin felt when he got the offer, so his response and his decision were completely consistent somehow. Anyway, just my musings…

  3. The nomenclature is a bit skewed, but the thought is genuine, I think. So I'd accept if I were you, unless you want to object to the name of the award. That may or may not be important to you. As Dan says, be very proud, either way. Cheers, Peter

  4. Its a recognition of all the passion and soul you've put into work, life and the benefit that the whole community derives from it. I can't think of a greater honour. I'd accept it if it was me…but I'm me and you're you, so go with what your heart tells you feels right.

  5. Go for it man…!
    It's not just for your life as a poet and writer but it's for everything else you have done in your life as an activist in the United Kingdom and the world!
    You get to stand proud that day amid a lot of people who never ever thought they'd too be there in Buckingham Palace being acclaimed for what they did!

  6. Accept it Lemn. Literature needs to be recognised in this way, the arts need to be recognised in this way. You live and work here. You change lives here. And you will be honoured here.
    Why say no?

  7. It's good that you're asking others what they think here…and it's interesting to read what people have to say. But of course really the decision is yours and yours alone! Do what I imagine you've always done…what seems the right thing to you (it is a complicated matter in some ways but I'm sure you've faced tougher decisions…if less public ones). Either way there will be criticism afterwards but I'm sure you're big enough to cope with whatever comes. And people who admire you (and there are many of us) will continue to do that MBE or no MBE.
    Happy New Year.

  8. Having had the privilege to see you accept your Doctorate so humbly from the University of Huddersfield last month I could not think of a man more deserving of an MBE!! You are an inspiration to many and your literary work deserves recognition, there are many young black males out there (including my son – who loved his autograph by the way) who can learn so much from you. Having had the courage to stand tall and proud in what you believe you give us all something to strive for. The MBE is recognition of you and your work – only accept it if it feels right to you – I think that you are remarkable with or without an MBE!! Berenice Xxx

  9. Like I said on Facebook: You deserve it. But isn't it about time we replaced the OBE or the MBE with an award that doesn't refer back to a world lost last century, without the word 'empire' with it.

  10. It's certainly a great accomplishment in terms of recognition for your art. Well done! You're the only person who can really answer this question, of course. The decision has to be a soul-based one, I think, irrespective of both intellectual debate and ego. Do what will allow you to smile at yourself in the mirror every morning!

  11. I agree you should do what feels right for you – Benjamin Zephaniah's rejection of the award was thought provoking and understandable in terms of history, but it also seemed a very personal act. You have the right to accept it or refuse it for your own reasons…whatever makes you happy. Everyone is different after all.

  12. Whatever your heart tells you is the right decision. That's the chocolate box response.
    Truth is, our hearts often tell us more than one thing, and they often seem to be mutually exclusive.
    All regimes are founded on oppression of some kind. As artists, do we refuse patronage from them? Or do we continue to create & question them? Biting the hand that feeds is one of the essential qualities of great art.
    It's been a great year for you, Lemn. I would accept what fortune offers.
    Peace & luv

  13. History is what we live. It is not static, so the judgement which looks only to the past rather than present lives, is missing the point I think. Your nomination is because of your work and the excellent contribution you make. Sincere congratualtions.

  14. I also believe that there is no harm in remembering the past, as it helps define a journey. Personally I would like to see you accept the award for yourself mainly, but also to serve as a role model for generations to come. Well Done,

  15. Deliberating on acceptance of the award was noble. Now you know who you are and what you mean to us. Well done, many congratulations. I am proud of you.

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