In 2008 Arts Council England invited poets to commemorate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by writing a poem on the theme of enslavement.
Dr Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born in Birmingham, England. His first book of poems, Pen Rhythm, was published in 1980 and he has published a further 11 works and 12 recordings. His work has inspired a new generation of artists from writers, rappers and performance poets. Benjamin Zephaniah hosted Nelson Mandela's Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in July 1996. He has acquired 13 honorary doctorates in acknowledgement of his work and a wing in a West London hospital has been named after him.
An Interesting Visit
On an errand for my master
I chanced upon a crowd,
Then I feared some dread disaster
For their speech was fierce and loud,
Gathered round a notice nailed
Upon a wall on Black Boy Yard,
I tired to read but failed
For then I found such tasks quite hard.
I was told by one who read well
That we all should celebrate,
But without much thought I could tell
Not all thought this news so great,
There was cursing, spit, and anger
I saw happiness in some,
Some were warning of much danger
Some thought better was to come.
Then the literate one told me
'Be proud young African,
Equiano is now free
And he shall visit Birmingham,
From a slave to man of letters
He hath written to inform
Humble persons and law setters
Of hard times since he was born.'
I was filled with great excitement
I was overcome with joy,
Me thoughts Equiano was God sent
Working in great God's employ,
I had heard of his great travels
Word had spread of his wise plan
To rid us of all our travails
And help free his fellow man.
The year was seventeen ninety
As mid summer spread its sun,
For a month I waited patiently
For the gentleman to come,
To debate with Matthew Bolton
Joseph Priestly and James watt,
To share with men of vision
And to challenge who hath not.
Pray let me tell of Birmingham
Its conflicts, joys and pains,
Fit for revolution
But still making slavery's chains,
Some strong women of this city
Did boycott the sugar trade,
Whilst other people with less pity
Cared not how their wealth was made.
A humble servant then was I
Owned by a wealthy trader
Who gained me as a real cheap buy
But claimed he was no slaver,
He christened me with new name
And thou he hath not beat me
His ears were deaf to my claim
That Christ wants us to live free.
And so I prayed much and I waited
With ripe anticipation,
As people on the streets debated
Law and abolition,
Then with the visit nearing
My master raged and made me low
For with his lack of caring
He forbad me to go.
My anger had not measure
In my veins my blood brew hot,
I felt a rising pressure
My inner head did hurt a lot,
I reasoned and I pleaded
As if to beg for my survival,
Although some compromise was needed
My master said his word was final.
So when Equiano came
I was subject to harsh restrictions,
My master felt no shame
Yet he was full of contradictions,
In his view I was fortunate
And my suffering could be greater,
He thought Equiano full of hate,
An ungrateful troublemaker.
But yea, although my hero
Came and walked in my city,
I have no doubt - I do know
He communicates with me,
I heard of great words spoken by him
And those words planted a seed,
That well sown seed has grown and risen
And yea, I taught myself to read.
That's how I read his narrative
That's how he came to me,
Inspired by his will to live
I too made myself free,
When Equiano came to Birmingham
The town's foundations shook,
No force can stop Equiano and
The truth and power of his book.