Like so many others who work in education, I was devastated to hear the news of Benjamin Zephaniah’s death. His work has profoundly shaped our understandings of race, language and education – and his work continues to have enormous influence in classrooms around the world.
I first encountered Benjamin’s writing when I was at secondary school. Our English teacher used his poetry to explore issues of local and global injustices. Like him, she encouraged us all to challenge normative ways of using language and reject the linguistic hierarchies that shape schools. She, like Benjamin, saw teaching as a political act.
My school was located in a racially diverse, working-class area of a post-industrial town in the north of England. The issues that Benjamin examined – race, whiteness, capitalism, colonialism, injustice, hostile policing, state violence and, of course, language – were so pertinent to us all. He wrote about things that children, parents and teachers alike recognised.
For many of the children in that school, Benjamin’s work will have been the first time they encountered published literature that was written in a language that represented how they spoke and that talked about the things that mattered to them.
This paucity of diverse educational materials continues to this day. By far, the majority of literature that children study in schools is written by white authors. It overwhelmingly features white protagonists and is overwhelmingly written in “standard English”– a colonial variety of the language that Benjamin outrightedly rejected.
Benjamin’s work, by contrast, is shaped by his anarchist and abolitionist principles. It challenges readers and listeners to examine how language education policy, discipline practices and curricula normalise anti-Black linguistic racism.
Benjamin’s work draws its power from the fact that he refused to separate out issues of language injustice from broader dimensions of social injustice. For him, anti-Black language policing was simply part of the same logics of anti-Black policing more broadly. His work is part of a long history of Black resistance to British policing – which includes the policing of language.
His 1996 poetry collection Propa Propaganda, for example, brought together issues of racist policing, Black culture, hostile immigration rhetoric, and linguistic colonialism. The opening lines to his poem, Neighbours, capture just that:
I am the type you are supposed to fear
Black and foreign
Big and dreadlocks
An uneducated grass eater.
I talk in tongues
I chant at night
My first permanent academic post was in the Department of Education at Brunel University London, where Benjamin was Professor of Creative Writing. Our offices were in the same building. I will never forget the time that he came to speak to my pre-service English teacher education group – mostly made up of students of colour from working-class backgrounds.
He showed up and simply said to the class: “What do you want to hear about?” “Linguistic justice,” came their reply.
For three hours, we sat, captivated, listening to his stories and wisdom about anti-Black linguistic racism in schools, the criminalisation of Black youth in Britain and the colonial histories of standard English. He firmly rejected the mainstream narrative that speaking in standard English is the solution to granting marginalised children justice.
Those conversations inspired my students to engage in similar anti-racist efforts in their own teaching. I went on to collaborate with one of my students, drawing on Benjamin’s ideas. We facilitated workshops with young children where they critiqued ideologies of linguistic prescriptivism and how England’s education policies are linguistically oppressive.
Years later, Benjamin agreed to collaborate on a research project I led on language and race in schools. Part of the project involved secondary school pupils in London reading his 2020 novel, Windrush Child. The teacher used the text as a springboard to encourage the children to examine how language, colonialism, race and discrimination intersect in Britain.
At one point, Benjamin’s protagonist in the book says:
There are some white people who think that white is de best, de standard, and everyone else is coloured. And because they think they are the best, they think they have de right to rule over us. You know ‘bout slavery?’
As part of the project, we interviewed Benjamin on camera and showed the videos to children in the classroom. They were enthralled.
They discussed how their own experiences of schooling have been shaped by whiteness, linguistic standards and colonial curricula. This experience reminded me of my own schooling in the 1990s – of hearing his poetry for the first time and of hearing my teachers talk about language, activism, and social injustice.
Benjamin had an incredible capacity to talk about complex issues with razor sharp clarity. He showed how linguistic hierarchies were a product of colonialism and slavery.
He rejected any theories of social justice which place the burden on marginalised communities to modify their language. He was an abolitionist and an anti-colonial activist through and through, rejecting, in 2013, an OBE because of its language of empire.
Despite his untimely passing, Bejamin’s words will continue to push back against the systems and structures of language policing which are so embedded within them. His work is needed more than ever before.