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Poet Jenny Mitchell: mum’s the words

Jenny Mitchell explains how she came to write the poem When My Mother Says Jamaica, which won the first Folklore Prize set up by Hampstead poet Martin Connolly

11 March, 2021 — By Jenny Mitchell

Jenny Mitchell. Photo: Billy Grant

I WROTE the poem When My Mother Says Jamaica in order to describe the legacies of British transatlantic enslavement on one family. In my latest collection, Map of a Plantation, I suggest that this emotive history does not simply belong to black people but is shared by everyone in the UK. After all, black people did not enslave themselves in the Caribbean.

I began to write about this subject because although born in the UK, I often felt unwelcome. Black history seemed to be a victim narrative of enslaved people freed by William Wilberforce.

My research into Britain’s slave “trading” past led to devastating discoveries: children sold away from their parents; rape as a form of mass control; the violent denial of basic human rights. This abuse was compounded with Abolition in 1838 when white “masters” were given massive financial compensation for the loss of their human “chattel”.

However, the formerly enslaved were given no money and no land.

The research also demonstrated black resistance and the power of the creative spirit. I write about this in the hope that it will go some way towards healing the traumatic, racialised divide that still exists in this country.

In the poem Imagining a Forest Made of Freedom (winner of the Aryamati Prize for Social Change) I describe a collective healing where: “Bones misshapen / with slave labour, straighten and grow strong”.

I believe that if poetry can help us to imagine this, we may be able to work towards it.

When My Mother Says Jamaica is published in Secret Chords – A Poetry Anthology of the Best of the Folklore Prize, compiled by Martin Connolly. All proceeds go to Pancreatic Cancer UK,
Jenny Mitchell is winner of the Folklore Prize 2020, along with several other awards. A best-selling debut collection, Her Lost Language, was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize. Her second collection, Map of a Plantation, is published by Indigo Dreams.

When My Mother Says Jamaica

After When They Say Connemara by Geraldine Clarkson

I see scrubland, a hill of gravestones
near a blighted crop that leads towards
three wooden steps of a tumbling shack.
Underneath are boxes, there to hold it up,

split at the sides, soaked through by humid storms,
the dwelling like a boat at times – three rooms adrift;
eight children reaching for a father
who longs for rum enough to call it his best friend.

When my mother washes clothes by hand,
she becomes a girl again, kneeling at a stream,
beating rags on sheen-smooth rocks,
sleeves rolled up her muscled forearms.

They turn to fat when she migrates to England.
For now, the stream rolls over them,
her mother standing close,
holding up a length of cane pulled from the fields,

to bring down on a cringing back
if suds aren’t plentiful enough. The stream calls out,
Make that girl work like a slave.
Grandmother hears so many voices bubble up.

They’re in the soil telling her to beat her girls
as she was beaten by her father for being much too dark.
He is almost white and married down –
a woman brown as a dead leaf.

That’s how he describes my great-grandmother
who’s not allowed to call him Earl but
Mister Hargreaves – headmaster with a length of cane.
He brings it down on cringing backs to teach a ragged mob;

slave masters offered discipline, each one a hero to this man
who stays out of the sun, pale skin shaded by a hat
that hides the shame of kinky hair.
His daughters call him Sir;

place coins upon his eyes to keep the corpse
from following his wife about the room. She cries
until he’s safely in a grave; then laughs.
That’s what my mother says when she talks of home.


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