In 2003, British poet of Jamaican and Barbadian parentage, Benjamin Zephaniah publicly turned down an offer to be awarded the Order of British Empire (OBE).
The OBE is a 102-year-old British political tradition which sees the government elect certain members of the Commonwealth, based on some excellent endeavour in military or civilian practice.
A royal then confers this honour on whoever accepts it.
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Zephaniah was not the first to have turned down an offer. But he was one of the few to have done so publicly and given reasons that should make black people everywhere proud.
And in October which is Black History Month in the UK, Zephaniah’s bravery and moral courage are worth retelling.
In 2003, when Zephaniah was informed that the government would like to place him on the honours’ list, the British had joined the US to invade Iraq in response to the September 11 attacks.
The US and the UK governments, set in their ways despite warnings from the United Nations, began illegal offensive strikes against Iraq in March of that year.
US President George Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair would popularise, and in one case, coin one of two phrases that have since become fashionable in the lexicology of modern international politics: the axis of evil and weapons of mass destruction.
Major news networks did not shy from feeding into the frenzy. They contributed to it, psyching the world up for war. But Zephaniah was not impressed.
In a piece for The Guardian to announce his rejection of the OBE offer, the poet wrote, “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought … You can’t fool me, Mr Blair. You want to privatise us all; you want to send us to war; you stay silent when we need you to speak for us, preferring to be the voice of the USA.”
Zephaniah called out the whole idea of an award in the perpetuation of the British empire. The term empire reminded him of “thousands of years of brutality – it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”
Looking back, it is easy to dismiss Zephaniah’s vociferousness. Britain, to a very large extent, is a free society. The man was allowed to speak his mind.
But such analysis would be devoid of insensitive to the political context of the time. In 2003, the marriage between the media and political establishment was particularly strong.
Zephaniah was risking his career. To make things more complex, he was a black man in the UK daring and damning the Buckingham Palace and Number 10 Downing Street.
But the seats of power were not Zephaniah’s only targets. Zephaniah criticised black people who accepted honours celebrating the British Empire.
“There are many black writers who love OBEs, it makes them feel like they have made it … They are so easily seduced into the great house of Babylon known as the Palace,” the poet wrote.
He captured the place of these people in a poem at that time titled, Bought and Sold. The poet challenged the affinity that was supposed to exist between Zephaniah and other black people because of the colour of their skin.
And he has not looked back or regretted of the things he said about power and people in 2003. In fact, he doubles down on his criticism.
In 2014. when he was asked about people comparing Barack Obama to Nelson Mandela, Zephaniah said: “It’s absolute bullshit to suggest that Barack Obama is anywhere near Mandela. The day that Barack Obama was at Mandela’s funeral saying that we have to learn from his example, he was sending drones to Pakistan. On the very day. I remember looking at him and thinking, you hypocrite, it’s just words.”
The poet is certainly not afraid to criticise “one of his own”. Zephaniah practised what he preached all in the hope that he would convince others to join his moral quest.
Zephaniah is moral courage defined.