Lemn Sissay explores racism today

“Send them all home”, “They are stealing our jobs”, “They are taking our women”, “They are taking up all the houses”, “Kill them”

Echoing and blurting the above phrases much too familiar with racists, Lemn Sissay explored and unpicked the element of racism 50-years-on from the instatement of Britain’s Race Relations Act 1965. The result was a BBC1 documentary – Race Apart – of considered discoveries, painful reminiscence and an intriguing portrayal of multi-cultural Britain.

The Chancellor of University of Manchester began in Manchester; discovering how our country – particularly the North West – has been living since the official outlawing of racial discrimination.

Since the Race Relations Act 1965, it is an offence to discriminate against someone based on their ethnicity or race. On discerning whether we are nearer to achieving the noble goal – of having a racism-free state – Sissay found himself questioning why people like Stephen Lawrence (1993) and Anthony Walker (2005) suffered devastating fates.

Both were killed by racists, simply for the fact that they were black. Speaking to Anthony’s mother, Gee Walker, Sissay gave us a window into the Walkers’ resounding and seismic character. Having forgiven her son’s killers, Gee tearfully continued to show her family’s resolute and exemplary response to racism, citing “I couldn’t follow the path of hate”.

Through a series of interviews in Manchester, Liverpool and Burnley, Sissay injected poetic queries into the minds of both the viewers and his interviewees. When asked why we cannot let the slave trade topic go away, Liverpool’s Levi Tafari said, “The remnants of it are still there. Everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, there’s a memory. You can make as many laws as you want but the important thing is people’s mindset”.

With immigration hardly leaving the headlines, Sissay poignantly linked the migration of nature to that of humans. “We are all migrants. We emigrate from the womb to the open air. From childhood to adulthood. From village to town to city; in a constant state of migration, as nature is – like the birds. The problem is, when we arrive”, Sissay explained.

More than the negativity that the media portrays of immigrants, Britain has benefitted more from net migration than often depicted. The culinary industry in the UK, for example, has profited greatly from foreign cuisines, like the Chinese restaurant Sweet Mandarin in Manchester. The restaurant which has served world leaders and won Gordon Ramsay’s F Word show, is a result of a Chinese migrant who came to Manchester in the 1950s.

The owners of the restaurant did not give up following physical abuse from thugs, and being told to “Go back to your own country”. Today, the restaurant is a testament of their resilience and steadfastness.

Following the Toxteh riots in Liverpool in the 1980s, Levi objected to the media’s rhetoric that they were ‘riots’. “We see it as an uprising – we were rising up against the oppression and injustice”, Levi explained of the resistance to police injustice towards the black community.

In as much as it discovered that remnants of racism and oppression still exist today, Race Apart showed a marked positive shift in attitudes about racism. More that the shift, it instilled the understanding that immigration is “a celebration of nature; the nature of humanity”.

TNT News Yasin Chinembiri


Photo credit: Mouthy Poet Youtube Screenshot

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