Dean Atta has recently gone viral online with his poem “I am Nobody’s Nigger” which was written and recorded in the light of the convictions of two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers and is a tremendous response to the attempted appropriation of the offensive word in certain areas of today’s black youth culture. He wrote a poem about language and immigration from his own personal experience. We thought you might like to hear it, Dean is soemone we’d like to promte and gain a wider audience for. Migrant voices (even second generation ones) are what makes the UK such an amazing place to live in. As always with our guest bloggers, the views below are those of the author.
Although I think it important for people coming into the country to learn English, I think it is of equal, if not greater, importance that their children also retain their first language and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. I am a third generation immigrant whose grandparents came to London in the 60s from Jamaica and Cyprus. My Jamaican grandmother has remained in London but my Cypriot grandparents moved back to Cyprus a few years ago. My sister and I grew up with our grandparents as a big part of our lives; we would see them at least once a week and would delight at my grandmother’s Greek-Cypriot cooking.
Unfortunately, our grandparents would always speak to us in English rather than in Greek and our mother would never speak Greek to us at home either. It always troubled me that we were not taught the language our grandparents spoke and our mother understood, but refused to speak. Now when we go to visit our grandparents back in Cyprus we struggle to keep up with conversations and find it almost impossible to speak to many other older relatives without someone to translate for us. Even with younger family members who speak English our sense of otherness is highlighted by our inability to speak Greek.
I have always felt at a loss by not speaking my ‘mother tongue’ and I wrote this poem about it. The nature of the UK means that we have collected peoples from all over the world, whether through the commonwealth or through asylum or economic migration. For the sake of international relations, I feel that British-raised children of immigrants should be actively encouraged to maintain their ‘mother tongue’ in addition to mastering the English language, so that they feel part of a world greater than just Britain.
Mother Tongue by Dean AttaOur mother has swallowed her tongue Though selfish is never a word I could call mum I feel she has been so by swallowing her tongue To make it worse, our family holidays are always to her motherland She forgets to translate even though she knows we don’t understand My sister and I, make do and get by on the meaning we can infer From gestures and inflection, can never look to mum for direction Mother has swallowed her tongue, shows no regrets on reflection Stubborn, she refuses to see that she has wronged us not to teach To give us the option, the basic right, of freedom of speech With our grandparents, our aunts, uncles and our cousins There are few shortcuts to understanding Common language is a good paving stone So when you can’t speak the language of love You realise you may be walking this path alone Made in England, we’re half this and half that But they could more easily overlook that fact If we could speak with our mother’s tongue Not let our skin speak for us But join in the family chorus I can’t tell you why she would wilfully deny Her daughter and her son But she has swallowed it And we are struck dumb Our mother has swallowed her tongue.