Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:00 AM 9th December 2023

Poem Of the Week: Union Jack By Khadijah Ibrahiim

Union Jack

Mum always said she should have gone back home
when Rivers of Blood ran deep
in the current of Enoch Powell’s hate
the River Tiber foaming with much blood…
an urgent encouragement of re-emigration…

Send them back: load the ship with
chocolate smiles, send them back
before the blacks take the whip hand…

No blacks, no dogs, no Irish!
One down a million to go!

But unoo barn hyah
, Mum said.
I sweep the Union Jack
under the bed.

Khadijah Ibrahiim’s poem of identity, institutionalised racism and division is as relevant now as it was in the wake of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. And if we pride ourselves on our multicultural enlightenment, the cracks begin to show when dark events unfolding elsewhere hold up a mirror to our own deep-rooted antipathies, and open the closet of our nastiest proclivities.

The war in Gaza has re-activated sympathies that lie otherwise barely concealed, giving up prejudice to public scrutiny, in forms as disparate as Islamophobia and Antisemitism, though in the profoundest sense the terms are interchangeable insofar as they approximate to fear and hatred uninformed by reason.

The bedsit advert that informs Ibrahiim’s paraphrasing of the working class London of the Sixties – ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ – neatly encapsulates the generic nature of racism. The landlady or landlord does not restrict her or himself to a single bête-noire, as they, in Roger McGough’s words, salute the flag behind the toilet door.

Ibrahiim’s grandparents were more or less co-terminus with the generation of Jamaicans who fetched up in contemporary Leeds hoping for a better life. And if her poem is barbed and direct it is in the spirit of defence, of a culture whose antecedents faced the kind of diatribe that would not have been untypical:

‘Send them back: load the ship with
chocolate smiles, send them back
before the blacks take the whip hand…

The tone – and it is authentic – is brutal; the final line here is a characteristic cornerstone of specious racist ideology: that the minority will one day become a majority, that the culture of the indigenous peoples will be replaced by an alien and therefore egregious one.

Ibrahiim’s narrator rejects the notion utterly. Her final defiant gesture, rendered in the present tense for sustained currency, overturns the very ground on which nationalism is fought. The flag that some of us wrap ourselves in is, in fact, a symbol of disunion; the phrase her mother uses is an expression of solidarity with an ideal that would, in a world of decency, be shared by all:

But unoo barn hyah: But all of you were born here’.

‘Union Jack’ is taken from Another Crossing, published by Peepal Tree Press (2014) and reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

The poem subsequently appeared in Any Change: Poetry in a Hostile Environment, Edited by Ian Duhig (2018).
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