White Comedy by Benjamian Zephaniah

White comedy
I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.
People called me white jack
Some hailed me as white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off de white economy.
Caught and beaten by de white shirts
I waz condemned to a white mass.
Don’t worry,
I shall be writing to de Black House.
from Propa Propaganda

 

1 A quick reading of the poem already shows that Zephaniah has cleverly changed most of the words or phrases which should contain the word “black” into “white”. Again, as in the previous poem, he’s resorted to defamiliarisation: we expect “black” and get its opposite. Has he done so solely for the sake of humour?

2 Turn the poem into its “black” counterpart (except for “white lies”) and look up the meaning of the words and phrases, paying special attention to the very negative connotations of most of them. Instead, “white”, at least to those who have been brought up within a European culture, connotes what’s morally or spiritually pure, stainless, innocent, free from evil. Discuss the meaning and connotations of terms and phrases such as a white flag, white lies, white magic, a white knight, the white hope, Whitehall (to refer to the British government) and the White House in Washington DC –here called the Black House, the poem’s last meaningful joke.

3 After discussing these aspects of English (and Spanish, for that matter), what do you think the poem says about the connotations embedded in western languages and cultures? Have you ever stopped to think about this issue? Are you acquainted with the pressure exerted by American feminist organisations to change some words in the language which they consider instances of discrimination, such as mankind (humankind), spokesman (spokesperson), fireman (firefighter), policeman (police officer)? An interesting site on sexist words in common use is http://www.stetson.edu/ departments/history/nongenderlang.html.

4 In order to truly appreciate Zephaniah’s wonderful ear for the sounds of the language, reread the poem aloud and concentrate on the devices he’s used to make the poem so rhythmic: the repetition of vowel and consonantal sounds and the use of short lines. You must have also noticed his use of waz, wid, an’ and de. What do you ascribe it to?

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