Dean Atta on the Influence of Black British History

The influential poet explores how figures from our past and present day have inspired his work and are changing the course of history

By Google Arts & Culture

Reconstructing the Black Image: Section 2. Black Warriors: Resisting and Assisting (1987) by Gordon de la MotheBlack Cultural Archives

Dean Atta is a London-born poet whose work explores race, national identity, and sexuality. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger voices Atta’s perspectives on family, relationships, and London life, as well as drawing on influential events from modern history. 

The Empire Windrush by Courtesy of Thurrock CouncilBritish Film Institute

Through his bold and inspiring poetry, Atta has also become an influential voice in the LGBTQ+ community in the UK and his novel The Black Flamingo shares a story about a boy coming to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen. We spoke with Atta to explore the influence of Black British history on his life and work, and who he would want to see in the Black Cultural Archives in 10 years time.

London is the Place for Me (2019-01-25) by Eliza SouthwoodLondon Transport Museum

How has Black British history inspired you?

I think the Windrush generation migrating to Britain from the Caribbean is a particularly meaningful moment in Black British history for me. That’s when my granny migrated from Jamaica. If she hadn’t settled in London and had my father here there’s no chance he would have met my mother whose parents migrated to London from Cyprus in the 1960s.

How has Black British history influenced or inspired your poetry?

One of my poems entitled “I Am Nobody’s Nigger” reflects on the modern history of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, as well as looking back at the enslavement of African people and the plantations in Jamaica. This isn’t in the poem but I found it very moving to find out that the Lawrence family decided to bury Stephen in Jamaica and not in the UK.

Are there any poets from Black British history that inspire your work?

Benjamin Zephaniah, Jackie Kay, and John Agard have all been supportive of me at different times in my career, by giving me advice and words of encouragement from time to time. But I’m not calling any of them historical figures; they are more like living legends, along with the likes of Grace Nichols, Lemn Sissay, and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789; republished 1837)Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Are there any other Black British historical figures that have inspired you?

I was incredibly moved by reading the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, a first-hand account of being an enslaved, and then a freed, Black man in the late 1700s. Equiano managed to purchase his freedom and moved to London from the British colonies. This book is important because countless Black lives and stories from this time were lost.

By Grey VilletLIFE Photo Collection

You are an influential voice in the LGBTQ+ community in the UK. How has the history of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK impacted you and your work?

It has been terribly unequal for previous generations of LGBTQ+ people in the UK, and still is for many here and worldwide. Many countries have anti-gay laws imposed by Britain, which make consensual homosexual sex between adults illegal. It was only in 1967 that it was partially decriminalized in England and Wales. It took until the 1980s for Scotland and Northern Ireland to follow. It was only in 2018 that the Supreme Court of India invalidated part of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which was introduced in 1861 during the British rule of India. It is still illegal in Jamaica, again because of laws introduced by Britain. There are over 70 countries where it is illegal and some where it is punishable by 10 years to life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Knowing this makes me want to be out and proud in my work — that includes writing about gay sex — for those who cannot for fear of imprisonment or death.

Do you think that your work is contributing to a new movement of Black British history?

I am proud to be of a generation of prominent Black queer writers in Britain, alongside the likes of Jay Bernard, Travis Alabanza, and Yrsa Daley-Ward to name but a few. I think our work and visibility gives hope to other Black and queer people to make their voices heard. However, this is not at all new and we have the likes of Dorothea Smartt, Patience Agbabi, and Rikki Beadle Blair to thank for paving the way for us, and they will have their own influences, and their influences will have influences and so on…

LDN WMN artwork of Olive Morris (2018) by Rene MatićOriginal Source: Mayor of London

Are there any other contemporary poets or artists who you think are making Black British history today?

I think Malika Booker has made history by setting up the Malika’s Poetry Kitchen writers’ collective in 2001, together with Roger Robinson and Jacob Sam La Rose. This collective has nurtured the likes of Inua Ellams, Warsan Shire, and Yomi Sode. The collective is not exclusively for Black writers but it has been so instrumental in the careers of many Black British writers, myself included.

LDN WMN artwork of Olive Morris (2018) by Rene MatićOriginal Source: Mayor of London

If you were coming to the Black Cultural Archives in 10 years, what would you want to see in the archive from today?

I’d like to see Young Adult fiction by the likes of myself, Malorie Blackman, Alexandra Sheppeard, Alex Wheatle, and Patrice Lawrence. Every book of poetry published by Peepal Tree Press. Every issue of Wasafiri magazine. Everything ever written by Zadie Smith. And all the books by the many writers we’ve spoken about here.

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