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'Racism stops you from seeing a person'

Poet Lemn Sissay tells Barry Egan about his heartbreaking childhood, the horrific abuse he suffered in care, and how he overcame tragedy to find literary success


Poet Lemn Sissay

Poet Lemn Sissay

Lemn as a child

Lemn as a child

Lemn has shown his appreciation for what Bob Geldof did for Ethiopia

Lemn has shown his appreciation for what Bob Geldof did for Ethiopia

Poet Lemn Sissay

Lemn means 'why' in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, where celebrated poet Lemn Sissay's mother was from. Why - and the search for the answer to why - became the word that defined Lemn's young adult life. Why was he taken from his mother? Why was he told his mother abandoned him? Why were his name and his identity stolen from him? Why does a government imprison a child?

Lemn's mother Yemarshet Sissay, who had come to Britain on a student visa, fell pregnant at the age of 17 and ended up in St Margaret's, a home run by nuns for unmarried mothers in Lancashire, where on May 21, 1967, she gave birth.

When he was two months old, the baby was placed into the care of Wigan social services. On his file, it was asked whether being Ethiopian meant "he is a negroid or not". Against Yemarshet's wishes, her son was fostered by a childless white Christian couple, Catherine and David Greenwood. The arrangement, Lemn's mother believed, was a temporary one. Wigan social services, however, told the Greenwood family to view the fostering as an adoption. The child was given the name Norman Mark Greenwood and brought up in Lancashire, the only black boy in the village of Ashton-in-Makerfield. "It was like," he told The Guardian in 2009, "being in a wild anthropological experiment."

It was a childhood where strangers spat down on him from buses. This was Britain in the toxic wake of MP Enoch Powell's infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, an anti-immigration/integration call to race hatred.

Lemn was physically and racially abused at school. He was called 'Chalky White' and 'Chocolate Boy'. His foster parents told him he had chocolate skin. They also told him at an early age that he was alone in the hospital when he was born "because no one would adopt a 'coloured' baby". They told him that his mother didn't want him and that they chose him after praying to God.

At the age of 12, the Greenwood family, who now also had three biological children, accused their foster son of not loving them. When Norman denied their sudden and confusing charge, he was abruptly sent out of the room to pray for the right answer, for the truth.

"I studied the question for a day and a night," he writes in his memoir My Name Is Why. "I prayed to God, and I read the Bible to see if a passage would answer the question."

"I mustn't love you," he said to the Greenwoods the next day. "But I will ask God for forgiveness ... and learn to love you."

Within hours, they had the terrified young boy put in a care home, Woodfields. He can remember the rattling keys that staff had attached to their waists, in this old Victorian home that smelt of bleach and had linoleum floors. Lying in bed not long after his arrival, he was beaten near-unconscious by another boy with the ripped-out side of a shelf.

For the next five-and-a-half years, he was housed in four virtual child prisons in Atherton, Lowton and Leigh. It was five-and-a-half years of institutional cruelty, maltreatment and dehumanisation in the northwest of England. Lemn didn't met another black person until he was 17.

His first black friend, Roukiya Osoye, would bring grapes into the care-centre for him. As soon as Roukiya left, Norman would be strip-searched like a hardened criminal.

In the notorious Woodend Assessment Centre, he would be marched up and down long corridors, watched in the showers, reminded that he was abandoned. Before Christmas in 1983, he got to see his birth cert and found out he was Lemn Sissay. Horrified, he also found out in a letter from a social worker that his mother had been begging for his "safe return to her" since his birth. "How can I get Lemn back?" she wrote in 1968. "He needs to be in his country, with his own colour, his own people. I don't want him to face discrimination."

"They lied to me. Someone did love me. My mother," Sissay writes in My Name Is Why. "My birth mother did nothing wrong. She was not poor. She was not destitute. She did not abandon me. She did nothing other than find herself pregnant while in England and ask for help."

It took 34 years for Wigan Council to hand over his official files, in 2015. He took them to court for stealing his childhood, for stealing his mother. The legal case was settled out of court. He received a full apology. Lemn found his mother when he was 21. He never met his father; a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines, he died in a plane crash in 1973. In the poem My Dad Is A Pilot, he wrote of his father: "He passed my past. He flew right past. And then he passed away."

In his mid-teens, Lemn walked barefoot around Lancashire, even in the snow, as an act of rebellion against being called Chalky White "and against received ideas".

"No one was offering me what I needed, which was love. I found myself becoming invisible. It was my way of rebelling without hurting anyone else," says Lemn, who would be later spat at, punched and called the N-word by members of the National Front.

I ask Lemn what age he was when he first heard someone tell him that they loved him. He doesn't answer for about 20 seconds and eventually says: "I don't know. That's a very good question. My foster parents did tell me they loved me, but then they did what they did. They showed me that love is a dangerous thing."

Last year, Lemn told Church Times how he met his foster mother in 2009, after she contacted him on Facebook. He forgave her. "I didn't realise that forgiveness would allow me to empathise with her. It's important not to want a result. That's a trap."

"Forgiveness is an act of strength inside the person who is forgiving," he says now. "When I forgave my foster family, I realised that it doesn't have the power over me that it did."

Post-care, living in a flat in Manchester, he used his dole money to get a socialist printer to print his poetry into little booklets, which he sold to people in the city. When did Lemn write his first poem? "I know that I wrote a poem when I was 12," he says. "I felt safe. It felt like it was something that was bigger than me. It was patriarchal and matriarchal."

Was poetry a coded message from his subconscious?

"It could well have been. A secret letter from my future. Poems were a way of me saying, 'I was here then, feeling this'."

In the poem Mother, Lemn addressed a few questions at his birth mum: "Mother, what will you say to me?/Mother, will you read my poetry?/Am I just what you want me to be?/Mother, will you see it through my eyes?"

In 1988, Lemn, aged 21, published his first book, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist.

In 2010, he was awarded an MBE for services to literature. In 2017, he performed his stage show, The Report, at the Royal Court. It was centred around the harrowing 25-page psychologist's report on his mental-health challenges brought on by the abuse he suffered as a child.

He wrote in his blog: "The files expose the institutionalized voyeurism which was dependent on isolating the child and making them feel they should never speak of their experience in adult life.

"This event at The Royal Court tears down the walls of the padded cell - there was a padded cell in one of my children's homes. What if the person in that cell knew the walls would come down one day?

"I am the evidence. I must speak? It is pure slander."

The Live Aid concert in 1985 was to help the millions affected by the famine in Ethiopia at that time. How did Lemn, an Ethiopian, feel about it? "What Bob Geldof did was what a hero does," he says. "I think what Geldof did is connected to the Famine in Ireland. That's obvious to the Irish. But do you think it is obvious to the English? Do you think they teach the Famine in university or college in England? They have no idea about the Famine here. It is just part of the English cultural knowledge of their environment. So when an Irish person talks about that in relation to today's politics, the English just have no f*****g idea.

"And that leads directly to the border issues regarding the EU. This is important.

"I saw what Geldof did. And I thought, what a guy'. He said no taxes to Thatcher. That was so important - he didn't let Margaret Thatcher take taxes from the money raised for the famine in Ethiopia.

"And when Geldof did it for Ethiopia, Mengistu was in power. He was a horrible, violent leader who organised a thing called the Red Terror, which was the murder of thousands and thousands of people. Geldof coped with all that, between both countries. That has to be the greatest thing that one person has done in my lifetime.

"I don't think Geldof has got the recognition for it from the English - or from the Irish as well."

However, Lemn describes Band Aid's song Do They Know It's Christmas? as "unfortunate", given that Christianity is the main religion in the country. "I mean, Ethiopia is in the Bible. It is probably the most devout country I have ever been to."

Speaking of songs, Lemn later says that he loves Black Boys On Mopeds, Sinead O'Connor's song about the death in England in 1989 of 21-year-old black man Nicholas Bramble: the police chased him on his moped, thinking, mistakenly, that he had stolen it. In the chase, he lost control, crashed and died from his injuries.

I mention that I was in New York in 1988 with Sinead.

One night, she had gone ahead with her manager in one cab while I hailed a cab without success with a black friend. "They won't stop if I'm with you," he told me. I didn't believe him until I saw it happen with my own eyes.

"That has happened to me," Lemn says. "I was with some friends. I had to hide in the bushes until the cab came and then I just jumped in."

Lemn says he senses racism when he goes to "Ethiopia, Eritrea, Australia, Nigeria, Cameroon. It's everywhere. It is brutal. It is what leads to wars, and ultimately to genocide."

"That's why the Jewish community are incredibly aware that if you take somebody's name away, or you make a person less human, by any means, that is the first step towards genocide.

"The day comes when a government says that they should be all taken to that part of the country, so that we can't see them, and why don't we put them in a building that is secure? And then the language starts changing towards them: they're migrants; they're less human.

"That's why human rights organisations fight for them, because they are aware of where this leads."

Lemn, who has written plays like Something Dark and Why I Don't Hate White People, says: "We are living in a society which defines racism by various clear, identifiable parameters. But most racism, like most sexism, is unspoken.

"If you were Irish in the 1980s and you walked into a pub, watch what happens when your mouth opens. It's not what people say. It's their actions. It is split-second moments of denial of your validity as a human."

That's what happened with George Floyd, he says: "That's the worst side of the word not being spoken but the racism being evident: the idea that he could be so violent that he had to be killed by violence."

Black Lives Matter, he says, is about convincing people that, 'Hey, you may have missed something here'.

He continues: "What Black Lives Matter is saying is: 'You're wrong'. That guy over there is a teacher. That other guy is a lawyer. That one over there has the potential to be a chemist. That young man over there has just travelled from one part of the world to another without his mother and father who he has lost - and he needs help. He is vulnerable."

Lemn says he spent his childhood being told that black people are all muggers, robbers, thieves. "I know that thinking. I was angry. I had my family stolen from me. So, I was angry. I suddenly realised that I couldn't counter people's assumptions about who I was."

He believes that the central thing about racism is that it stops humanity. "It stops you from seeing a person, from empathising with them, communicating with them.

"I was beaten up on the street by skinheads. I fought. I marched. The one thing I would physically fight over is that - if you would call me an N-word in the street. That happened a lot, with right-wing people. I would physically fight. I wouldn't any more because I value my safety.

"There is no need for someone to say they are not racist. Just be not racist.

"How do we become less racist? It is a really big question. We need to talk to each other more. The more we communicate with each other, the less there is to be frightened of. In fact, you'll find that it actually improves your quality of life, because all racism is based on fear.

"So, the less racist you are, the less fearful you become."

My Name Is Why by Lemn Sissay, published by Canongate, is out now

Belfast Telegraph