What does Babylon fear more than a raised black fist?
Black intelligence, perhaps. Black formation. “Di Great Insohreckshan” by Linton Kwesi Johnson gives no quarter, takes no prisoners, because this is war. Never mind that it happened in 1981 in Brixton — it’s been happening ever since, and since ever before. Sometimes black people fight it with words in dockets, with homilys and manifestos read from the safety of a high wall. Sometimes, black war means burning tyres, shattering windows, and running policemen ragged with their own batons. If you’re not in the mood for a pair of raised fists, then back back from all now. Johnson’s putting nothing in reserve: this is a praisesong, a battle-chant, of black exhilaration.
The 1981 Brixton Riots brought white Britons’ animosity toward black Caribbean migrants roaring to the foreground. It didn’t invent that racism. That racism was always there. It’s there right now. “Di Great Insohreckshan” roars back, meeting violence with violence, reporting the facts as they happened, then crowing of them on the mountaintop of stacked, smoking car parts.
In short lines, drawn bowstring-taut, Johnson delivers each word like a note, pealed brassy and sharp. The poem drives itself to an uproarious conclusion: an ending that is a promise, a bloodied vow, a harbinger of what happens “wen wi run riat all owevah Brixtan / wen wi mash-up plent police van / wen wi mash up di wicked wan plan”.
The narrator of the poem freely admits he wasn’t there, but longs to be. What a day, he tells us, writ large in the black capacity for staying right here. For standing up and saying no. What happens when you gather ammunition against ‘stop and search’? You need no Lord to tell you you’re royal. You proclaim it with rhetoric and riot.
Read “Di Great Insohreckshan” here.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Selected Poems was published by Penguin in 2006.
This is the twenty-ninth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.