The British by Benjamin Zephaniah

Are children prejudiced? Do they carry around racial hatred with them? Well, in my experience, the answer is almost always ‘no’. Children do not see the colour of others, they just see them as other children – friends or otherwise. However, it is really important to reinforce tolerance and understanding at a young age. Never has this poem been more relevant than now. It would be all too easy for children to grow up reflecting the prejudices of their parents.

So this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah is excellent for classroom use, probably in Year 5 or 6. It looks at the British people as a recipe and goes back over our history to look at all the different influences which have gone into the mix we have today. Here is how the poem begins. (Silures by the way were a warlike tribe in Ancient Britain):

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

The full text of the poem can be found here. There is an excellent YouTube video of this poem which features young people sitting round a table, sharing a meal, and reciting this poem. Even Benjamin Zephaniah himself appears at the end!

Possible activities

Reflect on the make-up of your own class. How many children in the class have come from different countries? What can they tell us about these countries? Why is it important that we live together in “justice and equality”?

What does the poet mean by “justice”? Where might there not be justice in our society?
Why has the poet gone with a cooking theme? Why is it important to get all of the ingredients correct?

Look at all the detail in this poem. Write out all the different races mentioned and the dates when they came to this country. (You have about 2,000 years of history to research here!) This could lead to artwork or classroom posters or a timeline. The different ingredients could be handed out to pairs of children to research. This is what you have in the poem (you might wish to discuss if anyone is missing!):

Picts
Celts
Silures
Romans
Normans
Angles
Saxons
Jutes
Vikings
Chileans
Jamaicans
Dominicans
Trinidadians
Bajans
Ethiopians
Chinese
Vietnamese
Sudanese
Somalians
Sri Lankans
Nigerians
Pakistanis
Guyanese
Indians
Malaysians
Bosnians
Iraqis
Bangladeshis
Afghans
Spanish
Turkish
Kurdish
Japanese
Palestinians

Further reading

More mature children, possibly Key Stage Three, might like to reflect on What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us, also by Benjamin Zephaniah which argues that this dream of justice and equality in Britain is still some way off being realised.

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