History is nothing without memory, memorials, and remembrances. And on such a day as this, the marking of the end of the First World War, there is a particular resonance to what it means today. As Hobsbawm termed it, this was the beginning of the short 20th century, which started with horrific loss of lives due to the power hungry international alliances, and ended in what at the time seemed a somewhat relative peaceful transition with the fall of the Berlin Wall. You could call it the slow death of empires.
History is a mining exercise; it constantly tries to uncover stories that give a more holistic picture of what went on at any particular moment. Just today, I saw two pieces of news which filled a gap in the history of WW1. The first about the role of Indian soldiers – 1.5 million of whom fought for Britain (they mainly came from the North from the Punjab to the Gurkhas in Nepal). The second was an article by David Olusoga, titled ‘Black Soldiers were Expendable Then Forgettable’, where even though they fought for ‘Empire’ were horribly racially abused after the guns fell silent.
Of course, poetry is very much a part of our understanding of the horrors of the First World War; it is ingrained in our learning as children and it is one of the times where you feel poetry is central to our understanding of war’s horrors. But they are mostly, if not all, white poets who tell of their experience. Karen McCarthy Woolf has thus edited a remarkable collection of Caribbean and diaspora poets in ‘Unwritten’, who write in that ‘vexed space’ where the ‘mother country’ refuses to accept you as one of its own, yet wishes/forces you to fight for it. Kwame Dawes says of the collection, ‘In Unwritten, the grace, clarity, imaginative invention of poetry, filled with passion, empathy, lamentation and pride, somehow manages to build a monument for those Caribbean people who fought in WW1. This is a work of deep and grand importance.’ There are contributions from Jay Bernard, Malika Booker, Ishion Hutchinson, and Tanya Shirley amongst others.
So, lest we forget, history is a process of renewal, reassessment, and therefore hopefully affecting a change in ourselves of how we view those who sacrificed themselves (the majority of whom are nearly always working class, whether soldiers or civilians) for just and not-so-just causes. Olusoga sums it up well in his article about what must now not be forgotten:
“A century on, if we as a nation are serious about remembrance, then the process of remembering must not come to an end this November. As well as remembering the service of the non-white soldiers and auxiliaries of the first world war, we have also to remember what happened to them and their dreams of justice in the months and years after the armistice.”
Below is an excerpt from a poem by Malika Booker called ‘Her Silent Wake’, which follows Malika’s focus on uncovering and making visible the lives of black women.
Her Silent Wake
in this small place your worth as a woman is measured by the number of sons you produce. each day is long now and I cook up pots of empty, the main ingredient is loss with a dash of woe, its scent foul, stagnant and cloudy. my only boy child is dead – young still in his chin. that bitch of a stepmother in England built a forest of bones for rats to feast on succulent black men, the scent of her actions rancid as hell. now I am worthless. my grief is a carcass swinging on a butcher’s hook, stabbed into the back of my neck. my neighbours’ sympathy simply slices each pound of flesh.
You can buy Unwritten from Nine Arches Press here.