The Race Industry is a poem that one would assume is at least in part, autobiographical. It is a commentary on how society in London is quite authoritarian. You can read the full poem here.
Form and Tone
Often Zephaniah can be quite whimsical in his poetry, but that is not the case here. The poem is quite bleak. It has several refrains throughout the poem almost giving it a quality similar to a villanelle. Unlike a Villanelle the poem consists of 24 lines in one stanza. It is written in free verse with an inconsistent rhythm. The line lengths of a fairly consistent length though, most of them ranging between 8-10 syllables. There are lots of Iambic feet in here too, although because of this when the meter is uneven it is jarring and this is employed, one would assume, deliberately.
The Race Industry Analysis
Right from the first line, we see the powerful language that Zephaniah uses to make his point. The use of the word coconuts is extremely clever as firstly it suggests that “foreigners” are taking up jobs. Coconuts make us think of the exotic and, in addition to this one might associate them with Zephaniah himself given his heritage. It also gives the suggestion that the people being given the jobs are in fact “nuts” as in crazy. Of course, this is open to interpretation and the line could actually be in reference to the disparity of ethnic minorities being given prominent roles. In the second line, the race industry is referenced. What is meant by this isn’t entirely clear, but what is clear is that the concept is gathering pace. More light is shed on the term in the third line where the narrator states:
We despairing, they careering.
Note the use of the first person here. Whether the narrative voice is Zephaniah’s himself or not isn’t totally clear (although it seems likely) what is clear is that he wants you to seel that this is a real issue affecting real people, the use of the first person accomplishes this. In fact, he uses “we” in order to make it feel like you are on the narrator’s side. This is a very clever use of language and helps the poem be more relatable and engaging. The fourth line is interesting as it once again uses the idea of us vs them. However, the suggestion here might be that putting more police on the streets negates peace, rather than promotes it, which is an interesting stance.
In the 5th line, “Uncle Tom’s” is a phrase for people who are subservient and just kind of doing what they are told, sheep if you will. So when it is said they are getting paid, it suggests these are the people that are taking the job. This is followed up with a refrain of the second line. The refrain here is cleverly placed suggesting that having these people do the work is leading to the “race industry”. The next line talks about brother’s and sisters not fearing. I think this is a reference to those in the poor communities such as the one that this poem is based upon. The next line references the mayor. The mayor of London is an important political figure. I couldn’t find information on who was the mayor of London when this was written, but I expect it would have probably been Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson is a hard-line conservative, white and well educated, one might say privileged even. While some would argue he served well as the mayor of London it is heartening that his predecessor is a Muslim and in some ways better represents the diversity of England’s capital.
Zephaniah uses an interesting technique here as several lines all start with variations on “they” this gives the impression that this part of the poem is “pointed” and almost accusing. Line nine is a refrain of the first line and line 10 a refrain of the second line. This acts to drill home these points and make us feel like they are important. The next two lines, however, are not repeated and are quite bleak. The lines, one would imagine are quite personal as they reference that “they” are looking for poets to rent. It later goes onto say that the speaker is being represented without their consent. This is very hard-hitting stuff. The word consent has become somewhat synonymous with the idea of rape. Are we to assume then that the poet’s words are being used inappropriately? That having himself taken out of context feels like he is being abused in some way? That is the effect of the language used here. These lines are followed up with lines five and six. This repetition almost gives the poem a real droning feel. It is constantly “battering” the reader over the head with the points it is trying to make.
In the 15th line, we get more of a sense of the poem’s antagonist. The narrator is addressing the “them” of the poem and they are not presented in a positive light, being described as dithering. In the next line, their actions are described and they are unscrupulous. Exploiting people for personal gain. The negative commentary continues in the rest of this section, even going as far as to use hyperbole stating they “steal our souls”.
In this final section, the tirade against the wealthy in London continues. Note the fact that the next three lines all being with the word “without” it is helping to make the point that black lives do matter and without them, the white, wealthy folk would not have been able to flourish in the way that they have done. There is some clever wordplay starting in line 21 where drink is mentioned. The next line then says:
If they stopped sucking we could get justice
Sucking is a drinking-like action (and also an example of onomatopoeia) and justice sounds a bit like juice. This ties these three lines together nicely. It ends with a final refrain of the first line before stating that not just the men and women that live there, but that Brixton itself is being betrayed.
About Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah is an influential and well respected contemporary poet. He is British but of Jamaican descent and was ranked as one of the 50 most influential post-war writers a great distinction for someone who left at school at the age of 13 unable to read or write. He is an avid activist with very liberal views. He is proud of his mixed heritage and this often informs his poetry.