No Problem: Zephaniah. Unseen poetry preparation for IGCSE and Edexcel GCSE

Before I begin, an excellent video of Zephaniah reading this poem can be found here:

I am not de problem

But I bare de brunt

Of silly playground taunts

An racist stunts,

I am not de problem

I am a born academic

But dey got me on de run

Now I am branded athletic,

I am not de problem

If yu give I a chance

I can teach yu of Timbuktu

I can do more dan dance,

I am not de problem

I greet yu wid a smile

Yu put me in a pigeon hole

But I am versatile.

These conditions may affect me

As I get older,

An I am positively sure

I have no chips on me shoulders,

Black is not de problem

Mother country get it right,

An just for de record,

Sum of me best friends are white

This poem is an exploration of the feelings which the poet wishes to share on the subject of the racist ‘stunts’ to which he has been exposed during his life. The tone, however, is not angry but rather by a mixture of humour – the inversion of the cliched excuse of all racists found in the last line – and the evident wish to be understood as one trying to help rather than simply to criticise – found in the imperative ‘get it right’ as Zephaniah instructs his ‘mother country’ which has fallen far short in this role of nuturing and developing the immigrant populations who arrived with such hope in the late 1950s.

The personal pronoun ‘I’ is foregrounded in the repeated refrain of the opening stanza, allowing the poet first to personalise his message before extending it to include all – ‘Black is not the problem’ – in the second. It is as though, having won us over, the poet is able to present the true philosophy of his poem that it addresses Race, rather than individual injustice.

The personal experiences in the opening stanza are not presented in high descriptive detail, but rather the structure of the poem, being in free verse, allows Zephaniah to introduce line breaks in order to isolate each individual idea he presents within the long single sentence of the poem. Thus, despite the enjambment which serves to link lines 3&4, the ‘silly’ racism of children is separated from the ‘racist stunts’ which suggests actions rather than words and possibly, therefore, a more organised and considered form of abuse. For me the half rhyme evident between the ‘taunts’ and the ‘stunts’ symbolises how one can grow out of the other. As he grows, the disconnect between innate talent – ‘academic’ and the ignorant perceptions of teachers grow. Indeed he is ‘branded’ athletic. The verb carries connotations of slavery and cruelty and suggests such ignorant stereotyping to be more than unfair: it is positively cruel. Fittingly perhaps, at this point he uses a double entendre around the phrase ‘on de run’ which can mean both a reference to the athletic life as well as being a phrase suggesting that he is trying to escape from captivity.

In the opening stanza Zephaniah touches on what can be learned from other cultures. Possibly he chooses ‘Timbuktu’ solely for its sonic resonance, but the use of this almost mythical city across the Sahara is evocative of the distance between speaker and listener. Once again the listener is prone to stereotype – assuming that the speaker can ‘dance’ presumably in an entertaining ‘tribal’ fashion, but the poet is clear – he can ‘do more dan dance’. And this despite his obvious otherness which is introduced by Zephaniah’s use of the Caribbean vernacular for much of the poem. We can assume he does this because of his pride in his oral heritage and does not wish to have to speak Received Pronunciation in order to be accepted. At moments he lets his guard down and lines emerge in clear standard English, as though to reflect the multiplicity of the speaker’s background – ‘but I am versatile’ he announces in the last line of the opening stanza and we read the truth of this statement; no longer sounding Caribbean, the speaker sounds no different to every other Englishman.

This is the point: not only is he not the problem, he is no different to the rest of society.

In the second stanza he reflects on his position. He comments that his ‘conditions’ – the taunts and abuses of stanza 1 – may affect him, as though they are symptoms of an illness which might ultimately become debilitating, yet despite this he will not have ‘chips on me shoulders’. The stress on the initial ‘I’ suggests a challenge to the reader and asks us whether or not we can say the same.

Knowing that for many readers this test will be failed, Zephaniah uses the last quatrain to establish his position: The issue is not with him and other Black men, women and children, but with the ‘Mother Country’ which has failed to mother them. In order to maintain his open approach – the ‘smile’ of greeting, he makes us laugh with the last line, but also to reflect on our inability to acknowledge our own racism, however unintentional. For some, to claim to have black friends is enough to excuse them of any charge of bigotry in this area in their minds. Zephaniah takes the phrase and turns it to his advantage – it is true, no doubt, and when he speaks it, we (many of us, at any rate) acknowledge our own reluctance to face the truth of this poem for ourselves.