Benjamin Zephaniah on human rights

Benjamin ZephaniahTell us something about yourself.

I was born in Birmingham; my mother Jamaican, my father from Barbados. At school I had the full range of experiences, including racism and bullying. I wasn't always the victim - sometimes I did the bullying!

From quite early on I was observant and able to verbalise. For example, when I saw TV images of starving children during the civil war in Biafra, I made the connection with slavery. My mother explained that slavery was a form of injustice - either whites abusing blacks, or, as in Biafra, blacks abusing blacks. I got the message that (in)justice was the key issue.

Even at the age of five, poetic use of language always caught my ear. I was fascinated by rhythms and rhymes, like my mother making a sort of chant of her recipes.

I was expelled from school at 13, and subsequently got into trouble with the police. I didn't learn to read and write properly until I was 21. I left Birmingham for London in 1979, and now I live in a small Lincolnshire village for the fresh air and peace. I'm into animal rights, so it's just as well that it's mostly arable farming here!

When was the first time you became aware of human rights?

My friend's father thought all blacks should be slaves. I'd been told that slavery was a punishment for the sins black people had committed in the past, but that eventually they would go to heaven. But I wanted heaven on earth, now! I wanted to fight slavery - now! I couldn't spell politics, but I knew right from wrong.

What do human rights mean to you in your own life?

Sometimes I feel almost embarrassed when people call me an activist! I'm just someone who wants to change society, and it's my duty to support other human beings. Young people are said to be apathetic when they don't bother to vote. I think they feel so strongly about social issues that they reject the electoral process and turn to social activism - often called 'troublemaking'

What do you think is the public perception of human rights in the UK?

Widely seen as something for 'do-gooders'. People here feel we already have democratic (i.e. 'human') rights which are needed 'out there' in the developing world. Speaking up about the state of rights here is seen as 'activist', that is to say, critical of our system.

We should be watchful, because our rights are being slowly eroded. People often start to realise the meaning of human rights only when a friend or relative is being deprived of them. Don't wait that long!

What more can be done to encourage people in the UK to think and feel positively about human rights?

It should start at school. I was part of some government think-tank which spent lots of time and money considering how to encourage creative thinking in schools. I quoted from the Convention on the Rights of the Child - every child has the right to express her/himself. How about a project for children to encounter human rights in theatrical form?

We should clean up our image. We tend to see ourselves as a 'free country' fighting terrorists at home and abroad. But out in the world the UK and the US are seen using terror as a means of control. And slavery still exists in this country in the form of trafficking women for the sex trade.

Name your human rights hero/heroine.

Shami Chakrabarti, who does it every day. And Tony Benn, who should have a lifetime award for his everlasting devotion to the cause.


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