“You can stop choking on the sound now
Stop biting down on the word so hard
Don’t be afraid to say it.
I’ll say it for you. B-L-A-C-K
You heard me.
As you refuse to call me by my name –
You can call me black.”
We are not a monolith. That is the the overriding message to come from the pioneering body of work from poet and self proclaimed ‘Art-tivist’ Siana Bangura in her debut collection of poetry, Elephant.
Elephant is first and foremost a journey through identity. Split into ten parts, Bangura wonderfully articulates the complexities of the ‘Other’ in a way that leads you to question what IS the other?
Within these complexities, the simplicity of what the ‘Other’ is becomes apparent. Elephant is the story of a Black woman. A Black British woman, by way of West Africa, who has experienced life on the fringes.
Part (i) of Elephant lays bare the origins of her circumstance, explaining her life from her beginnings to the displacement that waters her roots. In the poem ‘No For Tell Dem We Business’, Bangura begins the process of decolonising her language to make the reader aware that she is coming from her native Sierra Leone.
‘No For Tell Dem We Business’ is Krio – one of the many spoken languages in Sierra Leone – and means ‘Don’t tell (them) our business’.
Why at the beginning of the book?
This collection bears all of her lived experiences. It is the complete opposite to the lessons most African and Caribbean children learn at home, in that they are instantly told not to tell ‘others’ their business. Their ‘business’ could vary from personal to financial to familial, or even psychological difficulties and is mostly recited by elders to youngsters as a way to keep the family, parents especially, from embarrassment or shame.
“There’s no room in this void for father now. No more room in my thoughts for why and how…”
But for Siana, bearing all defies this and brings forth the poems ‘Passport’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘GirlhoodWomanhoodMotherhood/Mum’ and ‘A Call To Mother’.
All are the elements of what has brought her pain and confusion, but most importantly the growth and enduring love for her two mothers: her own mother and Sierra Leone.
Elephant also deals with the politics of blackness as a woman in Britain, and as a black person in the wider picture of the world.
“She likes to put mum’s yellow kitchen curtains on her head
Before they go in the wash
She pretends each fibre grew from her own head
The long golden locks She prays for daily
She even uses the dustpan and brush
To brush out and detangle
And she borrows mum’s belts to use as giant hairbands…”
Bangura’s poem ‘Haircare’ playfully recites the innocence of black girlhood. It enunciates the instance in which black girls begin to long for something other than their own hair. The lack of love – the lack of care – for what grows out of their own heads.
However, the pain of such is poured onto the skins of every Black woman with ‘Scorched Earth’. Here, Elephant asks one of the hardest questions for any marginalised person: “Are you comfortable in your own skin?”
“You set yourself on fire
Three times a day…”
She addresses the burns of her collective sisters in this poem. She wants them to love themselves and know what love for oneself look like. Essentially, this poem holds up a mirror to the realities of skin bleaching in black and Asian communities. But Bangura reassures us that healing is not far fetched and can be a reality, but it is all just a matter of unlearning.
This collection is not all about pain, though. Bangura speaks about both platonic love and romantic love in Elephant. While she speaks about sisterhood profusely throughout the collection, her poem ‘Best Men’ is an ode to her oldest, closest and dearest male friends, the men who have, in her own words, returned her faith in mankind.
In this part of the collection she also invites us to reflect on masculinity and the restrictions it can sometimes face when it comes to expressing love in ‘He Is Painfully Pragmatic’.
But this love transcends her circles in the poem ‘Many’.
Siana has never been shy when it comes to being an advocate for political movements and she certainly doesn’t shy away from those discussions in her literary debut. Poems like ‘Many’ and ‘Capital B Is For Baltimore’ carefully and unapologetically centre the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The movement has been criticised for being Americentric, but with the killing of Sheku Bayoh, a Sierra Leonean man in Scotland and Sarah Reed from North London, the poems are stellar accounts of police brutality’s global ramifications, offering a much needed British perspective of the movement.
Elephant says “We are here. See us.”
A final important element of this book is growth. As Siana Bangura’s first complete work, we can see younger pieces of writing (‘The Stranger’, ‘Nomad Blood’) placed alongside more mature pieces like ‘Scorched Earth’ and ‘I, The Angry Black Woman’.
All in all, as a debut work of raw emotion, style, the human condition, displacement, diaspora and the power of mothers in all of us, Elephant magnifies the flames within us that should not be merely existing but burning brightly.
Most of all, what Elephant tells us is to never forget our past experiences; to never give up on our futures and most importantly: be thankful for our presents.
“This is what it’s like to be an elephant I guess.
To live forever
And to always remember.”