The Conversation, “Benjamin Zephaniah: how the poet’s linguistic anarchy and abolitionist politics impacted education – and me”

By Ian Cushing, December 11, 2023

Like so many others who work in education, I was devastated to hear the news of Benjamin Zephaniah’s death. His work has profoundly shaped our understandings of race, language and education – and his work continues to have enormous influence in classrooms around the world.

I first encountered Benjamin’s writing when I was at secondary school. Our English teacher used his poetry to explore issues of local and global injustices. Like him, she encouraged us all to challenge normative ways of using language and reject the linguistic hierarchies that shape schools. She, like Benjamin, saw teaching as a political act.

My school was located in a racially diverse, working-class area of a post-industrial town in the north of England. The issues that Benjamin examined – racewhitenesscapitalismcolonialisminjustice, hostile policing, state violence and, of course, language – were so pertinent to us all. He wrote about things that children, parents and teachers alike recognised.

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