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Adama Jalloh
Photography Adama Jalloh

The London poet celebrating black Britishness

What’s personal is political for Siana Bangura, as she explores the intersection between race and gender, dismissive stereotypes and her identity as a young black woman

Meet Siana Bangura; poet, producer, performer and social activist. When she isn’t busy interviewing people for her new documentary, 1500 and Counting, about police brutality in the United Kingdom, you’ll probably find Bangura writing or laughing in radiant purple lipstick. Through her new book, Elephant, we see how the personal is truly political. Elements of her identity, her blackness, her womanhood, her upbringing, all fuse together to make her a voice of a changing generation. Intelligent, sharp and confident, Bangura won’t be brought to silence even by the crassest of racist attacks, so we catch up with her prior to the launch of her book. 

When I was looking through your book, I noticed it was divided up into different segments. So, I was wondering whether you could explain why you decided to do that?

Siana Bangura: Well, it happened quite organically. Whilst in the editing process, I had a group of trusted friends who I asked to look over the collection. From there, one of them noticed that there were several strong themes in each of the poems and suggested I organised it thematically. Initially, I wasn’t sure about it but I feel that it helps take the reader on a journey. For example, I see “Part One” as the beginning. It is about my coming from Sierra Leone with my mum many years ago, it touches on the importance of a passport and migration. Then, “Part Two”, speaks more about black British girlhood and womanhood, being called a coconut when I was growing up and haircare. Then, there is another section just summed up in one world #blacklivesmatter. Whilst I am telling the stories from personal experience, it also isn’t. The collection also functions as a commentary on society, the things that I have done through and what people like me have also gone through too.

Would it be fair to say then that you see the personal as political?

Siana Bangura: Politics affects everything; the price of your drink, who is going to see you when you go to a doctor, what you are learning about at school. So, I learnt a long time ago that the personal is political. Everything I do, mainly looks at the intersection between race and gender, is informed by me feeling shut down by society and reduced to dismissive stereotypes. What has happened to my identity is that my identity as a black woman is political: from the shade of my skin, the way that I speak and especially my hair… it is treated as all political, I have accepted that. But, I want to be at the forefront of that discussion. When you are a politicised being, own it whenever you can, take claim and reclaim your narrative.

You specifically mention black British womanhood. I know you set up No Fly on the Wall in order to centre the experiences of Black British women in the United Kingdom. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Siana Bangura: No Fly on the Wall was set up in 2013 just after I finished university. It was really a response to feeling invisible and feeling that there wasn’t anything that particularly represented me. I was doing a module in Gender Studies, there were barely any women and then the women were all white women and I didn’t see myself in any of that. Once I started searching for myself, I found a lot more African American women, like bell hooks and Kimberle Crenshaw, who were fundamental to knowing what intersectionality was and feminism from a black woman’s perspective. Whilst there were similarities, I felt that what I was experiencing in Britain was different. For example, I feel that racism manifests itself differently here to America; it is more insidious and underhand. So, we needed something that was distinctly black, distinctly British and distinctly for black British women living in the United Kingdom. What is also different about No Fly on the Wall, is that we are not just an online space, we meet up in the flesh too.

From your perspective, what do you think is distinct about black Britishness?

Siana Bangura: For me, the key difference is the ‘othering’ of people. The racism is institutionalised. Unlike the US where everything is so wildly out there, there are so many people who say it isn’t racist here and that all the work that I do isn’t necessary. So, I always say that black Britishness is an amalgamated substitute identity. So, I mean it is a melting pot with all sorts of identities. If you look at a slave ship, it was people flung together because of the colour of their skin and they had to find a common ground to communicate. That very spirit had a lasting effect on their children and grandchildren and after. But, my generation – I call it generation clapback – is very concerned with identity and working out who we are. So, for black British people, in many cases, our blackness has been diluted by the society we live in. Having said that, I don’t think many people have a strong idea of what Britishness is either!

“When you don’t exhibit a minority complex when you are seen as a minority, it gets on people's nerves” – Siana Bangura

It would be fair to say that you are an impressively confident person. To stand on stage and perform takes a lot of bravery, what does it do to you as a writer and performer when someone is trying to crush that was racist slurs? Like with the attack that happened to you in October in Liverpool?

Siana Bangura: When you don’t exhibit a minority complex when you are seen as a minority, it gets on people's nerves. There are some of us who are taught we have to carry ourselves differently to everyone else; you can’t be mediocre to do well. You have to be black excellence. Last October, I was on my way to perform at Black History month as part of a tour. And, a man hit on me on the train and nobody cared. Ironically, I had written a poem about a racist attack… saying things like Africans are dirty, my grandfather had fought in the war, all those tired narratives… Those were the things he was saying to me, it was like I had written him into existence. In a way, it was a defining moment for me because I stood up for myself. It was when I knew for sure that I was really about this life, it was affirmation that what I am doing needs to be done. Too often, people like to think we live in a post-racial society so I made sure to get the message out about the attack and when I was in the police station in real time. But, still now, what shocks me is that I was hit by a man much bigger than me and nobody did anything. That scares me – it was in broad daylight and I can’t help thinking about how many people were happy to just be that bystander…

We briefly touched on alternative media and your work promoting black Britishness. There has recently been a surge of zines, alternative press and platforms taking on the whiteness of the media industry. Could you share some of your favourites?

Siana Bangura: Media Diversified has been a massive force for good and they were born on the same day as No Fly On the Wall. They have been such an important organisation in giving writers of colour a creative and serious voice. The founder and feminist filmmaker, Samantha Asumadu, is amazing and they are a brilliant team of people who are very passionate about what they do. Whenever there are opportunities, they share them amongst their writers and they have an event called the Trashies where they call out white mainstream media for the trash they produce. Then, gal-dem is doing really well and they have only been around for 6 months! and they fresh bold collective and young crowd which is really good. It is a growing platform and Liv has managed it so well with an excellent team. Black Ballad, who I also write for, are very passionate and dedicated to telling the stories of Black British women in the United Kingdom too.

Elephant launches 20 May at Hackney Attic, and you can find out more about Bangura here