A White Mark

I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded by a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.

People called me white jack
Some hailed me as a white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off the white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts
I waz condemned to a white mass,
Don’t worry,
I shall be writing to de Black House.

– White Comedy by Benjamin Zephaniah

This poem by the British poet Benjamin Zephaniah “flips the script” on the words white and black, making the reader think about how those terms are used in the English language. In some cases white is used to denote good and black bad: white magic vs. black magic; blackleg is a derogatory term for a strike-breaker; blackguard is a criminal or someone of low status; black mass is a sacrilegious mass; black death apparently referred to the terror of the plague and not its symptoms. Others do not denote good or bad and are simply descriptive: blackwater fever is a malarial fever which turns a patient’s urine black, and the black watch is a Scottish military regiment which wears dark uniforms. I love that jarring last line, because it never occurred to me to wonder if any country would have a black house as their leader’s home.

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