History Teaches Us

I came across this poem by Michael Shepherd when I was searching for items about identity.  I loved it so much, I have placed it in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

History Teaches Us

A stone’s throw, just, from Chelsea’s football ground,
-skinhead territory long before any silverware –
there’s a barber whose window decorations indicate
they’re stylists in that tricky, ingrowing black hair;
I dropped in there one day; and as the one white face
in that busy, proud salon (I took the last spare seat with some relief)
spent half an hour or so as a ‘minority’,
as images of identity played out some tennis game of mind
across the net of what – division or harmony?
was I the face of hated white supremacy, now
the hated white minority? Covert glances on both sides…

Eventually I settled down, to then enjoy the novel ritual to me:
when you’re finished, dusted down – rise from the chair,
and pause a second or two upon the barber’s dais there
and face the audience; to be admired for sharp new style
which is by implication, tribute to the barber’s skill;
there’s palpably the sound of silent, proud applause
(I even dared, now shorn and bolder, to acquiesce, with respect,
in just a hint of this attractive ritual…) .
And here’s the crowning glory of this escapade:
they charged me less than for that difficult black hair…

‘History teaches us…’
…not to trust too much the lessons of history;
but rather, learn from how it’s working out:
emigrate to seek a better life somewhere
where faiths and customs are so different
and you’re the proud, hardworking, strange minority.

But then, beware – your children will not want
the birthmark of ‘minority’; and maybe seek
some other pride than that of family,
a new identity, some wilder faith
than football’s common touch, or cricket green;

the hosts and guests of history must learn
to seek to learn the lessons both must earn.

The Romans, empire-builders, had a phrase for this:
‘lacrymae rerum’ – which so gladly, sadly, means
the tears of things…     

Michael Shepherd  

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