Critical Analysis of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Neighbours
Critical Analysis of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Neighbours : Benjamin Zephaniah was born in Jamaica in 1958. He came to Britain (Birmingham) with his parents in 1960. He is a rasta, rap and performance poet – as well as an artist in various other fields.
Critical Analysis of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Neighbours
He is politically active and campaigns for a green environment, for women’ srights, for equality and against racism, discrimination, police brutality etc. In 2003 he turned down an OBE (Order of the British Empire) since accepting such an award might be seen as condoning the establishment which instituted it.
Analysis and interpretation
GENRE : This text is a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, published in 1996.
Characters :The 1 st person narrator (“I”) and his neighbour (“you”)In the first two stanzas (lines 1-4, 5-10) the narrator describes himself: he is black, foreign, big, has dreadlocks, is uneducated, uses drugs (a grass eater), the type you are supposed to fear. He speaks a strange, unintelligible language (“I talk in tongues”) and keeps company with wild animals. (In the last stanzas there is a positive description – which we will come back to later).
The neighbour is not described, but we may assume that he is the narrator’s opposite: an ative Brit, white, small or medium-sized, with an ordinary hair style… And he might feel threatened by his new neighbour who is “the type you are supposed to fear” and whose“ aromas will occupy [his] space”.
Place and Setting: No specific geographical location > Britain. The setting: the narrator is moving in and presents himself to his next-door neighbour.
WHEN? – Time :No specific time > in our time.
WHAT? – Themes :The main themes are xenophobia (fear of strangers) and racial prejudice. But equally important is the way the themes are dealt with by the narrator/author, which we will come to presently.
HOW? – Structure, composition, language: We begin head on (or: in medias res ) with a provocative statement, “I am the type you are supposed to fear” which is used again in line 22, now with “love” instead of “fear”.
These statements mark the division of the poem into two main parts. In the first two stanzas in Part 1 (lines 1-10) the narrator lists all the negative stereotypes, all the prejudice. In stanza 3 (lines 11-19), the middle part, we hear about the relationship between the “I” and “you”, and stanza 4 (lines 20-21) is the narrator’s conclusion as to how his neighbour should feel.
Part 2, stanza 1 (lines 22-29) is a structural parallel to Part 1, lines 1-10, but a contrast in content: this time the narrator lists the positive stereotypes. The last stanza (lines 30-31) is the narrator’s simple statement about how he feels.
- Repetition in the form, repetition of lines, repetition of sentence and word structure (“I”+ verb)
- Contrasts: Part 1 has words with negative connotations (e.g. black and foreign) wherePart 2 has the positive counterparts (e.g. dark and mysterious); moon/night – sun/day
- Imagery: metaphors (e.g. sleep with lions, keep cool cats) and allusion (Wailer = wolf =Bob Marley)
- No end rhymes, irregular metre – but still there is a certain rhythm to the poem due to the parallel structures and alliteration
- Alliteration (e.g. Black and foreign, Big and dreadlocks; Keep cool Cats)
Imagery (metaphors, words with other meanings):
lines 1-10 are full of negative stereo types and references to primitive man, to the occult (“talk in tongues… chant at night”); night and darkness, sleep; keeps company with rs. To wail = to howl. Benjamin Zephaniah was a friend of Bob Marley. In Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” the vampires are also known as wailers.]In the beginning of stanza 3 (lines 11-19) the language is factual, like an everyday conversation; then there are appeals to the senses: “see my shadow” and smell “my aromas.
“The ball will be in your court” is a metaphor meaning that ‘now it’s up to you to make the next move’. There is irony in the next two lines, “You should feel good / You have been chosen”. The neighbour assumedly feels the opposite! In Part 2 the poem’s first line is repeated, now with the word “love” instead of “fear”.
All the characteristics and activities from the first part have now been changed into their positive counterparts, very positive indeed. And the last two lines play upon yet a stereotype which the narrator does not mind living up to: the black man’s ability to enjoy life (sun, Carnival).
“Neighbours” indicates that the two characters (and other Brits and immigrants)live next door to each other – close to each other. You can’t help noticing each other. This is how it is in today’s multicultural Britain: no ethnic group can live in total isolation – so why not make the most of it?
WHY – Message:
The author’s message is that prejudice makes you see things and people from one side only – most often the negative side because you are afraid of the unknown. He points out the other side – the positive one (“I am the type you are supposed to love”). And in this case the narrator, the stranger who is about to move in, is good-looking, intelligent, does not drink, does community work (talks in schools), is talented, appears on TV and in the newspapers, and has prominent friends (cool cats).
we cannot take it for granted that the poet = the narrator; however, considering the background information, it is likely that he is the narrator. The tone is light and humorous: short sentences, playing upon stereotypes, playing on words (tea total =tee-total), allusion to Bob Marley, the use of slang (cool cats), turning the tables (the neighbour should feel honoured to live next door to such a great person) – but the content is serious!
The themes of this poem can be related to the short story ‘She Shall Not Be Moved‘ which is also about xenophobia, prejudice and the conflict between the British and people of colour. The tone and focus of the story is, however, very different from the tone and focus in the poem. You can also refer to the film ‘East is East’ which describes racial conflicts in Britain in the1970s.
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