Today’s Story from the Museum Floor is one about forging and reclaiming identity. It is a poem that looks to the past, but is anthemic of living in the present and looking to the future. It is a song that both whispers and screams a story of belonging, a story of difference, a story of Manchester.
October is Black History Month. It is a celebration of showcasing both black history and black excellence. Manchester has a strong global heritage, and a proud sense of place, and we are delighted to be able to celebrate our diversity and our histories with a poem by Lemn Sissay, the Chancellor of the University of Manchester.
“To Manchester with Love” Lemn Sissay © lemnsissay.com
(Written by Lemn Sissay for performance)
Have you seen the churches of lalibella
Swam in the warm springs of Addis Ababa
Have you heard the reaching Nile
Of the bible and the Koran My Abyssinia
Have you heard whispering widow peaks of sand
Seen the reeling rainbows as Victoria falls
Felt the mists on the Simien mountains
And the dust clouds of Harare’s hyenas call
And did you see the gentle man taken
Then imprisoned for twenty five years
Who walked out of chains and became president
And who faced down the world’s fears
Did you see his example to the world
How he embraced his adversary
Spoke of unassailable truth and reconciliation
Then we flounder in wars’ anniversary
Hold me while spirits of the past
& Rivers of blood run through me
All this past feeds this present
And brings the truth into me
His story your search, his journey ours
Something rings true inside and strong
I Stand atop Piccadilly Tower and sing
I belong. I belong.
I the Mogadishan who knows troubled waters
I the Belfast man who knows troubled cities
I the Ethiopian who knows troubled lands
I the Serbian who crosses troubled seas
Who walked through darkened valleys
Under the shadows of death and bled
And who lay amongst the freshly killed
And in fear of tears played dead
Those who have cried cities sobbed roads
In the name of here and where they came from
Stand with children atop Bridgewater Hall
And sing I belong here I belong
I am the blackest blackest blackest man
The tongue twists the skin dark
I moved next door to the whitest poet
In John Cooper Clarke
I’m buried in the cemetery where Morrissey walked
In the earth from where grew stone roses
I am the seamstress for Manchester’s dream coat
I designed the clothes for Moses
I am the PSV, the sanctuary the kitchen
I am the reno red rhythm the bull ring’s blues
I am the dread in its red and for all that’s said
Wherever I go I am you
I grew in the villages of Lancashire
You stood on my horizon since birth
The reason I came from to Manchester
Is because it’s the greatest place on earth
I bring my past I bring my future
I bring my rights and I bring my song
I stand atop the Hacienda and shout
We belong Here. We belong.
Lemn Sissay was commissioned by Manchester Literature Festival to write this and another poem, ‘Open Up’, in response to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s era-defining I Have a Dream speech for a celebratory programme co-produced with Manchester Camerata.
This poem was written to be performed rather than to be read on the page, and was performed at Manchester Town Hall on Saturday 19 October 2013. Below is the Manchester Literature Festival’s film of the performance.
Lemn Sissay is a performer, a poet, a writer, a broadcaster, he has a smile that can light up a room, with words that can leave that room speechless. But his story, his history is not an easy read. It is one of a lost identity, of abuse, racism and dehumanisation. These life experiences were laid bare in a one-off show, ‘The Report’.
Landmark poetry – enigmatic performer Lemn Sissay unveiling and reading ‘Let there be Peace’ at the University of Huddersfield (from The Huddersfield Daily Examiner)
His experiences will always be a part of his story. The Lemn Sissay who we see today, inspiring and being inspired, is filled with passion – and he brings out the strength in others to stand atop of the Bridgewater Hall, the Hacienda and the University of Manchester, and to fight for the future that we deserve.
With many thanks to Lemn Sissay for his kind permission to reprint his poem ‘Belong’.
References and sources
Manchester Literature Festival
Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech (archives.gov)
The Huddersfield Daily Examiner
The University of Manchester
Title image © The University of Manchester