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'Sir Lenny Henry should keep his mouth shut'

‘BAD CARD’: Comedian Lenny Henry has sparked controversy

IT’S NOT every day that I say this, but Sir Lenny Henry should keep his mouth shut.

He should stay right out of the ‘Comic Relief white saviour’ debate if he’s got nothing constructive to say. So far, his only response has been to joke at a Comic Relief event that ‘David Lammy might say: “Screw you, white people!”’

Excuse me, Sir Lenny. First of all, it’s no laughing matter. Comic Relief is jokes, but when it comes to black people laughing their way back to colonialism, it is no laughing matter. There are certain things you don’t joke about, even if you are Lenny Henry.

You don’t joke about Black and White Minstrels. Which is what David Lammy was saying when he said, ‘Comic Relief’ needs to stop patronising black people.

Secondly, nowhere do I see the Tottenham MP saying ‘up yours white people’, ‘screw you white people’ or any other offensive comment about white people. Why would he do that? Just like Lenny, David Lammy married white. Just like Lenny, his children share white heritage.

And, just like Lenny, he’s not living in the past, where it was absolutely valid for the strong black men and women who had enough of enslavement on the plantation to say “screw you, white people, we ain’t gonna take this no more, we’re going to burn down your plantation”. That was the ultimate proverbial two fingers up to racism.

There was nothing wrong with that.

In my reflective moments, I like to think that I would have been the first of the enslaved Africans to rebel and to tear the place down with fire.

In reality, I don’t know many of us who would have been brave enough to do that. Well, actually, I do, but they are either Nation of Islam or proper bad man. And even if David Lammy might say, ‘Up yours, white people’, I’m not entirely sure he would have to apologise.

It’s all about context. It’s not like some white people (not least those in and with power) are refraining from saying “up yours, black people” every day without apology. Institutional racism is, is it not, a mickeytake, a comic relief for those with power, by those with power. Everybody knows that we don’t get treated right. And it ain’t right. And when we remind everybody of that, we get accused for not having a sense of humour and told that we need Comic Relief. Remember when Burning Spear was chanting out to all the black people AND the white people who bought his seminal album Marcus Garvey: “Do you remember the days of slavery?” I do not see anything incongruous with chiming to that while having to put your hand out to white people to give up some of their wealth by buying your album.

Indeed, I have been to gigs with Burning Spear (from that memorable gig at the Royal in Paris in 1980) where there were white people also singing “Do you remember the days of slavery?” Yes, because conscious white people get it, too.

Conscious white people know that they themselves should be saying “up yours, white people” in terms of the practices of the old days which have got us to where we are in this unjust and skewered world, built upon the backs of black people.

Indeed, it’s not an elephant that carries the planet on its back as in the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of books, but a black man, an enormous African, the guy who in the blues songs they called John Henry, the mythical black man who was stronger than 10,000 oxen: Well captain said to John Henry “What is that storm I hear?”

John Henry said, “That ain’t no storm captain That’s just my hammer in the air, Lord, Lord

Arguably, John Henry should have said, “screw you, white people”, too, as they begged him to carry the whole wide world on his back, but you get a warped picture of black people if you perpetuate the myth that we are all here standing saying “screw you, white people”, like we’ve got nothing better to do.

No. The reality is that most of us are saying, “let bygones be bygones, just don’t do that again”.


And, as far as I can tell, that is what David Lammy is saying when he says that Comic Relief represents the neo-colonialism of Africa by white do-gooders who need to stop, take stock, and see the impact of their white saviour complex on desperate children the world over, including here in Britain, where young black men and women are being shackled by the belief that we as black people are entirely reliant on white people to do for us and that we ain’t worth jack without white folks, because we cannot even take care of our own pickney without them.

And, let’s be real, it’s not just harming our younger people – it is harming a lot of older white people who truly believe that.

You see, Lenny Henry has undergone a road to Damascus conversion in recent times.

He reached a dramatic (yes, Shakespeare and all) turning point in his life where he woke up and realised he was being discriminated against as well.

That’s all good and well. I do not dismiss a man for waking up and smelling the coffee, and we should all draw a line on the past because (nowadays), as we all know, an Ethiopian can change the colour of his skin and a leopard can change its spots, but from the moment you get conscious, you can’t go back.

That’s what being ‘conscious’ means. And, whereas Lenny Henry could have backed David Lammy’s passion and serious argument or dismissed it in a serious way, the last thing you expected was him to act like “Oh, I’m just good old Sir Lenny from Dudley and I’m going to turn the whole thing into jokes”. That ain’t right, Lenny.

Do we in the black community not have the right to expect that those of us who the public listen to, those of us who have power and those of us who have influence, should come out and speak for those of us who don’t.

Particularly as when you didn’t have power, when your influence waned, when you were no longer on prime time and you reached that crossroads to Damascus, we backed you.

That’s why I’m calling on Lenny Henry to shut up. It’s not every day that I say that about anyone, but on this issue, my man, you have drawn “bad card”, as Bob Marley would say. And as Bob Marley asks over and over again: “So why you draw ‘bad card’?”

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