At home in the House: Lemn Sissay at TEDxHousesofParliament

At home in the House: Lemn Sissay at TEDxHousesofParliament

Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Lena Clemente Having spent 18 years
as a child of the state in children’s homes and foster care, you could say that I’m
an expert on the subject. And in being an expert, I want to let you know
that being an expert does in no way make it right
in light of the truth. If you’re in care, legally, the government
is your parent, “loco parentis.” Margaret Thatcher was my mother. (Laughter) Let’s not talk about breast feeding. (Laughter) This government is the mothership, “Hi, mum! I’m home!” Harry Potter was a foster child. Pip from “Great Expectations” was adopted. Superman was a foster child. Cinderella was a foster child. Lisbeth Salander,
the girl with a dragon tattoo, was fostered and institutionalized. Batman was orphaned. Lyra Belacqua…
– have I said Lyra Belacqua? – Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s
“Northern Lights” was fostered. Jane Eyre – adopted. Roald Dahl’s James
from “James and the Giant Peach,” Mathilda, Moses… – Moses! – (Laughter) Moses, the boys in Michael Morpurgo’s
“Friend or Foe,” Alem in Benjamin Zephaniah’s
“Refugee Boy,” Luke Skywalker – Luke Skywalker! – (Laughter) Oliver Twist, Cassia in “The Concubine
of Shanghai” by Hong Ying, Celie in Alice Walker’s
“The Color Purple,” all of these great fictional characters, all of them who were hurt
by their condition, all of them who spawned thousands
of other books and other films, all of them were fostered,
adopted, or orphaned. It seems that writers know that the child outside the family reflects on what family truly is, more than of what
it promotes itself to be. That is, they also use
extraordinary skills to deal with extraordinary situations
on a daily basis. How have we not made the connection and why have we not made the connection – How has that happened? – between these incredible characters
of popular culture, and religions, and the fostered, adopted,
or orphaned child in our midst? It’s not our pity that they need;
it’s our respect. I know famous musicians, I know actors, and film stars,
and millionaires, and novelists, and top lawyers,
and television executives, and magazine editors,
and national journalists, and dustbinmen, and hairdressers, all who were looked after children
fostered, adopted, or orphaned, and many of them grow
into their adult lives in fear that speaking of their background as if it may somehow weaken
their standing in the foreground, as if it were somehow Kryptonite, as if it were a time bomb
strapped on the inside. Children in care,
who’ve had a life in care, deserve the right to own and live
the memory of their own childhood. It is that simple. My own mother
– and I should say this here – she same to this country in the late ’60s, and she found herself pregnant,
as women did in the late ’60s. You know what I mean?
They found themselves pregnant. She had no idea of the context
in which she’d landed. In the 1960s – I should
give you some context – if you were pregnant,
a woman, and you were single, you were seen as a threat
to the community. You were separated
from your family, by the state. You were separated from your family
and placed into mother and baby homes. You were appointed a social worker. The adoptive parents were lined up. It was the primary purpose
of the social worker, the aim, to get the woman at her most
vulnerable time in her entire life to sign the adoption papers. So the adoption papers were signed. The mother and baby’s homes
were often run by nuns. The adoption papers were signed, the child was given
to the adoptive parents, and the mother shipped back
to her community to say that she’d been on a little break. A little break. A little break. The first secret of shame for a woman for being a woman; “a little break.” The adoption process took,
like, a matter of months, so it was a closed shop,
you know, sealed deal. “That’s all, then!”, job done; an industrious, utilitarian solution: the government, the farmer,
the adopting parents, the consumer, the mother, the earth,
and the child, the crop. It’s easy to patronize the past to forgo our responsibilities in the present. What happened then is a direct reflection
of what is happening now. Everybody believed themselves
to be doing the right thing by God, and by the state, for the big society,
fast-tracking adoption. So anyway, she comes here,
1967, she’s pregnant, and she comes from Ethiopia that was celebrating
its own jubilee at the time under the Emperor Haile Selassie, and she lands months before
the Enoch Powell speech, the “Rivers of Blood” speech. She lands months before the Beatles
release “The White Album,” months before
Martin Luther King was killed. It was a summer of love
if you were white. If you were black,
it was a summer of hate. So she goes from Oxford, she’s sent to the north of England
to a mother and baby home, and appointed a social worker. It’s her plan. I have to say this in the Houses… It’s her plan to have me fostered for
a short period of time while she studies. But the social worker
had a different agenda. He found the foster parents,
and he said to them, “Treat this as an adoption.
He’s yours forever. His name is Norman.” (Laughter) Norman! (Laughter) Norman! So they took me. I was a message, they said.
I was a sign from God, they said. I was Norman Mark Greenwood. For the next 11 years, all I know
is that this woman, this birth woman, should have her eyes scratched out
for not signing the adoption papers. She was an evil woman too selfish to sign, so I spent those 11 years
kneeling and praying. I tried praying. I swear I tried praying.
“God, can I have a bike for Christmas?” But I would always answer myself,
“Yes, of course you can.” (Laughter) And then I was supposed to determine whether that was the voice of God
or it was the voice of the Devil. And it turns out I’ve got
the Devil inside of me. Who knew? (Laughter) So anyway, two years sort of passed,
and they had a child of their own, and then another two years passed,
and they had another child of their own, and then another time passed and they had another child
that they called an accident, which I thought was an unusual name. (Laughter) I was on the cusp of adolescence, so I was starting to take biscuits
from the tin without asking. I was starting to stay out
a little bit late, etc., etc. In their religiosity, in their naivety,
my mom and dad, which I believed them to be forever,
as they said they were, conceived that I had
the Devil inside of me. I should say this here, because this is
how they engineered my leaving. They sat me at a table,
my foster mom, and she said to me, “You don’t love us, do you?” At 11 years old. They’ve had three other children. I’m
the fourth. The third was an accident. And I said, “Yeah, of course I do.” – because you do – My foster mother asked me to go away
to think about love, and what it is, and to read the Scriptures
and to come back tomorrow and give my most honest
and truthful answer. So this was an opportunity. If they were asking me
whether I loved them or not, then I mustn’t love them, which led me to the miracle of thought
that I thought they wanted me to get to, “I will ask God for forgiveness, and His light will shine
through me to them.” How fantastic. This was an opportunity. The theology was perfect,
the timing unquestionable, and the answer as honest
as a sinner could get. “I mustn’t love you,” I said to them.
“But I will ask God for forgiveness.” “Because you don’t love us, Norman,
clearly you’ve chosen your path.” Twenty-four hours later, my social worker, this strange man who used to visit me
every couple of months, is waiting for me in the car
as I say goodbye to my parents. I didn’t say goodbye to anybody,
not my mother, my father, my sisters, my brothers,
my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, nobody. On the way to the children’s home,
I started to ask myself, “What’s happened to me?” It’s not that I’d had the rug
pulled from beneath me as much as the entire floor
had been taken away. When I got to the… For the next four, five years, I was held in four different
children’s homes. On the third children’s home, at 15,
I started to rebel, and what I did was, I got three tins of paint,
Airfix paint that you use for models, – it was a big children’s home,
big Victorian children’s home – and I was in a little turret
at the top of it, and I poured them, red, yellow, and green, the colors of Africa, down the tiles. You couldn’t see it from the street, because the home
was surrounded by beech trees. For doing this, I was incarcerated for a year
in an assessment center which was actually a remand center. It was a virtual prison for young people. By the way, years later,
my social worker said that I should never have
been put in there. I wasn’t charged for anything.
I hadn’t done anything wrong. But because I had no family
to inquire about me, they could do anything to me. I’m 17 years old,
and I’m in a virtual prison. They had a padded cell. They would march me
down corridors in last-size order. I was put in a dormitory
with a confirmed Nazi sympathizer. All of the staff were ex-police
– interesting – and ex-probation officers. The man who ran it
was an ex-army officer. Every time I had a visit
by a person who I did not know who would feed me grapes,
once every three months, I was strip-searched. That home was full of young boys who were
on remand for things like murder. And this was the preparation
that I was being given after 17 years as a child of the state. I have to tell this story. I have to tell it, because there was
no one to put two and two together. I slowly became aware that I knew nobody
that knew me for longer than a year. See, that’s what family does.
It gives you reference points. I’m not defining a good family
from a bad family. I’m just saying that you know
when your birthday is by virtue of the fact that somebody
tells you when your birthday is, a mother, a father, a sister,
brother, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, a grandparent. It matters to someone,
and therefore, it matters to you. Understand, I was 14 years old,
tattooing myself into myself, and I wasn’t touched either,
physically touched. I’m reporting back. I’m reporting back simply to say when I left the children’s home,
I had two things that I wanted to do: one was to find my family,
and the other was to write poetry. In creativity. I saw light. In the imagination. I saw
the endless possibility of life, the endless truth,
the permanent creation of reality, the place where anger was
an expression in the search for love, a place where dysfunction
is a true reaction to untruth. I’ve just got to say it to you all: I found all of my family in my adult life. I spent all of my adult life finding them, and I’ve now got a fully dysfunctional
family just like everybody else. (Laughter) But I’m reporting back
to you to say quite simply that you can define
how strong a democracy is by how its government treats its child. I don’t mean children.
I mean the child of the state. Thanks very much. It’s been an honor. (Applause)

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

8 thoughts on “At home in the House: Lemn Sissay at TEDxHousesofParliament

  1. Another reason why I hate it when old people say "The good old days". What when shit like this happened to kids and pregnant single women being forced to go away for "little breaks"? Yeah, great days.

  2. Ayeee… my ethiopian brother, you made me tear up when you said "what's happened to me?". Ayzoh! I saw the video where you found you sister and family, and it is clear you got the  kindness and class you exhibit  from them. What a truly generous man you are for forgiving us, the world, and gifting us with poetry. 

  3. I wonder what his "adoptive parents" have to say for themselves. What awful people, does anyone have any article/video link where I can find this info?

  4. Jah and Jahnes love brother. Thanks a lot for sharing your story. You are such a great writer, poet, storyteller, and performer. Blessed love.

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