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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 17:48 GMT
Black poet spurns OBE
Benjamin Zephaniah
Zephaniah mocked OBE recipients
A black poet has rejected the offer of an OBE because he claims it stands for colonial brutality and slavery.

Benjamin Zephaniah said the honour's title, Order of the British Empire, gives an impression of white supremacy.

He said he would consider accepting the award on behalf of the millions of people who opposed the war in Iraq, but that he did not write for awards.

Footballer David Beckham is among those who will be collecting honours from the Queen at Buckingham Palace on Thursday.

But Zephaniah told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I have been fighting against the legacy of empire all my life... Anybody who has thought of giving me this OBE can't have read my work."

"It's partly the protest against this government, but to be honest if there wasn't this war happening I still wouldn't accept this OBE from the Queen," the poet said.

The honours go to the wrong people
Tony Wright MP

"It does not mean anything to me. I do not write poems to win awards or to get OBEs or laureateships. I write for people. I write to connect with myself and to connect with people.

"My accepting an award is not going to change the system," Zephaniah added.

'Awards killing black poetry'

He said he would have preferred to be offered an award for his work in animal rights or his "struggle against racism".

In his poem Bought and Sold, Zephaniah said writers who accepted an OBE or became Poet Laureate were compromised.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono
John Lennon returned his MBE four years after receiving it

The poem says: "Smart big awards and prize money is killing off black poetry."

He joins film director Ken Loach who also turned the honour down, although he did so discreetly.

Most public figures do keep their rejection of honours a private matter.

But actor Paul Scofield recently told how he had twice turned down a knighthood - saying "I honestly prefer to be Mr".

Late Beatles star John Lennon was perhaps the highest profile figure to reject an honour because of political motives.

He returned his MBE four years after accepting it in 1965.

Beckham award

In a note accompanying the gong, he wrote: "Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With love. John Lennon of Bag."

Last week, a government review of the honours system revealed ministers are considering changes after complaints that too few women and people from ethnic minorities get gongs.

But the England football captain, David Beckham, is due to attend the ceremony, accompanied by his wife Victoria.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "As captain of the England team, David Beckham has performed with great distinction and has been a great ambassador for the country on and off the field."

Benjamin Zephaniah
"I've been fighting against this Empire all my life"


Royal roll call
Roger Moore, David Beckham and Jamie Oliver are honoured by the Queen.


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