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People Are Remembering Benjamin Zephaniah's Reasons For Rejecting OBE As They Reflect On His Legacy

Benjamin Zephaniah pictured in 2021
Benjamin Zephaniah pictured in 2021

Benjamin Zephaniah pictured in 2021

The world of British literature is in mourning following the news that writer Benjamin Zephaniah has died at the age of 65.

On Thursday morning, the poet, author and Peaky Blinders actor’s family shared the news of his death in a statement, which read: “It is with great sadness and regret that we announce the death of our beloved husband, son and brother in the early hours of this morning. Benjamin was diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago.

“Benjamin’s wife was by his side throughout and was with him when he passed. We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news.”

“Benjamin was a true pioneer and innovator, he gave the world so much,” the statement continued. “Through an amazing career including a huge body of poems, literature, music, television and radio, Benjamin leaves us with a joyful and fantastic legacy.

“Thank you for the love you have shown Professor Benjamin Zephaniah.”

Since the news broke on Thursday morning, fans of Benjamin’s have been celebrating his life and achievements, as well as reflecting on his legacy.

Many have also been remembering his quotes about turning down the offer to be made an OBE two decades ago.

Benjamin first wrote in The Guardian back in 2003: “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. 

“I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.

“It is because of this concept of empire that my British education led me to believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our caring white masters. It is because of this idea of empire that black people like myself don’t even know our true names or our true historical culture.

“Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen,” he added. “I am profoundly anti-empire.”

The late poet repeated this belief during an interview on The Big Narstie Show in 2020.

He explained at the time: “The OBE means ‘order of the British empire’. MBE is ‘member of the British empire’. I’ve been fighting against ‘empire’ all my life. I’ve been fighting against slavery and colonialism all my life.

“I’ve been writing to connect with people, not to impress governments and the monarchy. So, how can I then go and accept an honour that puts the word ‘empire’ onto my name? That would be hypocritical.”

Both of these quotes are among those that are being shared by his fans on social media in the wake of his death:

Benjamin Zephaniah published his first work of poetry, Pen Rhythm, in 1980.

Over the years, he received the BBC’s Young Playwright’s Award, as well as honorary doctorates from a number of prestigious universities.

As well as his written works, Benjamin was also a musician and actor, most recently playing in a string of episodes of the BBC drama Peaky Blinders.