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An Interview with Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay talks about Martin Luther King at the launch of 'The Mighty Stream'

The event hosted by NCLA on Saturday November 11th saw Scots Makar Jackie Kay introducing the new anthology she co-edited with Carolyn Forché, The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King (Bloodaxe Books, 2017). The collection of poems focusses on Martin Luther King and his fight against ‘the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war’. The event celebrated King’s beliefs and the honorary doctorate he received from Newcastle University exactly fifty years ago in 1967. Kay explains more in depth how King became part of her life, and what impact she hopes the anthology will have, especially on younger generations. 

How did you first have contact with the philosophy of MLK?

I grew up in a very political household, so my family admired Martin Luther King’s beliefs, would read them and talk about them, and talk about Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis. We went on anti-apartheid marches and CND marches, so Martin Luther King was almost like part of our family. When he said ‘sit down at your table’, we sat down at our table. He expected that one day we would manage to overcome racism, and I really felt part of the American Civil Rights movement. In particular, there were not many black people around growing up in Scotland, so I identified myself with African-Americans and South Africans and all their struggles. I did not believe one day people would actually sit at the table and talk about the issue of racism so openly as they did. In those moments, Martin Luther King gave me hope.

Is the anthology a way to thank him? 

It is indeed. It is a way of honoring his legacy, of honoring his honor, especially since Newcastle was the only University giving him a doctorate honoris causa, and he accepted it on behalf of everybody who ever fought against racism. It feels like this anthology says thank you to him and those who fought alongside him against racism. He guided a movement of people, he was not alone. In fact, he did not like that the focus was too much on him, so it is appropriate that in the anthology all these poets’ voices collaborate from different races and ages, and from both sides of the Atlantic. Now with Brexit and all that is happening in these particular times we need Martin Luther King more than ever. By putting the poems in chronological order, you do go on a journey, it is interesting to see the differences in tone, style, language in the poets really early on in the anthology to those at the end. In this way you get a progression, a development.

Do you think projects like this anthology could help bring Martin Luther King back to younger audiences who, because of the change in times, may not feel his ideals as strongly as once people did?

Yes, that is the hope. For me, Martin Luther King has never gone away, and his voice resonates through our times. The astonishing speech he made here in Newcastle is relevant today as it was then. There is still terrible racism still existing in the world, terrible poverty and war, and so the three things he talked about in that speech, racism, poverty and war are still very much alive and kicking in our world. You wouldn’t have movements like Black Lives Matter if you did not have voices that have been marginalized all over the place. This happens particularly in the States, but we live in a time where there are lots of attacks on people in this country, this fear of differences and of others. I do think our times are regressed, and because our times have gone back in a shocking way, then Martin Luther King’s voice is ever more relevant. I hope young people will get a chance to read this book, be inspired by it, and actually think that together we can make a difference. 

The launch of The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King, can viewed in full here

Fred D'Aguiar, Sarah Howe, Imtiaz Dharker, Jackie Kay, Major Jackson

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