The Quiet and Individual Revolution: Dean Atta’s “I Am Nobody’s Nigger”

Book review: Atta, Dean. I Am Nobody’s Nigger. Westbourne Press, 2013. 95 Pages.


”There are people doing it all over the place [rebelling]. I don’t know about people rappelling down buildings and getting tear gassed and stuff, but, erm… The people I know who are rebelling meaningfully, you know, they don’t buy a lot of stuff, and don’t get their view of the world from television, and are willing to spend 4-5 hours researching an election rather than going by commercials. The thing about it is that in America we think about rebellion as this very sexy thing and that it involves action and force – my guess is that the forms of rebellion that will end up changing anything meaningfully here will be very quiet and very individual, and probably not all that interesting to look at from the outside. I’m now hoping for less interesting rather than more interesting.” – David Foster Wallace


A call to a rather ‘quiet rebellion’ may not be what you would expect from a poetry book that bears the title I Am Nobody’s Nigger – at least, I know that I wasn’t. Indeed, as I first lay eyes on Dean Atta’s collection from 2013, I immediately began preparing a defence speech. And yeah, that’s not the bravest thing I’ve thought this week, but so, I guess, works the mind of a 21st century Twitter hack, and I thought that you, Dean (& and everyone else who reads this), deserved to know that before I say anything more about your book (and about what a genuine joy it is to read it).

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I Am Nobody’s Nigger is, above all, about love. Dean Atta’s rebellion is one that is governed by conscious and independent thought, as well as an awareness of how our actions affect other people. He isn’t going to climb any building, he isn’t going to attack a police car, and he isn’t going to occupy Parliament Square. This is what Atta is going to do: he’s going to remind you to call your grandparents. He is going to remind you that you, as well as everyone you know, are flawed people who demand to love and to be loved. And he’s going to remind you that a revolution where people get hurt isn’t worth a thing. The most important rebellion, to Atta, is one that takes place in the mind – it is, in the words of David Foster Wallace, to not get your views from the TV, to think for yourself.

In one of his collection’s best poems — ”Smash and Grab” — Atta describes the London riots of 2011. Over the course of five very hot late summer days, large parts of the British metropolis was turned into a battle zone: thousands of people fought police, looted shops and set cars and buildings on fire. It’s as close as London in the 21st century has ever come to real, serious turmoil, but as an ‘event’ (in terms of its motivation and the way it unfolded) it remains, until this day, largely unexplained. Having been in Cyprus at the time, Atta only witnessed the riots through Greek news footage. What he saw was a disaffected youth that seemed suddenly to have realised that there is power in unity. Unfortunately, the poet laments, they seemed not to know what they were uniting against.

”Then further news stories of Syria and Somalia
Make Londoners look like spoilt children
‘What do we want?’ ‘Everything!’
‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now!’
We have raised these children. We can’t just blame
The parents, social media, the police or the politicians
In a way, I was glad to see our young people realised
Their power that hot night, even if only in destruction”

Atta, certainly, isn’t uncritical of his government (the poem ”Revolution”, to name but one, describes his feelings towards a country in which so many are left behind), but he implies more than once in this collection that we, as human beings — as fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters – must recognize that responsibility starts with ourselves. Poverty and homelessness? Yes, Atta sees it everywhere. Social strife and alienation and public services that can’t meet demands? Yes, he sees that, too. But he also sees great distances between ourselves, between us and the people we are supposed to keep close. He sees the breakdown of family values, he sees an increasingly atomised youth, and he sees people who seem to have forgotten what they’re fighting against. The poem ”Mr Invicible” stands out as an example of what happens when we forget our responsibility toward each other – when we forget those who need our love the most. It also stands out as a vision of where we end up if our preferred mode of rebellion is headless force and action.

”To survive in this world, this world of greed
That what I’m doing, surviving; you can’t call this living

I have tried to change but of my past you are unforgiving
I’m what you all call delinquent, disaffected

All your norms and values I’ve rejected
Where are these doors of opportunity?

Opportunity? For you, maybe, not for me
I see all them doors are held shut from behind

But I don’t mind, nah I don’t mindfulness
Because I’m Mr Invincible, Mr Unstoppable

Mr Dead before my time but at least I died beautiful”

By showing us that some fights aren’t worth fighting (the London riots, for example), but at the same time illuminating the plight of the many who suffer in cities around the world, and who indeed see no other form of resistance than violence, Atta puts the question before us, again and again: Are we a people that take care of each other?

It is here, with this question, that Atta’s private resistance seems to begin. In a time of increased political austerity (although, to be fair, the Prime Minister has yet to answer Jeremy Corbyn’s question about next year’s tax credit cuts), it’s a question that’s as relevant today as it was upon this book’s release, two years ago.

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In terms of technical execution, it’s impossible not to mention the sense of musicality that imbues Atta’s poetry. There’s a clearly discernible beat to almost every poem – most of them practically demand to be spoken or sung. Poetry doesn’t flow any faster than this – indeed, I almost never stop reading, the pages just keep turning themselves. But why tell when I can just show you? Do take a look at the video below.

As readable, however, as this book may be, it is, perhaps, the rhyme-based verse in this collection that reveal the only weakness in Atta’s poetry. The rhymes and the musical flow sometimes seem to come only at the expense of platitudes (“Isms and schisms of my Babylon home/Have held this king back from his throne”). That said, Atta is deeply conscious of what he sees as his own limitations as a poet, and also about what it is possible to achieve through verse. In the poem ”Paper Cuts”, he writes:

”I write to leave a legacy but I am no myth
And I rarely write with any idea in mind
Of how my words will change the world
But I like to think they will”

About one thing there is no doubt: in this genuine, honest effort to share his life and his world view with other human beings, Atta has created a book of poetry that is meaningful. To read I Am Nobody’s Nigger is to get a small, brief glimpse of what it is like to be Dean Atta. It’s not all politics, and it’s not all meant to be read as analysis or as social criticism. Some of it is just fun, some of it is sentimental, some of it is nostalgic — and ultimately, it never pretends to be anything but the experiences of one young man. This book, these poems – this is the world through his eyes.

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