Jackie Kay: From Sambo to Makar

©cc by 2.0 University of Salford Press Office

Earlier this year, Jackie Kay was chosen to be the new Makar, Scotland’s national poet. Happens every three years, no big deal, were it not for the fact that Kay is partly of Nigerian descent and not a ginger with a kilt, as you may have imagined.

Kay’s poems often deal with identity and belonging. The child of a Scottish nurse and a Nigerian student, she was adopted shortly after birth by a couple from Glasgow. The search for her biological parents was chronicled in her book Red Dust Road, published in 2010.

Jackie Kay Poet
©cc by-nc 2.0 First Minister of Scotland

Growing up mixed race in the little town of Bishopbriggs, just north of Glasgow, wasn’t that easy at the time. As British newspaper The Guardian put it when they profiled her: “Multiculturalism in 1960s Scotland was having a lad called Luigi in your class at school.”

But Kay wasn’t one to let racists have their way. In The Adoption Papers (1991) she describes her reaction with typical Scottish pep:

I chase his Sambo Sambo all the way from the school gate.
A fistful of anorak – What did you call me? Say that again.
Sam-bo. He plays the word like a bouncing ball
but his eyes move fast as ping pong.
I shove him up against the wall,
say that again you wee shite. Sambo, sambo, he’s crying now.

Though she was curious to meet her biological parents, Kay had a happy youth, which motivated her even more to write down her tale. As she herself put it:

“There weren’t many positive stories about adoption when I was growing up. You just saw negative stories. I wanted to write a positive story. I wrote the poems that I wanted to read.”

The work of Jackie Kay is generally praised for being very accessible. Having a relaxing day? Sit back and try one of the many books by this interesting tough-skinned Scotswoman.

Cover image of Jackie Kay at her installation as Chancellor Professor at Salford University ©cc by 2.0 University of Salford Press Office


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