Culture TEDx

Growing up a child of the state: Lemn Sissay tells much more of his story

Harry Potter, Pip of Great Expectations, Superman, Cinderella, Lisbeth Salander, Batman, Jane Eyre, Matilda, Moses, Luke Skywalker, Oliver Twist, Celie of The Color Purple.

As Lemn Sissay points out in this powerful talk from TEDxHousesofParliament, literature and popular culture is rife with characters who grew up without their biological parents.

“Writers seem to know that the child outside of family reflects on what family truly is,” says Sissay. “How have we not made the connection between these incredible characters of literature and religions, and the fostered, adopted or orphaned child in our midst? It’s not our pity that they need. It’s our respect … Children who’ve had a life in care deserve the right to own and live the memory of their own childhood.”

Sissay spent 18 years as a child of the state. “Margaret Thatcher was my mother,” he says, beginning his story.

His biological mother had traveled to from Ethiopia to England in the late 1960s and — because she was pregnant and single — was pushed to put her baby up for adoption. Thus, Sissay began his life as “Norman Mark Greenwood,” the foster son of white parents. At age 11, after they had three children of their own, his foster parents released him into the system. He traveled through children’s homes and was eventually incarcerated — simply because he didn’t have parents to advocate for him.

As Sissay says in this passionate talk, the real tragedy of his story is that, “Everybody believed themselves to be doing the right thing by God and by the state for the best of society.”

To hear Sissay’s incredible story, watch his talk. Below, videos, poems and essays that give more information about his upbringing.

Sissay — a playwright and broadcaster in the UK who was the official poet of the 2012 Olympic Games — first began telling his story in 1995, in the BBC documentary Internal Flight. In it, he charts his search for his father, and also talks to social workers and friends who had contact with his mom when she made the decision to send him into foster care.

“I am in transit, the internal cargo of a mother, searching for a father for even ground,” Sissay says in the opening of the piece. Below, watch it in three parts.

In 2006, Sissay wrote an essay for BBC News digging into another angle of his childhood experience — being an Ethiopian child raised by white parents in a racially tense London. He writes:

“When somebody takes a child from their native culture, that is in itself an act of aggression. People will often say, love is all you need. But that is not true. Love without understanding is a dangerous thing …

I had seen black people in the street or maybe even said hello but until I was 17 years old I never actually knew another black person. From this I picked up subconscious messages of a kind of lazy racism living in the north of England.

My life was a bit like being an experiment. I didn’t have an afro comb until I was nine years old. My mother used to comb my hair with a metal comb that tore my head. When I was about nine, my parents took me to the doctor because they couldn’t understand why my knees were grey …

I met my proper mum when I was 21. It took me three years to find her. By that stage she worked for the UN in the Gambia. I travelled out to see her. It was difficult because I looked just like my father had the last time she saw him.

My real mother is a survivor, very strong and respected by the people who know her, but our relationship is not easy.”

And of course, Sissay has also told his story in poetry form. Below, Sissay he performs “What If.”

As Sissay concludes his TEDTalk, after spending much of his adult life searching for his biological mother and father, “I’ve not got a fully dysfunctional family just like everybody else. I’m reporting back to you to say quite simply that you can define how strong a democracy is by how its governments treats its children of the state.”