African American Beauty

Black Beauty

199 years old today Anna Sewell is the famous author of Black Beauty, one of the ten best selling childrens novels ever written.  Born to a Quaker family in 1820 in Norfolk in England.

In 1807 the UK parliament passed the Slave Trade Act which banned slave trade but not slave ownership.  In 1833 the UK parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which banned slavery in the British Empire.  Sewell lived to see the emancipation proclamation in the USA in 1863.  She also lived long enough to see the Jim Crow laws passed in the USA ushereing in an age of apartheid to replace the age of slavery.

As a child growing up in Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s I was oblivious to the problems with the word “Black”.  In that Ireland we did not have black people.  Irish people left this island for opportunity abroad, nobody came here.

Besides, in the Irish language the black man “An Fear Dubh” is a nickname for the Devil.  People with black skin were called Fir Goirme (Blue men).

Over time we have seen people struggle with how to address the issue of skin colour.  The word Negro has fallen out of fashion, and yet the “N” word is used prolifically in Hip-Hop culture when people of colour refer to each other.  It is only banned in the mouths of whites.

People of colour.  African-american.  Black african.  They are all terms with issues.  I heard a white American refer to a Black British work colleague as “African-American” and the British guy laughed when he heard.  He said “I’m neither African nor American mate, I come from Birmingham”.

British black people, who were emancipated in the 19th century, appear to have fewer hangups than Americans.  Ditto for the French black population.  As far back as WW1 American Negroes who wanted to fight had to enlist with Canadian or French regiments.  Those who enlisted with the French were astounded when they were treated as equals.

Black americans have never been treated as equals and quite rightly struggle with the word black.  Black carries many negative connotations in the English language. Gloomy, dirty, angry, evil and wicked are all meanings of black.  White by contrast represents purity, cleanliness, goodness, honesty, all the good stuff.

So the word black has developed many deep and symbolic meanings.  Black power.  Black lives matter.  Black and proud.  Blacksploitation.

I suspect if Anna Sewell wrote her book today the publisher might toy with the title.  After all there is no “official” colour for horses that is black.  A black horse is usually either a Grey or a Bay or even a very dark Chestnut.  After all, look at the problems caused by the name of a dog in the Dam Busters movie.  It has caused huge difficulties with a remake.  It raises the important question: “Do we change historical facts to assuage modern PC sensibilities?”  The danger is that we begin to rewrite history to suit modern attitudes, and that leads us to a 1984 dystpoia of alternative facts and post-truth.

 

 

Perils of online translators

I am linking to this brilliant article which highlights in detail how translation does not work if you don’t know both languages.

Gorm chónaí ábhar

In short the translator plugged the American phrase “Blue Lives Matter” into an English/Irish dictionary and came up with the phrase above which translates as something like “Substance they live blue”.

It is incredible that in translating just 3 words the translation got all 3 wrong.

The beautiful irony of it is this.  Had the translation actually worked, if the policeman had rendered “Blue Lives Matter” into English he would still have tripped over his own cleverness.  Fear gorm in Irish, literally blue man, is a term we use to describe black people.  The words for black man (fear dubh) refer to the devil.  So he would have been going around wearing a #BlackLivesMatter shirt.

As bad translations go though, you just can’t beat this one where a guy got a tattoo on his back of the first sentence every Irish child learns in our native language.  Any Irish language speaker, even those you have no more than a dozen words, can translate this.  It says “May I have permission to go to the toilet”.

Leithras

 

Happy Birthday Claude McKay

Mackey

A Jamaican poet who came to the USA to be educated, McKay was horrified by the racism prevalent in the United States.  He became one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and his work is passionately pro-negro, anti-racist and yet a man of contradictions.

Early in his life he embraced atheism and communism, possibly courted by the potential for the equality of his race in the new order sweeping the world.  Ultimately he became disillusioned with communism and became a critic.  In his later years he became a Roman Catholic.

He was also appalled by the presentation of negroes as a hypersexual threat in Europe.  He denounced racist articles in the British Press in 1920.  European avant-garde  art at the time had a fascination with African primitive art and representations of fertility and sexuality.  Picasso famously incorporated African masks in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in 1907. McKay himself posed for André Lhote and later wrote about the experience in terms of the relationship of the European white supremacist and the oppressed Afro-Caribbean.  Yet when he wrote of the Harlem Renaissance he was criticized by his contemporaries for reinforcing racial stereotypes by depicting the culture of drugs, alcohol, sexuality and prostitution in the dark underbelly of the movement.

What is clear from his body of work is that he was a passionate and motivated campaigner for the rights of black people.  He promoted “Black Lives Matter” long before most black people were socially or politically aware.

In 1977 the Jamaican Government named McKay as the national poet.

Enslaved: by Claude McKay

Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,
For weary centuries despised, oppressed,
Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place
In the great life line of the Christian West;
And in the Black Land disinherited,
Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,
My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,
For this my race that has no home on earth.
Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry
To the avenging angel to consume
The white man’s world of wonders utterly:
Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb,
Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke
To liberate my people from its yoke!

 

Happy Birthday Countee Cullen

countee-cullens-quotes-2

African Americans had a brief flowering of liberty and creativity in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War in the USA.  This was brought to a sharp end by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of the Jim Crow laws.

In the 1920’s there was a cultural, social and literary flowering of creativity by the grandchildren of the reconstruction era negroes.  Known at the time as the New Negro Movement it is now called the Harlem Renaissance.  Countee Cullen was one of the leading lights of this movement.

This poem is interesing to me because it is so evocative of the WB Yeats “He Wishes for the cloths of heaven”.  While Yeats wrote of the lovers angst Cullen’s poem speaks of discrimination and racism.  Here we are today 100 years on from the Harlem Renaissance and it seems that the struggle for equality for African Americans has seen little advance.  Despite the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X the USA still appears to be dangerous ground on which to be a black person.

For a Poet; by Countee Cullen

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found the earth’s breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.