The other day, the following image appeared in my Facebook feed.
The poem was not written by a child and I sincerely doubt that the author won a prize in 2005—he died in 2001.
You see, the poem is a very poor translation of a work by Léopold Sédar Senghor.
Cher frère blanc,
Quand je suis né, j’étais noir,
Quand j’ai grandi, j’étais noir,
Quand je suis au soleil, je suis noir,
Quand je suis malade, je suis noir,
Quand je mourrai, je serai noir.
Tandis que toi, homme blanc,
Quand tu es né, tu étais rose,
Quand tu as grandi, tu étais blanc,
Quand tu vas au soleil, tu es rouge,
Quand tu as froid, tu es bleu,
Quand tu as peur, tu es vert,
Quand tu es malade, tu es jaune,
Quand tu mourras, tu seras gris.
Alors, de nous deux,
Qui est l’homme de couleur ?
The translation is poor, not because the words are wrong; the tone is all wrong.
What I cannot grasp is why someone took the time to deliberately misrepresent the poem’s origins. Why in the world would someone think it’s a good idea to
- Steal Senghor’s poem
- Translate it feebly
- Pretend that a child wrote it, and
- Pretend that it won an award in 2005, 4 years after Senghor’s death.
The more I think about this, the angrier I become. Here in 2016, some anonymous person has the gall to colonize African poetry. Not just take it over, but to destroy any trace of authorship. To trivialize and marginalize the work of a significant figure in 20th century African art and politics. To insult a mature work by ascribing it to a child. To spread it far and wide in its trivialized form, pushing its author further and further into oblivion.
I cannot grasp the motivation behind such an act.
But let me tell you a bit about Senghor. Perhaps breathe some life back into the memory of this great man.
Léopold Sédar Senghor (born Oct. 9, 1906, Joal, Senegal, French West Africa [now in Senegal]—died Dec. 20, 2001, Verson, France) was initially educated in a Roman Catholic school, with an eye to the seminary. At age 20, he had a change of heart and moved to Dakar and registered in the Lycée. A scholarship made it possible for Senghor to go to Paris in 1928, to study at Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the Sorbonne. After teaching French, he became professor of African languages and civilization at the École Nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer. As a soldier during the Second World War, he was captured and spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp. He wrote some fine poems during this time. He later joined the Resistance in France.
In 1946 he became one of Senegal’s two deputies to the National Assembly in Paris. In 1948 he was elected for the first time, and began a long and productive political career. After sitting as president (after a failed coup) in 1962, Senghor was elected president in 1963. He remained president until his retirement in 1980, becoming the first African president to leave office voluntarily.
Artistically, Senghor was one of the founders of Negritude in the 1930s and 1940s, a movement dedicated to the artistic expression of the black African experience.
I searched for videos of Senghor, his politics or his writing that were in English, or at least had English subtitles. There is very little on Youtube. Here is a reading of his beautiful “Femme Noir” with interlinear English translation.
Here’s a bit more biography.