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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Of Little Brown Girls and Babies Wif Spa'klin' Eyes...

A CM education is a feast with a variety of dishes.  Folk Music is of the folk, the people. People all over the world have their own music and song, and work songs are an important part of that. Amerians sang songs about working on the railroad. Black Amerians held in slavery sang as they worked. Whalers and seamen around the world sang songs as they worked.  They sang because it helped to make their workload lighter, to keep rhythm while they worked. It made them stronger. They sang about the things they knew, and the work they were doing. So some work songs are about railroads and homesteading. Some are about the sea or catching whales or other fish. Some are about cotton. Some are about bananas. Or oats, beans, and barley. 

 It does not respect a people to flatten their own songs by removing elements that made the songs their own in the first place, or by pretending those songs do not even exist.  It does not respect our children or  improve the feast to try to make the feast more bland by removing references to those elements that combine to make unique combinations of spices and flavours of the world.

It's interesting - and concerning- to me that often white people who think they are helping, who have good intentions do not realize how much they are actually white washing the curriculum when they take it for granted that it's fine to sing a song about oats, peas, an barley, but get nervous when we sing about picking bananas.

In the song Sally Gardens, there's a reference to the snow white hands and feet of the poet's true love, and not a single person has ever contacted me and objected to it.  However, several people (all of them white) have expressed serious concerns and even unpleasant accusations about singing Brown Girl in the Ring, a folk song and game still sung and played by school children all over the Caribbean islands. Those school children do not 'happen' to be brown- they are brown because that is the culture and history of their countries. It's an integral part of who they are and they cherish their heritage.  In the admirable desire to be inclusive, many people are instead being exclusive, never realizing their version of inclusive ends up being deliberately western and exclusively white.

People have many different ways of communicating.  Specific cultures will have specific forms of communication- accents, topics, greetings, styles are all part of communication. Their communication reflects the style, culture, and even values of those people.  In one country which values efficiency and respect for other people's time, it's the cultural norm to speak quickly, to get to business quickly, to get into a taxi and immediately state your destination.  In another culture that values personal connections and and relationships over efficiency, it's the cultural norm to to speak slowly, take time to get to know each other, and to get into your taxi and politely greet the driver and ask him how he's doing, and he will ask if the person with your is a friend or relation, and after a minute or two, then you can say where you wish to go. And I refer to that driver as 'him' because in that culture I am thinking of, the driver always is 'him.'  In one culture we say yall, and all yall for second person singular and second person plural. In another it might be you'ns, or you guys.  Some of us might say over yonder, and some say over there.  Some cultures typically drop the ending consonants in words like and, or 'ing endings. Some have stories of bogey men or boogeymen, or the squitchicum squees what swallers 'emselves. 

These are not representations of the general intelligence of any of those cultures. It's an attempt to convey with versimilitude the way a specific group of people communicate. We can respect them, and their dialects by acknowledging and even celebrating them in poems and song, not by erasing them. 

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes, Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee. ... 

Paul Laurence Dunbar memorializes a version of black dialect, often from the days of slavery, spoken by his parents when he was a child. He neither mocked nor pandered. He shared from a place of warmth, respect, and love. in later years he wished he had shared less because he felt he ended up being pigeonholed as a dialect writer, and he wasn't. But he was not ashamed of the accents of the generation who preceeded him or the people who spoke it. It was passing by, becoming a thing of the past, or changing, and he and other black writers of the time wanted to memorialize it, honoring their parents and grandparents who had fought so hard that their children could be free.

 Dey is times in life when Nature 
Seems to slip a cog an' go, 
Jes' a-rattlin' down creation,
 Lak an ocean's overflow; 
When de worl' jes' stahts a-spinnin' 
Lak a picaninny's top,  [If I were reading this aloud, I'd say a little boy's top]
An' yo' cup o' joy is brimmin' 
'Twell it seems about to slop, 
An' you feel jes' lak a racah, 
Dat is trainin' fu' to trot— 
When yo' mammy says de blessin' 
An' de co'n pone's hot.  

Dunbar had known hunger. He had know what it is to skip a meal or not know where your next meal will come from or what it will be. Like many other gifted writers who have known hunger in childhood, when he writes about food- well, his imagination runs away with him.  Think of Laura Ingalls Wilder's descriptions of foods and feasts, especially the foods from Farmer Boy.  She, too, had know hunger, even more severely than Dunbar had. She had been through not just poverty, but famine, and when she describes food it's the wishful dreams of the little Laura with no food in her belly, eating a scant, soupy wheat porridge from grains ground by hand in a coffeeg grinder, measured out with care.
Read this right and you can smell and see the steaming corn pone, hopefully accompanied with butter speedily melting down the sides, glistening the lantern light, filling your senses with a sense of warmth and well being. 


Granny’s come to our house,
    And ho! my lawzy-daisy!
All the childern round the place
    Is ist a-runnin’ crazy!

James Whitcomb Riley represented with affection and humour, the Scots-English, hill people dialect of the country people of northern Kentucky and southern Indiana.  I still hear this from time to time in some of the country people in my northern Indiana town.  

What though on hamely fare we dine, Wear hoddin grey, an' a that; Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; A Man's a Man for a' that: For a' that, and a' that, Their tinsel show, an' a' that; The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that.

Robert Burns presented the dialect of Scotland, but he did it at a time when the dialect was disappearing. He wanted to preserve it, memorialize it- not because he thought it was foolish or a subject of mockery, but because it specifically represented people he had known and their speech patterns. It was warm, nostalgic, and it preserved a culture and way of communication that was quickly passing away or changing. 

It isn't always easy, especially if you aren't familiar with the dialect.  Dunbar's and James Whitcomb Riley's poems are effortless for me. I grew up on James Whitcomb Riley. My mother is from Indiana and I had to recite his poems to my grandparents.  My dad was from Arkansas and in spite of his best efforts, never lost his accent and he wasn't from the upper crust, either.   It's not exactly the same as Dunbar's dialect poems, but there are enough similarities that I don't find them complicated to try at all. 

Robert Burns? I canot read him aloud at all, there's much I dont even understand.  When you are stuck on a dialect poem, youtube is your friend- or any other audio version done by somebody who gets it.

With a CM education, we present a rich feast.  A feast is not a  table spread with white bread, mashed potatoes and milk gravy.  We want a feast rich with the tapestry of human history, the wondrous beauty and flavors that stimulate the senses and gratify the tastebuds.  We want sweet, sour, spicy, hot, cold, mangos and blueberries, jollof rice and fried rice and kimbap, vegetables raw, steamed, roasted, salted, mixed with a bit of  sesame oil or served alongside chicken adobo. 

We want a rich celebration. 


  1. Hi Wendi,
    After seeing your post I wanted to tell you about my experience with "Brown Girl in the Ring". When we sang it at the beginning of the month, I wondered if my dear friend (born and raised in Trinidad) was familiar with the song. So I sang it for her over video chat. Guess what? She knew it (and was surprised that I knew it!) It brought back a flood of school memories for her that she had not thought of in years. Wow, how powerful music is to spark memories! But through this song, I got to hear more of her story and our friendship was enriched. What joy!

  2. That is beautiful! I love it so much. Thank you for sharing! At the AO camp before Covid, a mom from Brazil came up to me and told me hat folk songs also make abridge between family members and cultures. When she

    teaching her kids in America the folksongs from Brazil it improved their language and also her parents back home were so moved and delighted- the songs became part of thier facetiming and it really deepened their bonds. That made me feel so blessed to be part of that.