By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high
Your daddy’s rich
And your mamma’s good lookin’
So hush little baby
Don’t you cry
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky
But until that morning
There’s nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing by
From the song “Summertime” first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1936.
“Summertime” is the most well-known song from the opera “Porgy and Bess” which was written by a White man about the life of American-Americans. Set in South Carolina, the novel, “Porgy”, purports to tell the story of African Americans living in poverty in 1920’s “Catfish Row” which was a fictitious neighbourhood based on the area of Cabbage Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Most of the dialogue was written in what the author thought was the Gullah language which was spoken by African-Americans who lived on the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
Some of the information about the Gullah language includes that the language is derived from a combination of West African languages which were spoken by enslaved Africans who were owned by White plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia. In Georgia the language is sometimes called Geechee. Some historians believe that the word “Gullah” comes from Angola which is located on the south west of the African continent.
There has been controversy about the portrayal of the African-Americans in the novel, Porgy and the opera, Porgy and Bess. Not surprisingly, the novel became a bestseller in 1926. As usual, when a White person writes about Africans, whether those living in the Americas or from the African continent, the book becomes very popular with White readers.
Just last year (2011), we saw this phenomenon when a book written by a White woman about African-American maids was immortalized on film and the book became an overnight sensation. Similarly, “Heart of Darkness” the racist, White supremacist novel published by Joseph Conrad in 1890 about his “experiences” with the Congolese and the Congo is considered a “classic.”
Thankfully, there are knowledgeable Africans who can and will debunk the myths written by White writers. Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, has done a masterful review of Conrad’s novel which was published in the Massachusetts Review in 1977 http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html under the heading “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.'”
Achebe’s deconstruction of this European “classic” which denigrates Africans and African culture reminds me of the African proverb “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.”
The young Igbo writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from Nigeria http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YEWg1vIOyw is one of those African historians who do tell the African story.
In spite of the miserable lives of the characters in the opera, “Porgy and Bess”, the song “Summertime” is hopeful and does seem to portray a better life for the next generation. In North America, like the song from Porgy and Bess, during the summertime life does seem to be easier to live with beautiful sunshine and warm weather for almost three months.
African-Caribbean culture has been a mainstay of Toronto summers for more than 40 years. The small celebration that began as the Caribbean contribution to Canada’s centennial celebration has grown to become a multimillion dollar business. The celebration based on African culture which was transported to the Caribbean on slave ships with the enslaved Africans who were forced to “toil and toil so hard each day” as immortalized by Sparrow in his calypso “Slave” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRtBUjINgrE is the basis of Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival. The T&T carnival was the foundation of the annual Caribana celebration which has slowly but surely slipped away or has been stolen from the architects of the celebration. Now, the celebration has been given a new name and has mostly been reduced to a display of “feathers and flesh.”
Regardless, Caribbean people taught Canadians how to hold a street party and enjoy the summer. Today there are several summer street festivals, patterned after the Caribana celebration, which are allowed to enjoy the city with various streets closed to traffic while the participants parade down those streets or set up stalls and enjoy the beautiful summer weather. The celebration and the people who started it all have been relegated to the far corner of the city, way out of sight. To get to the colourful celebration we now have to travel by public transportation which nets major profit for the government when all the visitors to the city who are compelled to use the TTC to access the celebration are counted.
Summertime is also the time when our children are out of school and formal education is mostly abandoned. This is an excellent time to introduce our young people to books that will teach them about their history and culture. Summertime is the time to unwind and enjoy the weather and can include trips to the library and areas of the city where African Canadians lived and in many cases thrived and contributed to the wealth of this city.
Most of these facts are absent from the curriculum that is taught in the public schools but available in many books at the public libraries which benefit from our tax dollars.
Parents and guardians please ensure that your children include reading as part of their summertime fun and easy living.