African American Poetry Beyond English; or, The Example of Sybil Kein

In the Random Notes article on The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, we wrote: “We are talking about American poetry in English only.”

A survey from 2008-2010 shows that most Americans, 79,7%, speak only English at home, while 12,6% report that Spanish is the main language spoken. Looking below at ‘African American poetry beyond English’, to Spanish we must add French, or French Creole, a language that has a long history in Louisiana, even as French – like all other American languages aside from English and Spanish – account for less than one percent of American spoken languages (see note below).  

The Spanish influence on African American poetry comes mainly via the Caribbean and countries ‘south of the border’ with large populations of Spanish-speaking  people. 

It can be translations, a prime example here being Langston Hughes’ translations of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén; native born poets or immigrants who use a Spanish vocabulary in their American poetry, or who continue to write in Spanish only, like Puerto Rican born Julia de Burgos of Spanish Harlem, both anthologized by Kevin Young in African American Poetry from 2020 (see Index).

Victor Hernandez Cruz (1949-) in The Map of Spain, a poem from the collection In the Shadow of Al-Andalus (Coffee House Press, 2011), writes: “Identity is a dance of possibility.

Fluent in Spanish and English, Cruz makes his home, historically, culturally and linguistically, in Puerto Rico, where he was born, New York where he grew up, Spain and Morocco: “I am surrounded by the Arabic of my family in Morocco and French is the second language there.”

“Much of his work,” a critic notes on, “explores the relationship between the English language and his native Spanish, playing with grammatical and syntactical conventions within both languages to create his own bilingual idiom,” and Cruz will occasionally print a whole section of a book in Spanish, see Primeros Sonidos in Panoramas (Coffee House Press, 1997).  

Two leading African American poets, Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) and Alice Walker (1944-) have chosen to publish their latest collection of poetry, Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems (2017) and Taking the Arrow out of the Heart (2018), respectively, in a bilingual edition, yet another testimony to the growing influence of Spanish as an American language.

The Creole poetry of Sybil Kein. Spanish is not an endangered American language, and most bilingual poets even if fluent in Spanish chose to write in English. Louisiana French Creole is another matter, and Sybil Kein (1939-) is a poet and a scholar with a mission, trying to preserve and document the Creole heritage, as in Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color (Louisiana State University Press, 2000), with Kein as both editor and contributor.   

Sybil Kein’s bilingual Gombo People: Poésie Créole de la Nouvelle-Orléans/ New Orleans Creole Poetry (Leo J. Hall, 1981) was groundbreaking, the first book-length contribution to American letters in the Louisiana French Creole, which Kein grew up hearing and speaking.

The 1981 Gombo People, privately printed in a limited edition, is a collector’s item, all poems reprinted in Gumbo People (Margaret Media, 1999), both illustrated by Creole artist Diane Deruise.

The poem La Chaudrière Pèlè la Gregue … / The Pot Calls the Coffee Pot … demonstrates a Creole lingual lineage no less diverse than that of Hernandez Cruz’s Spanish: “Hey, Cajun,/ and you, Creole,/  how come you call yourself/ white or black? Who gave you these names?/ We are descendants of the French, the Spanish,/ the Africans, the Indian, the Acadian, the Haitian, and/ all the other Gombo people who came to/ Louisiana. These spices made the Gombo./  … //”

The Cajun/Creole debate continues in Le Campagne et la Ville/ The Country and the City. Creole character sketches include Tante Julia/ Aunt Julia, Colette, and Mammi Juillet/ Mammy July:

“To connain moin?/ Yé dit mo très viéux, eh?/ Mo ris après ca!/T’apé garder un dame/ qui terré quatre maris/ et qui jamain té faim!/ Vous oit tit cardineau-la?/ Li vient avec moin long de chemin/ chaque matin …/ Oui, mo reste dans la Pointe Coupée,/ pas loin d’ici./ Zozo est fait so ménage-là …/ Oui, mo l’lage pli de cent ans./ Li trouvé des morceaux de paille …/ Oui, mo té né dans esclavage;/ mais ca c’est pas to z.affaire!/ Mo pas marché longtemps pour/ parler des couillonades avec vous!/ Annons, tit zozo. Mo remassé assez/ branches de chêne pour mo stove …”//  

“You know me?/ They say I’m very old, eh?/ I laugh at that!/ You are looking at a woman/ who buried four husbands/ and never went hungry!/ You see that little cardinal?/ She comes with me along the road/ each morning …/ Yes, I live in Pointe Coupee,/ not far from here./ The bird is making her house …/ Yes, I’m more than 100 years old./ She found a few pieces of straw …/ Yes, I was born in slavery./ But that is none of your business!/ I did not walk a long time/ to talk foolishness with you!/ Come, little bird, I’ve picked enough / oak branches for my stove …”//

There is the scathing irony of Lettre à Madame Lindé de Justine, So Domestique Creole/ Letter to Madam Lindé from Justine, Her Creole Servant, and pictures of everyday life in Dans le Matin/ In the Morning and the long and loving Neuf Rites de Lavie Creole/ Nine Rituals of the Creole (baptism, first communion, Saint Joseph’s Day, wedding day, All Saints Day, Christmas, New Year, death, burial), much enchanted by photos from the family albums of author and illustrator.

Depending on your fluency in Creole, the poem Dans L’Hospital – Kein offers no translation(s) – should keep you occupied for a few minutes, perhaps even sending you to the dictionary. It begins:   

“Name? // Hein? // What’s your name? // Mo cassé mo jambe. // How do you spell that? // Hein? // Don’t you speak English? // Anglais? Ah! Non. Mo pas Anglais. // Arabian? // Tres bien? Mais to capable aider moin. // Eddy? Eddy? // Quai, aidez. // O.K., Eddy, we got that much; now what are you? // Ou? Eyoù? Ah! Mo jambe -- // Yes, yes, but what’s your race, your color? // Ah! Colèur! C’est bleu! // Blue!? Impossible! // Non. C’est possible. Mo tombé et mo jambe vivi bleu – / Bleu!/”   

The expanded edition of Gumbo People includes the text and sheet music to her CD Des Gardénias et Roses: Les Chansons Créoles/ Of Gardenias and Roses, Sybil Kein’s “little poems/songs” in Spanish, and four essays on “Contributions of The Gens de Coleur” to Southern culture.   

Sybil Kein’s portrait of Creole culture does not depend on the use of Louisiana French Creole, and some of the very best of Kein’s poetry is the English poetry found in Creole Journal: The Louisiana Poems (Lotus Press, 1999) – a few poems are printed also in a Creole version.    

Kein pays tribute to the poets of Les Cenelles (1845), the first published anthology of African American poetry (see again Kevin Young’s anthology); there is a Homage to Marie Laveau, and the eerie Spells. Section II begins: “Her husband’s whore passed/ a sickness on to Lilian which made her/ barren. Pêre Junise told her/ to forgive him, but other gods thought/ otherwise. …”    

Major poems commemorate incidents and issues in the history of ‘An American South’ (the title of the first edition of Creole Journal), like 1724: La Nouvelle-Orléans, Après le Bal du Cordon Bleu, L’Enfant Perdue, Siblings: The Mulatto Slave, Les Soeurs de la Sainte Famille, Mala, From the French Market, The Diaspora and the Revolution, Thibodaux, and Legacy (Kein’s father’s, presumably): “… He left/ us each other, nothing more./ Nothing more is needed.” 

THERE IS A CRITICAL article, Creole Culture in the Poetry of Sybil Kein, in Creole, and Thadious M. Davis in Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) reads Kein’s poetry in context – see Chapter 4: Politics & Paysans: Multicultural Louisiana & the Space of the Créolité , that also discusses the poets of Les Cenelles, and the brilliant poetry of Brenda Marie Osbey (1957-), a former Poet Laureate of Louisiana.   

UFI // 12 February 2022     

Note on U.S. languages: I take the figures above from “The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Report – Main Languages Spoken at Home by U.S. Residents Aged Five Years and Older, 2008-2010,” published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. After English and Spanish, there are thirteen more languages mentioned, all spoken by less than 1%, all other languages accounting for 2,2%. (The U.S. Census Bureau estimate some 350 spoken languages!).

Such figures can change significantly over time. According to the 2020 U.S. Census Americans of any race identifying themselves as Hispanic and Latino/a now number an estimated 62,1 million people, or 19% of a population that has now – 12 February 2022 – passed 332,5 million, see the Census Bureau’s Population Clock. A notable increase, even as we must not equate the number of people who speak Spanish with the number of people who identify themselves as Hispanic.    

THE UNITED STATES have no national language, but thirty-one states have adopted English as their official language, Alaska adding some 20 indigenous languages, Hawaii Hawaiian, and South Dakota Sioux. Puerto Rico – not a state though Puerto Ricans are American citizens – add Spanish.

The issue of whether or not to have a national language is politically controversial. For instance, the  English-only movement would bar the translation of certain government documents into any other language. A command of English obviously opens new opportunities, but if you speak English only poorly as a second language – or don’t speak it at all – without access to translations and/or translators into your own language, you are clearly marginalized socially. With or without English as an official language, most states will act pragmatically on this potentially divisive issue.