The Poetry Project

from "Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness"

John Keene

III. “The Living Breath of a New Light to Everyone”

Why is this absence of translated black voices significant? One of the ongoing problems, if I can state it bluntly, is that if we already are experiencing serious and ongoing crises in American society in part through the omission, elision, and erasure of, and indifference to narratives, stories, and other forms of imaginative expression, in all their complexity, of black American people’s lives and existences—an issue that affects not only black Americans but everyone in the society; as the Native American writer Bill Yellow Robe, among many others, underlined in a talk he delivered at the 2016 Thinking Its Presence conference, the same is true with narratives, stories, plays, and so on by indigenous peoples, to give another glaring example—we further limit our understanding of the world, in multiple ways, in the absence of black stories and voices from outside the Anglosphere, which is not a coherent whole, but nevertheless is limited in its capacity to convey the breadth of experience of black peoples across the globe. Just as black Americans are hardly a “fringe,” neither are black people and voices from the rest of the world.

Were more black voices translated we would have a clearer sense of the connections and commonalities, as well as the differences across the African Diaspora, and better understand an array of regional, national, and hemispheric issues. We would not be surprised, as many were after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, that there were black people in Basra and other parts of Iraq; that Pakistan has its own contemporary self-styled “Langston Hughes,” Meem Danish, and that there are long established black communities throughout South Asia; that Aboriginal poets and writers in the Pacific Rim and Oceania have articulated very similar critiques, sometimes deeply influenced by African-American and African Diasporic cultural production, of their societies; that Sri Lankan Tamil writers like Antonythasan Jesuthasan, an actor and novelist who writes under the pen name Sobashakti, meaning “Black Power,” invoke liberation-centered critiques in conversation with similar ones around the black world; or that the social and cultural experiences—including the challenges of racism and white supremacy—both French Minister of Justice Christine Taubira and Amédy Coulibaly, one of the terrorists in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, have faced in their lives mirror what we might find among black peoples across the globe.

Dorothy escuchaba los ecos del have dream
Mientras los blacks panters
Apuñalaban el cielo
En las calles de Harlem

Dorothy was listening to the echoes
Of “I Have a Dream”
While the Black Panthers pierced the sky
In the streets of Harlem
—Mateo Morrison, from “Dorothy Dandridge”

More of us might grasp that in Brazil, there have long been discourses of resistance that draw upon, complement, inflect, and in some cases challenge the prevailing discourses in the Afro-Anglosphere. We might be able to understand with far greater nuance the ways in which race and racism function within the Dominican Republic, and speak and write with more subtlety and care not only about its relationship with its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti, but about the relationships between Dominicans and other peoples of African descent throughout the hemisphere, including as they unfold within the context of U.S. society, and in relation to African American history and culture.

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