3.6.2021 – lost in translation

lost in translation
black and white, black black and white,
white black? Go to Humes?

I have started and stopped working on this essay for days and finally decided to just start typing and see where it goes.

A good friend of mine at the Atlanta TV Station where I worked used to tell me that he could spend his time doing his job or spend his time pulling me back off the thin ice where I was able to wander off to at the drop of hat, a hat that I would drop myself, but he couldn’t do both.

I loved working with this guy.

His name was Michael and we were Mike and Mike of the web team.

Folks would seek us out and say they were told to talk to Mike of the web team.

Which one we would say together.

We would then point out that there were differences between us.

Michael was much taller than I was.

He is about 6 foot three, went to Purdue and was from Gary, Indiana.

I am just under 6 feet tall, went to Michigan and was from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Michael is dark skinned and I am light skinned.

But talk about two guys on the same wave length.

We could start or finish each others sentences.

We drove people nuts.

The point I am after is that Michael knew that in a room full of balloons, I was the guy with the pin and I could not resist popping them.

Michael on the other hand had a sixth sense about which balloons could be safely popped and which should be let alone.

I want to call him and ask if I should continue with this essay.

Would he encourage me?

Would he slowly shake his head and say nooooooooooo, Mike, nooooooooooooo, Mike.

Like I said, I decided to just start typing and see where we go.

It is a matter of translation and being lost in translation that is on my mind the last couple of days.

Most everyone is aware of who Amanda Gorman is.

Ms. Gorman wrote and recited the poem, “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of Joe Biden.

The Hill We Climb‘ got stellar reviews.

The demand for the poem has gone around the world and it is being translated into many languages.

But there were some issues in Europe when someone noticed that the author selected to translate the poem was not black.

It made me think.

Print is black and white.

The saying is, there it is “in black and white”.

It made me think some more.

I understand that anything I have ever read by Leo Tolstoy is translated from Russian.

Am I really getting the nuance of what Mr. Tolstoy wrote by reading a translation?

I guess I don’t know or don’t know enough to know.

I read and re-read The Hill We Climb.

I knew that the person who wrote the poem is black but did that change the way I read the poem?

What was odd about this is that the language in question in this story is Dutch.

When I moved to Atlanta I started telling folks that, no, I wasn’t white, I was Dutch.

My friend Michael would back me up and tell folks, he isn’t white, he is Dutch.

Talk about perplexed looks on people’s faces.

But there it is.

According to the story I read, the Dutch writer, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, had been selected to translate The Hill We Climb into Dutch with the awareness and agreement of Amanda Gorman.

Then complaints were made.

“Niets ten nadele van Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, maar die schrijver is niet de beste persoon om poëzie van Amanda Gorman te vertalen: Black spoken word artists matter, ook van eigen bodem, betoogt Janice Deul.”

The gist of it that Ms. Rijneveld was not black.

Ms. Rijneveld withdrew from the project.

And I am perplexed.

When I read do I see or do I need to see, be aware, of the writer.

Does the writing transcend race?

Shouldn’t the writing transcend race?

Shouldn’t writing and music and poetry transcend race?

Readers of this blog are aware that I have little love for Ken Burns.

A lot of that is because I wish I had done what Ken Burns has done.

A lot of that is because I see how Mr. Burns manipulates content to fit his point.

But I am a fan of his because of one thing Mr. Burns did do,

In his multi-part documentary of Jazz, Mr. Burns did a section on Duke Ellington.

It was a nice bit of work with the usual mix of photos, film, sound and narration.

As the section came to an end the narration concluded with something like, “Duke Ellington stands to this day as the greatest American composer.”

Did you catch it?

I was so pre-programmed that I thought I heard it and had to play it over it my mind.

Duke Ellington stands to this day as the greatest American composer.

I was thrilled and I said I would be a fan of Ken Burns for life.

Not for anything he said.

But for what he didn’t say.

I am reminded of the story of how when Elvis entered the music scene in Memphis.

Elvis’ songs started being played on the radio.

Somehow the word had to get out that Elvis was white or at least, that Elvis was not black.

Somehow the word had to get out that it was ok for white kids to listen to Elvis music.

Memphis back then had a secret code to do just that.

Elvis was interviewed on a local radio station.

Elvis was asked a simple question.

“Elvis, you grew here in Memphis. What high school did you go to?”

“Humes, sir.”


“Yes sir … Humes!”

You see, in Memphis back then, Humes was the white high school.

Without saying it out loud, the Memphis world knew that Elvis was white.

That was back in the ’50s.

I guess I thought we had come a ways from that.

Recent events indicate that what I thought was change was really just the same issues with scabs and the scabs got ripped off.

So much to say and so much to write and so unable to express it.

When I started this I said I didn’t know where I was going and I sure hope I haven’t offended anyone.

Can’t the world get past this?

I will have to be satisfied with what James McBride wrote in his book, “The Color of Water.”

The subtitle of the book is “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.”

In the book, Mr. McBride writes how his Mother would cry in Church.

He decided his Mother cried because she was white.

Mr. McBride writes about comforting his Mother, that God didn’t care she was white and his Mother responded that God didn’t care about color.

Mr. McBride says that he then asked his Mother if God was black.

“God,” his Mother said, “is the color of water.”

People often say when “I get to heaven, I am going to ask God ….”

I think about that.

I picture myself someday in heaven with a chance to talk with God.

Maybe we are fishing together.

And I say, “God, can I ask you something?”

“What was the idea anyhow behind race, behind skin color?”

And I picture God looking at me and saying something like. “Well, it was a test. A test to see how y’all (yes he said y’all) would handle having different skin color.”

“If it was a test, I have to say we really messed up. We failed,”

God looks at me, eye to eye, nods slowly and says, “I agree.”

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