What is Dabydeen Even Doing?

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The Slave Song can be a difficult read, full of violence and suffering. There definitely are some humour and softness within it, but it’s pretty obvious that that is not what the book is about. As someone who has never encountered Creole before, I had to read the introduction and the translation to even try to grasp the meaning of the poems. While I read the introduction, however, I came across a new question: why is it that Dabydeen stresses the “vulgarity” of the Guyanese?

He emphasizes how “barbaric” and “vulgar” the people of Guiana and their lives are, convincing the readers and stating it like there are no other ways to explain the lives of the Guyanese. I mean he really hammers it in, shown here: “This brings us finally to the ‘vulgarity’ of the language. It is the vulgarity of the people, the vulgarity of their way of life” (12). (I haven’t even noticed this in the poems; in fact, his descriptions are much softer in the translations, the “vulgarity/savageness” now “extraordinary richness” in “For Ma”) He does not say the language is simply rough on the ears, he says it is brutal, and that he is trying to exploit its brutality, along with the brutality of its users (14). You would think that, for someone who said “what is needed… is a recognition and expression of the uniqueness of the people” (15), vulgarity would not be the biggest thing to highlight. It really does sound like the voice of a biased outsider, which is strange, as we already know that he is a descendant of a Guyanese family.

I think there are two ways to look at it: one may be because he doesn’t want to downplay their sufferings, and to use such wordings will provoke a sense (or if we’re being real, at most an echo) of the brutality they faced. Being objective and detached will feel like injustice. It just won’t be enough for the years of pain they all faced.
Another reason may be because it is a part of the tongue-in-cheek critique that’s been debated upon until now. He already stated that his purpose was “not to provide a sociologically ‘accurate’ transcript of ‘reality’ but rather an imaginative rendition and reconstruction, a private fantasy” (10). He’s not hear to speak for the people, he’s telling us straight from the start that this is for his own pleasure, and the readers who stumble upon it. The postscript already shows that he can be a little (or a lottle) sardonic, and for him to mimic the sure and haughty voice of a European critic is definitely plausible.

One thought on “What is Dabydeen Even Doing?

  1. This is a very good question and I’m so glad you brought it up in class. It led to interesting discussion, I thought.

    Interesting interpretation here, that when he describes the language and the people as “vulgar” he is taking on the voice of the haughty European critic, but when we look at the poems themselves we don’t have to look at them that way (at least, that’s what I’m getting from your post; apologies if I’m misinterpreting!).

    I think I misunderstood your question in class, thinking that you were talking about the focus on violence and brutality in their lives, through the poems. But now I’m thinking that your emphasis here is more on how he himself describes the language and the people as “vulgar,” in the intro. And it is indeed a curious thing why he would emphasize that so much there. Your explanations, both of them, make sense to me.

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