A "nonsense" song which was recorded during the Works Progress Administration "Writer's Project" interviews (1) in the nineteen-thirties was, we argue, a creolized version of Wolof phonetically transcribed as English. Specifically, the song which is the subject of this essay was collected during a field interview carried out during "the Hampton interviews," which were part of the larger Federal Writers' Project. In November, 1936, "an all-Negro unit" of the Virginia Writers' Project under the direction of Roscoe E. Lewis began interviewing ex-slaves in Virginia and during the next year interviewed more than 300 elderly Negroes as part of this project. (2) The Writers' Project interviews in Virginia, carried out during the period of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, were part of a study that was preceded by more modest efforts in the Ohio River Valley, Kentucky, and Indiana. (3) The analysis of this song from the 1930s reveals expressions of Senegambian cultural knowledge that generally have not been associated with North American black communities of that era. This era represents the last generation of African Americans who would remember a neighbor or relative who was born in Africa or who (possibly) grew up with people immersed in clearly identifiable African referents. Our work therefore builds on arguments that Lawrence W. Levine made years ago (1971) (4) regarding the importance of song in understanding cultural continuity, resistance, and invention in the African American context.
Here we review the case of Fannie Berry, and present elements of her narrative as a way of reclaiming and re-ordering ways of knowing that have been "submerged, hidden or driven underground." (5) Following a short discussion of the "discovery" of this text, we provide a summary review of the conditions which produced the particular interview. The article moves on to a discussion of conceptual issues which are embedded in the way the interviews were conceived and implemented. We look at a complex of issues against the issues of class, historicity and the historical record, before analyzing the song itself and key aspects such as ethnographic work, "authenticity" and authorship in black diaspora studies.
Virginia Texts and Wolof Songs
For the last several years I have been doing research on slaves and free black immigrants in Virginia. (6) After having noticed this song in the texts of a former slave's narrative of the 1930s, (7) I began making inquiries about its possible Wolof vocabulary. I decided to have several native Wolof speakers read it to determine if my suspicions were correct. Once I was satisfied that the song did contain Wolof vocabulary, I then sought to contextualize its existence as an oral tradition that had both apparent and hidden meanings, some concealed in language and some suggested by form. (8) This new and different way of presenting this narrative and song, as an artifact of 20th century African American culture, and as a striking example of hidden traces of multicultural African American histories, could provide a window into life during the apex of the African creolization process in North America.
The presence of Wolof vocabulary and literary form suggests that this language and genre had become embedded in African American practice and perhaps white American cultural practice as everyday oral expression by the end of slavery. I sought the expert assistance of my colleague Charles Sow, a well known Senegalese author who has done extensive research in Wolof areas of Senegal. His strong literary sense and appreciation for Wolof culture brought the necessary understanding of nuance and Wolof tradition to the task. The reader will therefore note that some sections are respectively presented in the voice of either Sow or mine as we relate different and connected experiences of exploring the song and its historical context. In some ways, this paper is a dialogue between two "natives," and a collaborative study of related cultural histories. It is the result of partnership between Sow, a native Wolof speaker and Senegalese artist, and myself, or a native African American of the Old Diaspora. (9) A portion of the original song as it was recorded in 1937 is as follows:
Kimo, Kimo, dar you ar, heh, how rump te pume diddle Set back pinkey wink, Come Tom nippe cat, Sing song kitty cat, can't you carry me o'er? Up de darkies head so bold, Sing song, kitty, can't you carry me o'er? Milk in de dairy nine days old, Sing song, kitty, can't yo' carry me home? (10) Li Moo Doy Waar!
"C'est n'est pas de l'anglais," (This is not English) said Madame Wendy Wilson Fall in bringing to my attention the song excerpted from Weevils in the Wheat. It wasn't English, and it resembled Wolof. This resemblance could be found in the tone of certain words, and by their cadence, so terribly close to this primary language of Senegambia. But, the title of the song was already a call to this discovery: a question to be answered and understood. It refers to that which is "doy waar" (so surprising). The expression "ki mo doy waar" is in any case constantly used in Wolof conversation to mark surprise or admiration, to draw attention towards something or someone. And from the first reading, one is struck by these very familiar words in Wolof:
Hey yo, Di romb Bu me title Con tam Guep Kat... I therefore immediately began a work of both transcription and interpretation which gives this text, with its slight differences, the perspective which Wendy Fall brings to it. Not being a linguist, I nevertheless proposed to follow up my suspicion that the song of Fanny Berry of Virginia has a general tone which clearly typifies the form known in Wolof as "bak," a traditional song of Wolof wrestlers or warriors. The transcription follows:
Kimo, kimo doy waar
Eh, yow di romb, bu ma title
Tek bak, tegi winku
Cone tam, guep kat
Sing Song Kitty
Can't you carry me over?
The English interpretation would proceed as:
This one, this one, how surprising (shocking) he is!
And you who pass by, don't try to frighten me!
You pose a challenge; but you will only win a trap (you can gamble for victory, but you will only harvest a failure)
And that, just like the others who have done as you,
You sing a song, Kitty
Can't you get me out of here?
The last two lines (5 and 6) seem to be an English that is already, and somewhat, Africanized. If my understanding of all this is correct, there is definitely here a sense of a contest and a direct reference to a type of expression very well known in Wolof.
I must add that this is not the first time that I have this impression of finding something so culturally close to me in a text or an expression from the African diaspora of the Americas. Any Senegambian who examines the numerous Africanisms which exist in the vast cultural heritage of African Americans of the southern United States, for instance, can't miss the agreeable surprises which constantly appear in words and phrases which are manifestly Wolof, Fulani (Pulaar) or Manding. They remain intact or somewhat deformed in spite of the alienating context. This contradicts those who would have had them forget all in order to better control them.
In the case of Wolof, for example, a name or surname such as "tootie" is given to the youngest child of a family and is still very frequent in African American communities in the U.S. The daughter of the jazz pianist Thelonius Monk is named affectionately "Rootie Tootie" and he dedicated a composition named "Little Rootie Tootie" (meaning small or small child in Wolof). This is also sometimes called Tootie Tankh (small foot). There are other terms of African American vocabulary (particularly in Gullah) which are clear both in pronunciation and in their signification: Wow = yes; Funky = inflated (with anger, pride); Dig = understand; Guy = person, friend; Jive = reference to someone who is false. The most curious of these is the way of counting of certain Gullah communities: go, didi, tati, nay, jowego, all of this simply being counting from one to five in Pulaar.
The most recent research (Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Ibrahima Seck) confirms that Wolof was one of the "lingua franca" or major languages of communication among the first communities of slaves in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida. This can be seen as normal, since, to a certain degree, Wolof already played that role in Senegambia, which was one of the first zones of Africa to be decimated by the Atlantic slave trade.
If we look back now to the song collected by the Hampton Institute WPA project which is presented in Weevils in the Wheat, we can see, in its form, that it closely resembles the genre of sport songs that Wolof wrestlers use when calling a verbal challenge before a fight. Leopold Sedar Senghor himself admired this genre and adapted this rhythm in several of his poems which he wrote in French.
The theme of these songs is often a sort of warning given by a wrestler to his adversary in the sense of "Attention! You want to defy me but look what awaits you!" Or, "Don't say too much because, here, watch what is waiting for you!" (meaning a fall).
Therefore, by extension, a man in his moments of glory and success should pay attention; he should not make fun of others, because a fall and failure are never far, not to mention death itself. And it is not for anything that many of the sports songs, composed by wrestlers or by their "griots," have passed to use as general wisdom. There are many examples of such verbal constructions in oral traditions in the form of sentences and proverbs where they always express a warning. Here are a few examples: 1) "Buki, wiri-wiri, jaari ndaari" (The Hyena would well make detours; she will always get to Ndari). Ndari is a place where the Hyena ate a lot of meat, but where she also met her punishment. 2) "Fu ma diar, ku fu diar, tax ban" (There where I passed by intact, whoever else passes there, will be...