Half tongue-in-cheek, bit more than half with a serious point, this poem by Leopold Senghor muses about why white people call black people “coloured”, when there is a huge range of observable colours on white people’s skin. Of course, Senghor was right between the two worlds, first as a Senegalese representative in the French Parliament, a black man in the midst of a white-dominated institution, and then as the first President of independent Senegal, but with former white colonists still pulling a lot of the levers in his country. He must have been acutely sensitive to these matters of colour and racial identity, particularly living at a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when unconscious and overt prejudice was even more rampant than it is today.
I like it, and I think it is significant, that the poem is addressed to the poet’s white brother…, and the first line makes it clear that the white brother is dear to the poet.
Poeme a mon Frère blanc
|Cher frère blanc,
Quand je suis né, j’étais noir,
Quand j’ai grandi, j’étais noir,
Quand je suis au soleil, je suis noir,
Quand je suis malade, je suis noir,
Quand je mourrai, je serai noir.
Tandis que toi, homme blanc,
Quand tu es né, tu étais rose,
Quand tu as grandi, tu étais blanc,
Quand tu vas au soleil, tu es rouge,
Quand tu as froid, tu es bleu,
Quand tu as peur, tu es vert,
Quand tu es malade, tu es jaune,
Quand tu mourras, tu seras gris.
Alors, de nous deux,
Qui est l’homme de couleur ?
Léopold SEDAR SENGHOR
Five lines describe how the poet remains black in every circumstance and phase of his life – at birth, when grown up, when in the sun, when sick and when dead. Then seven lines describing how the white man can be pink, red, blue, green, yellow or grey. And then the ironic pay-off, who is really the man of colour, asks the poet?
Good question, and one which aims to undermine prejudice and difference to get at the common humanity of us all.
The Poetry Dude