And though I’ve tried swallowing seven gulps of water
three or four times every twenty-four hours
my childhood comes jolting back
in a hiccup
like a criminal to the scene of the crime
tell me of disaster
tell me of it

My mother wanted a child with good table manners
Hands on the table
don’t cut the bread
break the bread
don’t waste the bread
the bread of God
the bread won by the sweat of your Father
the bread of breads
A bone you eat with slowly and carefully
a stomach must be sociable
and all sociable stomachs
politely burp
a fork is not a toothpick
picking your nose
in plain sight of everyone
is absolutely prohibited
and don’t forget to sit up straight
a high class nose
never grazes the plate
and this and then
And then in the name of the Father
of the Son
of the Holy Spirit
at the end of each meal
And then and then
and then disaster
tell me of disaster
tell me of it

My mother wanted a son at the head of the class
If your history lesson is not learned by heart
you will not go to mass
in your sunday clothes
this child will be the shame our family
this child will be our oh dear Lord
be quiet

Have I not always told you you must speak french
the french of France
the french of the french
the french french
tell me of disaster
tell me of it

My mother wanted a son to belong to his mother
You forgot to say hello to the neighbor
your shoes are dirty again
and I find you in the street
on the field or the savannah
in the shade of the War Memorial
prancing around with someoneorother
with someoneorother who was never even baptized

My mother wanted a son so do
so re
so mi
so fa
so sol
so la
so si
so do

I see your skipping your vi-o-lin lesson
A banjo
you said a banjo
what do you mean
a banjo
No no sir
You know that in this house we tolerate
not ban
not jo
nor gi
nor tare
mulattos do not to that
so leave that to the blacks

By L.G. Damas
translated, from the French, by Courtenay Selden

Courtenay Selden recently graduated with a degree in French Literature from the University of Virginia. She is currently teaching in a first grade Spanish-English bilingual school in Houston, Texas. Léon Gontran Damas (1912-1978) was born in Cayenne, co-founded the review L’Étudiant Noir with writers Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor and is credited as one of the first leaders of the Négritude movement.