The REAL Origin of the African Birth Song: Surprise, It’s Racist

As many of you know, I spend a lot of time browsing Tumblr. Though it has a ton of problems (like refusing to shut down blogs being used to harass women, trans folks, and people of color), I’ve had an account since 2008 and it has accompanied me on my journey through college, years in the working world, and now—graduate school while I juggle staying in my field with expanding my horizons. I’ve found brilliant things on there, and while some posts only garner a tiny modicum of attention even if they’re wonderful, other posts can spread like WILDFIRE and go hugely viral. One such post is this one, about an “African birth song,” which almost has 150K notes:

[T]here is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.

In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.

The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.

You may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings your song to you at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding you when you are in tune with yourself and when you are not. When you feel good, what you are doing matches your song, and when you feel awful, it doesn’t. In the end, we shall all recognize our song and sing it well. You may feel a little warbly at the moment, but so have all the great singers. Just keep singing and you’ll find your way home.

Heartwarming. Much inspiration. Wow. So beautiful we could all cry a thousand tiny tears.

So what’s the problem, in a nutshell?

The “African birth song” is a half-baked invention of a White man that essentializes the “African experience” and does not event attempt to give any real details because it relies on collective ignorance about Africa that centers the world on a White axis. The text above does not provide any sources or even NAME this African tribe (though other versions do, but I’ll get into that later). The story uses exotification, the Noble Savage Myth, and people’s ignorance to make others feel warm n’ fuzzy and perpetuate incorrect narratives in the name of New Agey birth BS. This Tumblr post specifically, as many others have when they get reblogged, also uses the image/body of a RANDOM, unnamed indigenous woman from the Himba tribe. The list of problems goes on, because in the eyes of many non-African people, Africa is apparently just one huge jungle where everyone looks and acts the same, and all women run around topless feeling super connected to Mother Earth or something, giving birth in The Most Spiritual Ways We Should All Be Inspired By.

Himba woman who always remains nameless in reblogs of this stupid story.

Himba woman whose picture is used in reblogs of this story and always remains nameless.

Though this post focuses on Black and Indigenous folks, the same rule applies when discussing all other communities of color: we are not here to be your nameless, faceless inspirational memes. We want to be seen for who we are, and we want our own voices uplifted, not those of White folks who cannibalize our histories and profit off inaccuracies and tall tales.

Origins Of “THE AFRICAN BIRTH SONG” And Its Variations

While the story sounded cool and all at face-value, I knew there was more digging to be done because this smelled pretty fishy. What’s the real root of this “African Birth Song”? Beyond Tumblr and Facebook,  I found some other birth/parenting websites linking to this story, and that it has even been translated into Spanish and into Portuguese. It has been called “Your Song,” “The Song of Men,” “Remember Your Song,” “The Song of the Soul,” and more. The Birth Psychology website sources this book (“Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community” by Sobonfu Somé) as the origin of the text but, SURPRISE, I looked at it and the book doesn’t actually make mention of this story—though it does describe other ritual birth practices in certain African tribes.

Some don’t even try to source it to a person, and say this tradition comes from Namibia as a whole. Others say it’s rooted in the Himba people (the picture above, and the “featured image” for this post by J. Gerrits, are Himba women), even though the location of that tribe is apparently in an arid area, so there wouldn’t be a “jungle” to go to as the story say. Meanwhile, other Internetters say the source is the “Ubuntu tribe” even though there is, uh, no such thing—Ubuntu is a philosophy. Again, we see a trend: folks ascribing things to peoples they do not know or understand because they sound “appropriate” or “distant enough” to be credible (and again, such credibility relies on assuming the audience is NOT from Africa or any of these communities).

Aminata Traore, not Tolba Phanem

This is actually Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali, NOT Tolba Phanem.

Those that try to credit an individual (aside from Sobonfu Somé) cite “Tolba Phanem (African poet), 2007” and use another image of a Himba woman to accompany the post. Some websites say that Tolba Phanem is a great women’s rights activist, and show off her “picture.” Except a reverse image-search on Google shows me that the picture they are using is actually of Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali.

It actually looks like Tolba Phanem doesn’t actually exist, and the person who truly originated this story is a dude named Alan Cohen*, who published it in Issue #33 of Pathways to Family Wellness—”a quarterly print and digital magazine whose non-profit mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.” (If someone does find that Phanem is a real person, do let me know. I found nothing on her that was accurate/unrelated to this “poem/story.” And even the websites that cite very specific sources for this story don’t seem to return any hits or information—AND they also show incorrect facts that I *can* verify easily which makes them less credible from the get-go.)

[*EDIT 4/19/16: Commenters have been kind enough to keep digging and sourcing further. There seems to be another thread to this story linked to a White, Jewish man named Jack Kornfield which you can read about in this comment thread. I reached out to him but never received a response. Seems like HE may have been the originator of this story before Alan Cohen, but there is still no information about legitimate connections to actual tribal practices.]

So there we go. This story is a load of crap being adorned with “exotic” origin stories in efforts to legitimize it. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person who was skeptical, but not everyone’s skepticism drew them to my same eyebrow-raising and frustration. For example, this person was also skeptical, but much to my facepalming, this was their conclusion:

I’m an artist. A spontaneous, story-singing artist.
I work in the abstract and unproven, the ethereal and profound.
I make up stories and songs all of the time.
And they’re true.
They are invented and (sometimes) nonsensical, and maybe they never happened, but at the heart and at the center, they are true.
Because when we hear them (or tell them), we can imagine and believe that they really happened.
Or wish that they had.
This is a true story.

On some level, I get it. I used to do a lot of art, and I am surrounded by artists, writers, and storytellers. I know not everything that gets written down has to be non-fiction, and that we can spin stories out of grains of truth and blah blah blah. I get it. But to use THAT as an excuse for writing racially busted stories, and especially those that go viral on social media? No. Your art is not an excuse. Your art does not exist in a vacuum. Your art is not separate from the systems of racism and oppression in which we live, and to be an artist is not to be exempt from cultural critique and social responsibility. If you want to tell a story about healing, restorative justice, song-singing, and birth, then make it stand on its own merits and power instead of being lazy and using some nameless, faceless “tribe” to help make it sound more legitimate.

Connections To Reality & Healing/Justice

So is this “African birth song” remotely related to actual tribal birth practices in Africa? Or indigenous work around healing? Sort of. Does the idea of being “in tune with our song” sound deep, and like it would be amazing to find ways of achieving justice that don’t just rely on punitive measures, but instead look beyond that and aim for reintegration and accountability? Heck yes. But none of that erases the racist mess I describe above. However, let’s leave that behind for a bit so we can look at what connection this actually has to reality.

Because I don’t know much about birthing practices in Africa, and I doubt I could do ANY sort of justice to an entire CONTINENT in a single blog-post, I’ll focus on the healing/justice portions.

Indigenous/ABORIGINAL/FIRST NATIONS healing circleS

  • Here’s a quick explanation of what healing circles are all about and where they come from. Though there are not a ton of studies about them as far as “evidence-based research” goes, there are some folks working on this kind of thing (example!), and I was honored to meet a group of them at the 2014 National Sexual Assault Conference.

Restorative justice, transformative justice, and community accountability

The line “The [group] recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity” encapsulates a big part of the RJ, TJ, and CA models. While different organizations may have different definitions of these concepts and how they relate to each other, at its core, the ideas behind these models and principles are that a) communities as a whole must be involved in eradicating violence, b) perpetrators of violence should not just be “passively responsible” for their actions, and c) healing must be directed by survivors and those impacted by the violence. Finally, a tenet of TJ (though not always RJ) is  the idea that we must transform—not merely slightly modify—our societal structures that currently enable violence and set up punishments for it.

  • Here’s a great resource that explains both TJ and CA with text, graphics, and a list of resources. It also gives credit where credit is due (read: to groups like Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Generation Five for their work theorizing, writing, and operationalizing these concepts). This other resource also gives more historical background on it because our current police state wasn’t always what it is now, and this one discusses how the RJ model has been co-opted by the criminal justice system in certain ways (and thus how TJ can be an alternative to that).
  • Another slew of resources aggregated by Critical Resistance on addressing harm, accountability, and healing. It lists books, toolkits, zines, websites, articles, and more. While CR focuses on the prison industrial complex (PIC), this list of tools is about multiple forms of violence, including sexual assault, DV, state violence, and so on.
  • Here’s the Creative Interventions Toolkit, which “embracing the values of social justice and liberation, is a space to re/envision solutions to domestic or intimate partner, sexual, family and other forms of interpersonal violence.”
  • The Revolution Starts at Home is a fabulous book, and here’s an excerpt on these kind of strategies from a grassroots lens.
  • Here’s another CA wheel that focuses on domestic violence and explains what kind of actions should be taken by men, media, educational systems, the justice system, clergy, etc. (though it’s heteronormative and presents men as the only batterers).

SO IS THIS STORY WORTH IT OR NAH?

I think the ideas about healing and community-building in this story are awesome, but Mr. Cohen is not the originator of the concepts AND he’s using a racist, colonialist, tired ol’ lens to share his regurgitated opinion. Thus, I think that while this story has some good nuggets in it, there are WAY better resources and texts out there to illustrate these concepts in ways that are historically accurate, relevant, and non-oppressive. We ALL deserve better than this story.

[Added 2:15 pm EST] While this may seem small to some of you, this is part of a larger trend—this is a pattern, not a story in isolation. If you’re an educator, activist, teacher, parent, speaker, power-wielder of some sort, imagine incorporating this into a lesson about media literacy in a classroom, so students can find appropriate sources of information for projects. Imagine incorporating this into a workshop about birthing practices if you work with expecting parents. Imagine bringing this into a discussion about POC solidarity, or a lecture about art and social responsibility, or a class about international feminism.

16 thoughts on “The REAL Origin of the African Birth Song: Surprise, It’s Racist

  1. Sara says:

    I don’t understand why this is considered to be “racist.” It doesn’t carry negative connotations. In fact, it’s a wonderful message. I would feel blessed to be part of any group/tribe who had this kind of practice. And there is obviously some truth to it.

  2. Honeybeerose says:

    Well said: “If you want to tell a story about healing, restorative justice, song-singing, and birth, then make it stand on its own merits and power instead of being lazy and using some nameless, faceless “tribe” to help make it sound more legitimate.”

  3. Rod Suskin says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for that. As an African with an MA specialising in African cosmology, this lie has driven me mad for years, particularly because of its racist ‘noble savage’ imposition of western new age ideology. Really, I can’t say enough thank yous and I will post a link to this blog every time I see the story.

  4. Kelly Z says:

    Thank you for this thorough analysis! What is disturbing to me is how easy it would have been for the gentleman who first promulgated this story to simply state “a woman” or “a small, close-knit community” without the cultural voyeurism he perpetuates. That he feels he doesn’t even need permission to hijack people’s identity tells me he thinks he owns those people. We expect better.

  5. Erica says:

    I came across this story years ago and later went looking for a printed version and found the book What is My Song, by Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn. They wrote a story based on what they call an African FABLE…not tradition, and attribute the story to Jack Kornfield. Did you come across him in your research? I suggest it as another source for your research. I value some of your insights, but recogjnize a big difference between using a fable for inspiration and attributing it to a cultural practice. I have used the fable for many purposes without attributing it to any made up or real community.

    • Aida Manduley says:

      I hadn’t come across this; thanks for sharing it! The Cohen piece dates to 2002, and this book is from 2005. The Kornfield books are from 2002 and 1993. Found the latter but don’t have access to the full book so I can’t tell how he contextualizes this further:

      “There is a tribe in east Africa in which the art of true intimacy is fostered even before birth. In this tribe, the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth nor even the day of conception as in other village cultures. For this tribe the birth date comes the first time the child is a thought in its mother’s mind. Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them. After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village, so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song. After the birth all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself. It is sung in times of triumph, or in rituals and initiations. This song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.” – A Path with Heart (Bantam Books, 1993), p. 334.

      I’m going to try to reach out to Kornfield to ask him for more information about the tribe he’s referring to! (My critiques of the way this story has been deployed online, stand, certainly, but it’d be good to know how factual/close to an actual tribal practice this is).

  6. JS says:

    Interesting post Aida Manduley.

    Well, is the ‘African Birth Song’ not a story? What happens when someone LIVES to share your story? Will justice be found in the story or will justice be found in our connection to the story? When is discrimination healthy, positive…. discerning? Do we all have the potential to see past institutional limitations such as citing or accrediting sources. By sharing your post, have you “discriminated” against another… have you discussed with Mr. Cohen-his connection to the story vis a vis your own connection?

    What is race? Are we of one humankind…?

    Is Ubuntu more than a just a philosophy? ‘I am, therefore we are…’
    You, Aida Manduley are affected by the way the story was originally shared, therefore we are too…

    JS

  7. Margaret says:

    Hi- The origin of the birth song is the oriki. It is a real tradition. The following article may give some clarification:
    Oriki: Ancestors and Roots
    Kwame Ture and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
    The Massachusetts Review
    Vol. 44, No. 1/2, A Gathering in Honor of Jules Chametzky (Spring – Summer, 2003), pp. 97-111
    Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25091928

    • Aida Manduley says:

      Hi Margaret! Thank you for that link and info. In scouring for information about this topic, I actually came across the oriki tradition, but it’s not what this writer was talking about. It’s possible he was inspired by that tradition, but the way he conceptualizes it in his writing and presents it to the public contains many more embellishments and a drive off the path of what oriki seems to be about based on the literature I consulted. Similarly, there is documentation about Himba tribe birthing and childrearing practices that sound adjacent to this story, but don’t fit the full framework Cohen is presenting which leads me to believe he mish-mashed various tribal practices, added his own spin and ideas, and then repackaged it. If anyone else has more info, though, I’m happy to hear it and edit the post above as necessary!

  8. Julia says:

    Thank you for the digging 🙂 A friend told me the story the other day, but didn’t know the name of “the tribe” – so I wanted to find out about what exactly the story behind it was – and found your post. Still a great story, but from now on I will share it as an idea spread by someone 🙂 Thank you for your work and for sharing it with the internet 😉

  9. Shelley says:

    I’m not sure how long you’ve lived in Africa. I was born there and lived in (South) Africa for 40 years.

    I don’t know, nor do I care, where or how this story originated, however, it’s not unique. I have been to many rural villages and met the locals there. Certain cultures have very similar “rituals” – like giving birth in the river, accompanied by the other women of their village, singing during the birthing process, bringing an atmosphere of peace, love and calm..

    I don’t see any of this as racist. The Bible is more racist and “full of crap”than this beautiful story. You’re a great writer. I’d love to see you write something about the evil, racist, sexist god of the bible and the horrific message of fear and intimidation that it preaches.

    • Aida Manduley says:

      Thanks for your comment, Shelley. I’m not saying African birth rituals are racist, or trying to create a hierarchy of racism where this is better/worse than the Bible. I’m merely pointing out this particular situation and why a White man creating a fictional “Noble Savage” story is a racist act. The story itself, without context, is super beautiful and inspiring, certainly, but the story cannot be divorced from its origins and its implications for African folks [both those living on the continent as well as those abroad]. Relatedly, how many White/European/Anglo folks [and communities of color w/o the education about these issues that would allow them the ability to spot it] across the globe have spread this story is really telling of the racialized reception and understanding of this story.

      Religious texts aren’t my forte, so I’d rather leave the breakdowns and analyses of things like the Bible to those with more schooling and knowledge about those pieces and their cultural contexts 🙂

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