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.

50 Shades of WTF: A Livetweeting Experience (Book 1 of Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy)

Love it or hate it, the ridiculously popular Fifty Shades trilogy has spread like wildfire so it’s crucial that we take a closer look at what this story is actually about. (I know I’m about a million years late in writing about this, but with the movies coming out, it finally felt like the right time.) Take the plunge with me and look forward to word-counts, memes, alternate universe versions of the story, and actual tips. Read my Storify [here]. This is just one piece in a larger series of posts I’m writing as a lead-up to Valentine’s day, so get ready for more!

50 shades doge

My Weekend Warrior Profile (Cross-posted)

This entry was originally published on the Sojourner House blog on May 30th (link here). I’m republishing it here so that people can find it with more ease. There will be more writings on my career path for those interested in following it or doing something similar too! Also, it’s important to note that the WW feature was heavily inspired and modified from The CSPH’s “Hump Day Heroes” feature. Credit where credit is due!

Every weekend, we feature different individuals (“Weekend Warriors”) that are working around social justice and making a change in the world so that we can all live free from violence and oppression. The goal of this project is to raise awareness of the work that is currently being done, highlight the amazing people doing it (with a focus on Rhode Island) and show the varied paths people have taken to this kind of social change. At its core, this project is about empowerment and building community!

What kind of work do you do?

I often find myself with my spoons in multiple pots at once. Broadly defined, I do sexuality education, project management, and public speaking. While not something I’m actively pursuing right now, I’ve also done more direct community organizing and digital literacy instruction. That has been really fun, especially when working with the elderly and with immigrant communities.

Where are you based out of (geographically-speaking)? Do you work as an individual, as part of an agency, or…?

Currently based out of Rhode Island, but the Internet is my playground, and I’m moving to Boston in the Fall. Right now various agencies have joint-custody of my time! I also do some individual work on the side. My almost 3-year term at Sojourner House as the Sexual Health Advocate (and seasonal Vagina Queen as a colleague called me) is ending on June 30th, and I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve done with the agency—a lot of innovative, wonderful stuff (including this project, so filling this out feels very meta).

The other primary place where I work is The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, a sexuality training and education organization devoted to reducing sexual shame, fighting misinformation, and elevating the sexuality field.

Outside of those two main projects, I do sporadic educational work for youth on behalf of Partners in Sex Education and I also deliver community presentations through Good Vibrations’ SHOW program as an offsite sex educator.

What things do you focus on? What are your specialties?

Sex(uality)! But that’s a simplistic answer. For me, sexuality is my focus, but that’s a fairly broad category that encompasses reproductive rights, issues of gender and orientation, healthy relationships, communication skill-building, the mechanics of pleasurable sex, and more. My primary areas of focus right now are LGBTQ issues, domestic violence (as well as sexual assault), sexual health education, and HIV. It’s funny because for a while I didn’t want to work on issues of DV and HIV, and instead wanted to focus more on niche topics that didn’t have a lot of folks working on them, like BDSM/kink and polyamory, but I realized that there was (and is) still a lot to be done in the realms of HIV and domestic violence, especially as far as inclusion for varied identities is concerned. I’ve had the privilege of working on “mainstream issues” while also making space for those more marginalized experiences and communities, and that’s what I hope to continue doing—connecting struggles and knowledge instead of having them sectioned off from each other (though that at times is necessary).

What are your goals and passions in this field?

I love bridging gaps with information and connections, getting people the resources they need when they need them. Also anything related to marginalized identities speaks to me on both a personal and professional level, especially because often too many people speak “on behalf” of communities they’re not a part of instead of standing together in solidarity with those folks and lifting THEIR voices up. I want to get it right. To that end, I hope to keep juggling many projects (both clinical and macro) in service of my communities.

I’m passionate about making conversations about sexuality and health easier to have, fostering diversity through a lens of paying attention to our intersecting identities, and fighting for sexual freedom and wholeness. What do I want to see? I want survivors of violence and abuse to feel empowered. I want clinicians to provide competent care to their “alternative” clients. I want us to use positive messages instead of shame to reduce negative health outcomes, and even redefine what “negative health outcomes are.” I want more representation of multiple bodies, genders, sexualities, races in the media. I want us to recognize the connections between different forms of violence. I want accessible reproductive healthcare for everyone. I want people’s autonomy to be respected. I can keep going… I just want EVERYTHING!

Why did you choose to start working in this field and what has kept you motivated to continue?

This video interview someone did with me actually sums it up pretty well. Long story short, as a queer Latina, when I arrived at Brown University I knew I wanted to work on issues of LGBTQ rights and racial justice. My life since then has taken some twists and turns, but that’s been at the core of it all. I branched out into sexuality education more specifically, but it’s all rooted in wanting social justice and being able to focus on achieving that through the things about which I’m passionate.

In a nutshell, seeing how far we’ve come but how much we still have yet to do is what keeps me motivated. Also super crucial? Being surrounded by key people who are amazing, valuable human beings also devoted to doing this work, or supporting those who do it. Creating/finding and nurturing a community has been vital for me.

Where did you go for school/training?

Brown University was my undergraduate home, and I emerged with a Bachelor of Arts in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I’m about to head off to graduate school this Fall to pursue my Masters in Social Work at Boston University. Outside of that, I’ve gone to a LOT of professional development events and conferences, probably more than one single person should ever go to! I just love learning a lot and being able to get that knowledge in varied ways, not just from a university. Locally, the Rhode Island Foundation has been a great local resource in learning more about nonprofit management.

Have you published any material (books, articles online, etc)?

No books published yet, but a project is brewing so I’m excited to see where that might go. I’ve also contributed to the last 3 issues of #24MAG (www.24mag.org) and my favorite piece was one I wrote about ASMR (Auto Sensory Meridian Response) for Issue 4.

Outside of that, my writing has been on the back-burner while I’ve been busy with other endeavors, but I co-edited “Sexual Health Education and Policy in Medical Schools: The Importance of Incorporating Basic Human Rights into Medical Education and Training” (written by Megan Andelloux) published in the Woodhull State of Sexual Sexual Freedom Report of 2011.

I also self-publish some writing online via my blog (neuronbomb.wordpress.com).

What would you recommend to people who want to work for a more just world, free of violence and oppression? Any tips on how to get into this line or work?

Figure out what unique skills you have (or can develop) and see how THOSE can fit into the larger fight for social justice. Not everyone has to be a public speaker or community organizer. Movements need a variety of talents—we need organizers, yes, but we also need bookkeepers, lawyers, people who can make huge meals, people with coding experience, interpreters, comedians, the list goes on.

Also, know that you can be an amazing contributor to movements without being or making yourself a martyr. Being able to set boundaries, ask for help, and take time to refocus and have some time to oneself = crucial skills that usually need to be honed with practice.

Take advantage of any opportunities that come your way, and soak in as much knowledge as you can.

Finally, make sure you nurture strong networks and give back to the community (there are many ways to do that), not just because those connections may serve you in the future, but because we’re all in this together and we cannot simply fight to get ourselves to the top–we should be working to help our communities, those who are marginalized by our current social systems, and those at the intersections.

What is the most personally challenging aspect of your career?

Not having enough time for all the things I want to do or need to do! Or feeling like I have no more help or resources to give someone, whether it’s because I’ve exhausted every option available to them, or because their issues are over my head and require intervention from someone with more clinical expertise. It can also be really tough to see people face the same problems over and over and feel powerless to do something about it. I’ve had some really terrible interactions with certain government or housing officials that have outright lied about hearings with clients, and confronting the reality of corruption can be really disheartening.

Outside of that, there are the obvious challenges of sometimes being persecuted for tackling taboo subjects or denied access to certain things due to prejudice…but that’s not personal/unique!

If you had to recommend one book and/or one film to our audience, what would you suggest?

“RACE: The Power of an Illusion” was a really fascinating documentary. By the time I saw it, I had already had my mind blown with the idea that race was a social construction, but this film did a great job at explaining a lot of the different ways we’ve understood race throughout U.S. history, and taking into account how race and class intersect with each other. Everyone should watch it!

As far as books go, “The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within ActivistCommunities” is crucial for those seeking to learn more about IPV in activism-focused spaces, to see why speaking up is hard, what transformative justice can be, and what are the complications of enduring abuse from a “well-respected” activist.

Please list where we can find you online! (Website, Twitter, Facebook, Website, other Social Media/Online Websites)

Primary Blog: http://aidamanduley.com (or smutandsensibility.com)
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/neuronbomb
Assorted collection of sites: http://neuronbomb.flavors.me