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.

Poetry: El secreto / The Secret

I love translating things, so I wanted to share this beautiful, super sexy poem I carried from Spanish to English for a class. 🙂 Aside from translation, what else do I love? Sex. And beauty and romance and language, of course. And this has all of that.

I wonder what my professors think of me when all I generally focus on are these things…


El secreto
Adriano del Valle

A orillas de la fábula, secretamente mía,
desde el árbol de sangre donde nace el latido
que se asoma a tu pulso, tu lengua, flor mojada,
era un sésamo oculto para el paisaje mórbido
de tu floral desnudo, desgajado en pudores
y amorosas laderas silvestres, en la sombra
de tus senos en vilo, colmenas del enjambre
cuyo vuelo guiaba el beso más antiguo.

Sempiternas colinas con pétalos y zumos,
el sí y el no acertaban, dudoso de tu aroma;
áureo botín de besos, acosadas axilas,
fugacísima imagen traída en tus relámpagos,
abriéndome entre lirios palomas y moluscos.

Y tú, ya casi un claro de luna en tus pestañas,
arcángel sin edad eras sencillamente.
Y acueducto sin lluvia, la luz del arco iris
nos volcaba el secreto flamígero del beso,
la soledad abriendo a nuestras almas juntas
donde las aves urden sus alcobas de trinos.

¡Oh amada mía! Siempre tu inaccesible cumbre;
y ya en ti, me despeño virgíneamente tuyo,
cuando el aire y el río te huelen desde cerca
el tatuaje invisible de la piel de tu aroma.

Y entonces, voy bajando por la rampa del grito,
del fulgor y la piedra, del viento y de la nieve;
ave soy rubricando con el vuelo las cumbres;
Ángel Caído soy recluido en tus ojos,
mordiendo en tu cabello sus pendulares frutos,
desplegando en mi torso su funeral bandera,
tu ardiente cordillera midiendo con mis brazos…
Con mi equinoccio envuelvo tus claros hemisferios
de antípodas caricias, cuando exploran mis besos
la tibia sangre nómada de tus venas azules.

La luna era el ex-libris del éxtasis nocturno,
tallo de flor nacido de tu propia semilla,
soledad sin los árboles que sostienen el cielo,
la delicia ignorando de beber en tu lengua,
como la piedra ignora el lenguaje del pájaro.

Si el beso no era un símbolo creado en tu homenaje,
su corola en tu hálito tuvo pétalos dulces
para impregnar la tierra con mieles suficientes
cuyo dulzor brotaba de la raíz del mundo.

Te conocí en el lecho mineral del planeta,
mientras tú apaciguabas la luz en la montaña…
Cósmicamente mía… Norte, Sur, Este, Oeste,
nupciales, cuatro vientos te velaban el sueño.


The Secret
Translation by Aida Manduley

On shores of the fable, secretly mine,
from the tree of blood where the beat is born
that peeks into your pulse, your tongue, wet flower,
was a hidden sesame for the morbid landscape
of your floral nude, ripped into modesties
and amorous wild slopes, in the shadow
of your suspended breasts, beehives of the swarm
whose flight guided the most ancient kiss.

Sempiternal hills with petals and juices
the yes and no guessed, doubtful of your aroma;
aureate contraband of kisses, harassed armpits,
most fleeting image brought in your lightning,
opening me among lilies doves and mollusks.

And you, a moonlit clearing almost on your lashes,
were simply an ageless archangel.
And rainless aqueduct, the rainbow’s light
emptied on us the kiss’ flamiferous secret,
the solitude opening our souls together
where the birds weave their alcoves of chirps.

Oh, my beloved! Always your inaccessible summit;
and already in you, I fall virginally yours,
when the air and the river smell you up close
the invisible tattoo of the skin of your aroma.

And then, I am going down the ramp of the scream,
of the fulgor and the stone, of the wind and the snow;
a bird I am signing the peaks with flight;
a Fallen Angel I am secluded in your eyes,
biting in your hair its pendular fruits,
displaying on my torso its funeral flag,
your burning mountain range measuring with my arms…
With my equinox I wrap your light hemispheres
in Antipodean caresses, when my kisses explore
the warm nomad blood of your blue veins.

The moon was the ex-libris of nocturnal ecstasy,
flower stem born from your own seed,
solitude without the trees that hold up the sky,
delight ignoring to drink on your tongue
like the stone ignores the bird’s language.

If the kiss was not a symbol created in your honor,
its corona on your breath had sweet petals
to impregnate the earth with sufficient honeys
whose sweetness flowed from the world’s root.

I met you on the planet’s mineral bed,
while you soothed the light on the mountain…
Cosmically mine… North, South, East, West,
nuptially, four winds watched over your sleep.