Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Mystique of Speak White

The Mystique of Speak White

By Lane Pellenor
The Daily Magi
November 8, 2044


Speak White is a French language poem composed by Québécois writer Michèle Lalonde in 1968. It was first recited in 1970 and was published in 1974 by Editions de l'Hexagone, Montreal. It denounced the poor situation of French-speakers in Quebec and takes the tone of a collective complaint against English-speaking Quebecers. Her poem is not, however, directed solely or even primarily at English Canada, often citing British and American references such as Shakespeare, Keats, the Thames, the Potomac and Wall Street as its symbols of linguistic oppression.

In 1980, Speak White was made into a short motion picture by polemicists Pierre Falardeau and Julien Poulin, the six-minute film featured actress Marie Eykel reading Lalonde's poem. It was released by the National Film Board of Canada.

Italian-Quebecer journalist playwright Marco Micone also wrote a poem in response called Speak What?, depicting allophone immigrants as the same oppressed class as the Québécois in Quebec, and calling for a more inclusive society.

"Speak White" is a racist insult used by English-speaking Canadians against those who speak other languages in public. André Laurendeau recorded anecdotal evidence in his 1963 journal during the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission that English Canadians would hurl the phrase at French Canadians outside Quebec, and speculated that it was borrowed from the Southern United States. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the phrase was used against immigrants.

Although the expression has never been directly quoted and attributed to an individual, the expression continues to enter the public sphere in the course of rhetorical political debate.

---OOO---

Speak white
It sounds so good when you
Speak of Paradise Lost
And of the gracious and anonymous profile that trembles
In Shakespeare's sonnets

We're an uncultured stammering race
But we are not deaf to the genius of a language
Speak with the accent of Milton and Byron and Shelley and Keats
Speak white
And forgive us our only answer
Being the raucous songs of our ancestors
And the sorrows of Nelligan

Speak white

Talk about this and that
Tell us about Magna Carta
Or the Lincoln Memorial
The grey charm of the Thames
The pink waters of the Potomac
Tell us about your traditions
As a people we don't really shine
But we're quite capable of appreciating
All the significance of crumpets
Or the Boston Tea Party

But when you really speak white
When you get down to brass tacks

To talk about gracious living
And speak of standing in life
And the Great Society
A bit stronger then, speak white
Raise your foremen's voices
We're a bit hard of hearing
We live too close to the machines
And we only hear the sound of our breathing over the tools.

Speak white and loud
So that we can hear you
From St-Henri to St-Domingue
What an admirable tongue
For hiring
Giving orders
Setting the time for working yourself to death
And for the pause that refreshes
And invigorates the dollar

Speak white
Tell us that God is a great big shot
And that we're paid to trust him
Speak white
Talk to us about production profits and percentages
Speak white
It's a rich langauge
For buying
But for selling
But for selling your soul
But for selling out

Ah!
Speak white
Big deal
But to tell you about
The eternity of a day on strike
To tell the story of
How a race of servants live
But for us to come home at night
At the time that the sun snuffs itself out over the backstreets
But to tell you yes that the sun is setting yes
Every day of our lives to the east of your empires
There's nothing to match a language of swearwords
Our none-too-clean parlure
Greasy and oil-stained.

Speak white
Be easy in your words
We're a race that holds grudges
But let's not criticize anyone
For having a monopoly
On correcting language

In Shakespeare's soft tongue
With the accent of Longfellow
Speak a pure and atrociously white French
Like in Vietnam, like in the Congo
Speak impeccable German
A yellow star between your teeth
Speak Russian speak call to order speak repression
Speak white
It is a universal language
We were born to understand it
With its teargas words
With its nightstick words

Speak white
Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy
We know that liberty is a black word
Just as poverty is black
And just as blood mixes with dust in the steets of Algiers
And Little Rock

Speak white
From Westminster to Washington take it in turn
Speak white like they do on Wall Street
White like they do in Watts
Be civilized
And understand us when we speak of circumstances
When you ask us politely
How do you do
And we hear you say
We're doing all right
We're doing fine
We
Are not alone

We know
That we are not alone


-Michèle Lalonde, 1970, translated Albert Herring, 2001–2012

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