“You can speak another language. You can live in another culture. But to cry over your dead, you always go back to your mother tongue… You know who a person is by the language they cry in.”
In the documentary entitled “The Language You Cry In,” an elder uses this traditional proverb to explain the survival of an African funeral song in present-day America. Carried through Gullah memory and performance in Georgia, Lorenzo Turner’s 1930 recording leads to the discovery of the song’s traditional origins in the burial rites Mende women perform during a ceremony called Tenjami, or “crossing the river.” This discovery in turn eventually leads to the emotional north-south reunification of a family torn apart by the horrors of slavery’s trans-Atlantic crossing (ref: March 18th, 2012 post). In the matriarchally-conscious culture of Sierra Leone it is women who preside over matters of birth, death and passage to rebirth.
The Song of Songs [KJV], when regarded in a similar cultural and matriarchal light, testifies about a Shulamite woman’s cries for her departed soul-mate and informs of her presiding role in his transition. Introducing herself to an audience of women, the Shulamite states: “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem …My mother’s children were angry with me: they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.” [1:5-6]
The Shulamite’s “own vineyard” – which she contrasts in the Song of Songs against King Solomon’s vineyard – is suggestive of a restorative Garden of Eden, where her beloved “sleeps” as the winter, a time when nature itself is in hibernation. “My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.” [2:16] “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.” [7:10] As his consort – whom he refers to as “my sister, my spouse” – the Shulamite is her beloved’s portal to the renewed life that spring and their ultimate union represent. In his “sleep” state the Shulamite’s beloved remains invisible to her although, as soul-mates they are able to maintain conscious communication:
“Draw me, we will run after thee…the upright love thee.” [1:4] “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest…” [1:7] “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” [2:4] “My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” [2:10-12] “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice…” [2:14] “Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves.” [7:12]
In these and her other pronouncements – such as commanding the daughters to not disturb nor awaken her beloved “till he please” [3:5] or “until the day break, and the shadows flee away” [2:17]; and charging them “…if ye find my beloved… tell him, that I am sick of love” [5:8] – the Shulamite demonstrates how she is now keeping her “own vineyard.” When the daughters ask, “What is thy beloved more than another beloved, O thou fairest among women… that thou dost so charge us?” [5:9] she responds:
“My beloved is white and ruddy…” [5:10] Although their love clearly transcends the solely physical, the Shulamite uses ornate prose to describe her beloved’s looks, beginning with this particular detail. In Africa, women in societies like the Mende will paint themselves white in order to perform rites of passage for the one(s) crossing over, because the color white is often used to represent death (e.g. its use in masks). “White” may in this case alternatively represent the color of winter (her beloved’s “sleep state”) for which she would be performing a rite of spring.
The Shulamite’s natural transformative powers reside within their relationship, as she declares “…for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.” [8:6-7]
The Shulamite’s role is being her beloved’s consort and, in the process of keeping her vineyard and preparing for his return, she summons the north-south winds to her aid as she exalts him. “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons…” [2:3] “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.” [4:16] “His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should embrace me.” [8:3] “Make haste my beloved…” [8:14]
As their call-response attests, her beloved is in complete accord, affirming: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” [2:2] “Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse…” [4:9] “I am a wall…” the Shulamite claims [8:10]. “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed” [4:12] her beloved concurs, before announcing: “I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk…” [5:1]
In contrast, King Solomon (famed for wisdom, wealth, and possessing 700 wives and 300 concubines) appears to represent the unease of one who has come by his power and excess of creature comforts through capitalist exploitation, occupation, and its military guardians. As the Shulamite points out to the daughters: “Behold his bed, which is Solomon’s; threescore valiant men are about it… They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night.” [3:7-8] “Solomon had a vineyard at Baalhamon; he let out the vineyard unto keepers; every one for the fruit thereof was to bring a thousand pieces of silver. My vineyard, which is mine, is before me: thou O Solomon, must have a thousand, and those that keep the fruit thereof two hundred.” [8:11-12]
This is intriguing, given the proprietary nature of the first line in the song which reads: “The song of songs, which is Solomon’s” [1:1].The relationship between the Shulamite and her beloved presents a compelling testament overall to the African philosophy of Ubuntu (“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am”). Like twin gods of ancient Egyptian lore, their death-defying transcendent love represents the organic and spiritual harmony anchoring and ordering their Garden of Eden; a universe that seems at odds with the outer-world kingdom and exploits that Solomon represents in the Song of Songs which he (?) claims the rights to.
The language the Shulamite cries in engenders her beloved’s praise when he says, “Thy speech is comely” [4:3]. From an African perspective in which the Shulamite is part of a collective and song/music is regarded as enhanced speech, this praise may also be applied to other articulations of the spirit - mojo – such as spirituals, gospel, the blues, rhythm-and-blues, soul…
Peace & Blessings, “Old School”
(Dedicated with love to daddy on this, the 19th anniversary of your crossing over)
Malaika Mutere, Ph.D. is author of Towards an Africa-centered and pan-African theory of communication: Ubuntu and the Oral Aesthetic perspective Communicatio 38 (2) 2012: 147-163