Canti dei Negri d’America and Proverbi dei Negri d’America

One of the concerns of the Rosenbach’s current exhibition, Look Again: African American History IS American History is identifying the ways in which African American history has been preserved. An unexpected pair of books from Marianne Moore’s library prove to be an interesting source of African-American history: Canti d’Amore e di Lavoro dei Negri d’America (Milan: All’Insegna de Pesce d’Oro, 1965) and Proverbi dei Negri d’America (Milan: All’Insegna de Pesce d’Oro, 1966), both edited by Graziamaria Griffini. These books anthologize African American songs and proverbs, respectively, with Italian translations accompanying the original texts in their African American dialect.

These little books surely have a lot to say. Because I don’t read Italian, I can’t get anything from the introductory material. And because I don’t really know anything about about the circumstances of their publishing, I can only pose questions. Who was the audience for these books? Who was Griffini, the editor? What was her interest in African American culture? What was the publisher’s interest in these texts? How did Italians in the 1960s think about African Americans, especially in light on the ongoing Civil Rights struggle? How should we understand the images used on the covers? What do they say about these texts and the interpretation of them presented in these books?

Putting all of those issues aside for the moment, I have to say there’s some great stuff in these books. From Proverbi:

“De price of your hat ain’t de measure of your brain.”

“Rooster makes mo’ racket dan de hin wa’ lay de aig.”

“Lazy fokes’ stummucks don’t git tired.”

“Ef you bleezd to eat dirt, eat clean dirt.”

The songbook has its share of gems, too:

A Short Letter

She writ me a letter
As long as my eye,
And she say in that letter:
“My Honey – goodbye!”


Does I Love You

Does I love you with all my heart? –
I loves you wid my liver;
Ah if I had you in my mouf,
I’d spit you in de river.

“Sinking of the Titanic” is a longer song that tells the story of Shine, a black man who worked in the boiler room of the ship. When the water starts coming on, he decides to swim for shore. Various wealthy white folks offer him huge rewards if he’ll save them, but he keeps swimming, saying “there’s more on land than there is on sea.” The song ends, “when all them white folks went to heaven/Shine was in Sugar Ray’s Bar drinking Seagrams Seven.”

It’d be interesting to know how this material reads in Italian. Our Librarian pointed out that the dialect tripped up the translator(s) from time to time. “Ha’nts,” or haunts, has apparently been translated as “formiche,” or ants.

It is fascinating the discover the ways in which African-American history and culture are threaded through the Rosenbach’s collections. Anyone who reads Italian or is interested in these books and the issues they raise is welcome to make an appointment to come by and look at them. More info on using the reading room is available here.