Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Toubab Dancer

The djembes have called for days.
They aren’t for you
so you stay busy, pretending
to ignore the groups of twos and threes
trickling in from all around,
the growing party atmosphere.
The village is throwing a wedding and
because they are black and
part of a tribe and you
are white and a singular oddity
you are uninvited.
Not out of rudeness; simply
they don’t understand who you are.
Why should you want to go?
But night has fallen again and you
are again pacing the small hot rooftop balcony
with your warm beer and your cold, restless mind.
Suddenly the social boundaries aren’t
enough to keep you out of trouble.

The moon is a ripe yellow three-quarter and across
the goat-path they call a road, out in a bare field
a red fire flickers. The drums are there.
Leaping figures, laughter, shouting.
Your feet take you (rebellious things)
down the steps and across the stubbled remnants
of cassava plants that scratch your legs.
Here and there a stump smolders:
ashes smudge your skin but do not hide
what you are: Toubab, pale wanderer
an unknown creature, a question mark.

Too soon you arrive; it is far fiercer than you imagined
the fire burns high and hot
the dancers whirl, leopard-like and fast
slamming to a stop in midair on seeing you:
everyone turning in your direction
children scattering.
The circle parts for you, drums faltering slightly.
This is unprecedented
a violation they have no words for. Nothing to be done
but bow your head to ask permission
shuffling your too-clean sandals in the dust.  

Eternity passes
as it does for all fools
with a glacial smile.

Suddenly a woman snorts
(laughter? mocking?) and stamps her bare black
hard-as-horn foot so fiercely your stomach drops
and the dance resumes.
You are caught up, swept up, beat up
by those drums: goatskin and wood and thong
set to burst the world apart.
Your heart--a human heart--is simply too small
to contain such a thing.
So you must dance
and soon your sandals are a thing of the past.
Those are your bare feet stamping alongside theirs
your arms encircling the moon
your spine a black mamba
coiled round a tree trunk that later turns out
to be Joseph from the other side of the village.

It is daylight before you can stop
even then
you are still dancing your way home across the field
blood filling your ragged footprints.
It will be days before you can move without pain
weeks of delighted smiles among the lot of you
years--maybe never--before your heart
forgets the rending it takes this night, for now
you are twofold:
that pale cool question-mark of a Toubab
and this creature born of blood, fire and rhythm
dwelling side by side in the same skin
walking the same earth
hearing the same whisper
dance, my sweet
troublesome child,

 ©KB 5/9/12


  1. passion...you are so fierce, and beautifully so...

  2. That is a pretty stunning poem. It blends the two overarching themes that you seem to focus on: solitary individuals inhabiting harsh landscapes (Vaquero Dust); and your interior experience (It Took Everything, Icarus, a lot of your prose). Your use of 2nd person narrative is very effective--invites us to walk over the bridge you've constructed between your observations about the external world of the ceremony and your internal experience of the ceremony. The imagery is fantastic. And any poem that refers to feet as "rebellious things" is going to succeed, at least a little bit. Toubab Dancer succeeds, for me, a whole bunch more than a little bit.

    1. Aha! So glad this one is getting some play. "Toubab" is slang for white person in the part of West Africa where I lived for six months (Guinea and surrounding countries). A djembe is a drum made of goatskin and hardwood, in this case used to call people together for a wedding celebration, which can go on for a week. This is a true story. I did rudely go uninvited to a wedding one night--couldn't help it. The sound of the drums is mesmerizing, absolutely irresistible. A friend went with me. We were graciously received, after some disturbance. I did dance all night. My feet did bleed for days. The experience did bridge some cultural barriers, and not others--I will always be white, but the attempt was made, and in the end everybody was human regardless of culture and color. I'm glad the poem communicates this. It's important to realize that no matter how large the cultural and economic gap between ourselves and others, it is vital to reach across it. It will be awkward and strange at times. There will be misunderstandings. Your heart may split in two. But the purpose of poetry and music is to bind the wound. Maybe even make it beautiful. Thank you for reading!

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  4. Reading this brings me back to 2000.I still hear the Djembe, smell the fires, taste the cassava and feel both the pain and exhilaration surrounding me. Merci, blue eyes!

    1. We lived a good life, didn't we? ;) Rough as hell, but good. Wouldn't trade it, not for anything.