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We've been doing this a long time...

Americans have spent lot of time thinking about race relations in the past year. It occupies my thoughts constantly, even speaking from the poems of 14th century Spain. How could that be? Haven’t we, in the 21st century, advanced past social tensions from that era? I wonder.

The song, Yo me levanti un lunes (I woke up one Monday), is not brand new to me, but in the context of police killings of blacks, retaliation against the police and more awareness of implicit bias, it suddenly meant something more.

The song is peaceful, lovely and easy sounding, with a graceful guitar accompaniment - it doesn’t seem to teach or preach. The first verse describes a person getting up on a Monday morning, before the dawn, taking a bowl and heading to the river to bathe, followed by a nap on the grass in the sun. The music invites our imagination to stretch back onto the warm grass.

In the second verse, there is a threat. It is subtle because the music doesn’t change : this is a strophic song meaning the music is repeated the same even when the text changes. In this verse our sunbather sees a “morenito” or a brown person approaching who, she says, means to trick her. So she pushes this person into the water, protecting herself, and then stretches out on the grass for that nap in the sun.

In the third verse, however, when the morenito begins to drown, the singer claims “I cannot see a person drown.” Our sunbather's relation is disturbed by noticing another person struggling to live. To me, it is as if the morenito was not perceived as truly human until the singer saw him struggle for life. And because this is poetry, our singer has a rope-length braid which she extends to the man to pull him out. And then she goes back to have a nap on the grass in the sun.

Is this how a police officer might feel upon seeing a dead body in front of his own smoking gun? Until that moment, the officer was reasonably cautious and fearful in the face of an angry suspect. But instead of de-escalating the fear and panic, somehow the situation goes the other way and the police officer shoots. And all of a sudden there is a struggling, bleeding person, a human-being, who is dying.

And there is no poetic device to fix the situation. No braid of hair can pull this person out of danger. And no nap in the sun will feel restful and peaceful to this officer for a long while.

This very old song seems to tell a story of implicit racial bias (such a modern concept!) toward a brown person. Which makes sense: that era in Spain involved one clash after another between European and Arab occupants of Spain. This song is an expression of that conflict in a very personal, mundane moment among normal citizens. The poem is perhaps, very subtly, providing us with a moral tale we can use as an example: We need to make room in our lives to see each other as people first and color second. The policing situation is dire and very difficult, but it is only an extension of our own internal stereotypes that play out everyday in smaller ways. That’s where we each can start to make a difference.

Yo me levanti un lunes

Laura Wayte, voice

David Rogers, guitar

Traditional poem from 13th Century

Composition by Mathilda Salvador (1918-2007)

Yo me levanti un lunes,

un lunes antes de albar;

cogi mi bacio en mano

y a la mar me fui a lavar.

Y al sol, y al sol de la hierba

yo me ire a dormir.

Yo me encontri a un morenito

que de mi quiso burlar,

yo le di un entrepecho

y a la mar lo echi a nadar.

Y al sol, y al sol de la hierba

yo me ire a dormir.

Mi corazon se amanzia

de ver a un hombre ahogar,

le tire los mis trenzados

y lo saque de la mar.

Y al sol, y al sol de la hierba

yo me ire a dormir.

I awoke one Monday,

one Monday before dawn;

I took my basin in my hand

and went to the sea to bathe.

Then in the sun, in the sun on the grass

I fell asleep.

I met a dark young man

who wanted to trick me,

I gave him a good push,

and made him a swim in the sea.

Then in the sun, in the sun on the grass

I fell asleep.

My soul was struck with pity

to see a man drown,

I cast him my braids

and took him out of the sea.

Then in the sun, in the sun on the grass

I fell asleep.

-translation by David Wacks

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