Racial Violence and Representation

Faya Ston no Bron mi so (Surinamese Folk song)

Faya Ston no Bron mi so is a traditional children’s song taught to and sung by virtually every child growing up in Suriname, often while playing a game called faya ston. Containing just two lines, this happily-sounding song does not seem very impressive at first glance. Unravelling its historical origins, however, reveals depths in it initially unseen.

As might have become clear already from the fact that the two sources referenced thus far were Youtube videos, there is very little written documentation of the experience of slavery in Suriname from the per- spective of slaves. Slaves were never taught to read and write, and, even after the abolition of slavery there, the colonial rulers did not allow any room for them to freely speak about (the traumas of) slavery. The knowledge that remains, therefore, consists of what has been preserved within the oral tradition of the descendants of slaves (C. McLeod 2019)

The meaning of the text, however, is more gruesome than one would initially expect. The first line literally translates to “fire stone do not burn me so [much].” What is referred to as a fire stone, however, is the stamp using which slaves were branded with the initials of their owner (C. McLeod 2019). The first line is thus to be understood as the cry by a slave, being branded as the property of his new master. The second line translates to “again master Jantje is killing someone’s child”. The killing here, is not to be understood literally, but has a twofold meaning: on the one hand, it can be read as expressing the loss of subjectivity, of freedom that is instated by the branding, the formal completion of the slave’s reduction to property. Secondly, it is used in a dramatic effort to express the excruciating pain of the victim, while also putting the pain at or even beyond the limits of rational and empathetic understanding — much like how one can never truly understand what it is like to be murdered, one can also never truly understand what it is like to be marked.

Having understood the meaning of the second line, another avenue within the first line opens up. The opposition between the third person in the second line (“someone’s child”) and the first person (“me”) that is suffering in the first line, expresses a reliving of the horror of having been marked, of that trauma, by slaves during the marking of another, a new slave.

The repetition of the two lines also produces meaning. The raw screams of the slaves, much like the screams of Aunt Hester (Douglass 2009), are reproduced through repetition of the first line: the emphasis placed on the assonance in “no bron mi so” frees up the o-sound from its mere linguistic function and turning it into a stage for expression. This can be read along the lines of Moten’s analysis of the “irre- ducibility of sound” (Moten 2003, p.1), joined together with Butler’s theory of performativity in saying that performance, in particular its phonic nature, provides a means of (re)producing ourselves (Moten 2003, p.4, 6–7). Similarly, the repetition of the second line expresses at the same time the mechanical nature of branding (again someone’s child is killed, again, again,…) as well as the abundance of death and violence in the lives of slaves.
The melodic, carefree form of the song contrasts greatly with its contents, because of the prohibition on explicit discussion of one’s suffering endured in slavery. The song, sung and resung by slaves and their descendants, allowed them to verbalise their suffering and traumata, to retell the story of slavery within the bounds set by the colonial rulers, precisely by sterilising the contents through the aestheticisation of the form. Siding with Moten, this is an exemplar of Black performance as black production, as a means of (re)producing one’s black identity over and against any prohibition to do so.

Stephan Loor

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