26th March 2000
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Power and beauty

By Alfreda de Silva
In February of every year, the United States celebrates a particular aspect of African American history, in appreciation of the innumerable contributions made to the life of the nation by African Americans. 

The theme for February 2000 was Heritage and Horizons: The African American Legacy and the Challenge of the 21st Century. 

Three well-planned and stimulating programmes in connection with the commemoration were held at the American Centre. 

On opening day, Peter Claussen, Public Affairs Officer of the American Embassy, introduced the event and its significance, and read a proclamation by President Bill Clinton spotlighting the importance of the occasion. 

These excerpts from it make the message clear: 

".... We discover a new treasure of stories about the human spirit, inspiring accounts of everyday people rising above the indignities imposed by prejudice. 

".... We are awakened to such stories through the power, beauty and unflinching witness of poets and writers like Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Welden Johnsen, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. We see them written in the achievements of civil rights leaders like Daisy Bates, James Farmer, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. Thurgood Marshall, Mary Church Terrell, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. 

"....We can teach our children that America's story has been written by men and women of every race and creed and ethnic background. And we can ensure that our laws, our actions, and our words honour the rights of every human being." 

Introductory comments on the film 'Amistad' by Julie Zdanoski, English Teaching Fellow University of Sri Jayewardenepura were followed by the screening of the film. 

Based on a true story Amistad chronicled the incredible journey of a group of enslaved Africans who overtook their captor's ship and attempted to return to their beloved homeland. Brought to the US they were charged with murder and awaited their fate in prison. 

The ensuing battle drew the attention of the entire country. 

A commemoration programme with a different slant was a lecture-discussion, 'Taking Care of Business', African American Contributions to US Economy by Prof. Kamal Karunanayake, Head, Department of Economics, University of Kelaniya. 

Celebrating African American literature took the form of a lecture-discussion on Ralph Ellison's novel 'Juneteenth' by Dr. Walter Perera, Senior Lecturer, Department of English, Peradeniya. 

The book's title 'Juneteenth' focuses on June 1865, an African American celebration of the day the news of their emancipation finally reached slaves in Texas, two and a half years after the fact. 

'Juneteenth' on which African American writer Ellison had worked for 40 years was destroyed in a fire. Before his death he started on it again, and left behind a massive amount of manuscript which was unfinished. But his friend and editor, John Callahan put together a substantially complete novel from all of it. 

The unusual novel is a departure from straightforward linear narration. Going deep into the racial disharmony between blacks and whites, Ellison brings his personal reactions to racial encounters. 

The two protagonists are Bliss Sunraider of uncertain racial background who in his early youth becomes an evangelist under the tutelage of a rumbustious black preacher - a strange blend of gambler ne'er-do-well and jazz musician. His rhythms creep into his sermons and he glories in the name of the Rev. Alonzo Hickman. 

Bliss has run away from Hickman to take to the secular life as a white man in politics with all the opportunities such a life offers. 

He is Senator Bliss by the time Hickman and he are re-united, when the Reverend aborts an assassination attempt on Bliss. 

Ellison, who was involved with the continuing exploration of encounters between blacks and whites, believed they were at the core of American culture and history. 

The book is structured with dreams, memories and sermons remembered from the past, in conversations between Bliss and Hickman in the hospital room. 

The novel, laced with comedy elements as it gravitates from episode to episode, memory to memory, revolves round the moving force of personal identity. 

Bliss wakes up to the fact that living as a white racist does not release him from the roots of his boyhood. 

Dr. Perera pointed out that all Americans are heirs to the African American heritage. 

A short excerpt from 'Juneteenth' brilliantly performed by Claussen, PAO turned actor, illuminated the lecture. 

An interesting discussion on race and identity concluded the programme. 

I'll go and come

Taste of Sinhala - 12

By Prof. J.B. Disanayaka
Once an English principal of a public school in Colombo offered a lift to a pretty Sinhalese lady teacher. She got off the car and closed the door behind her, saying with a coy smile, in English, "Thank you, I'll go and come".

She disappeared and the principal waited for an hour for the teacher to return, for didn't she say that she would go and come? Much to his disappointment, she did not come back although she did say, "I'll go and come". What went wrong?

A couple of days later, the principal learnt the hard way that the phrase "I'll go and come" is just another way of saying "See you later". On that day, the principal had his first taste of Sri Lankan English, the brand of English used in this island.

The phrase "I'll go and come" in Sri Lankan English is a literal translation of a Sinhala phrase which is used at informal partings, "man gihin ennan" or "man gihilla ennan" in which "Man" means 'I' "gihin" or "gihilla" means 'having gone' and "ennan" means 'I will come'.

The Sinhalese have a habit of making this Sinhala parting still shorter by dropping "man" (I) and sometimes the word "gihin" or "gihilla" (having gone). So if you come across a Sinhalse who leaves you saying, "I'll come", don't be surprised, because the Sihalese have a habit of saying "ennan" (I'll come) when they go.

Being swept away as withered leaves


A professor of dentistry has joined the band of Sinhala novelists. Professor N. A. de S. Amaratunga who hails from the south and is presently attached to the Faculty of Dentistry, Peradeniya University, has embarked on a maiden effort in fiction. A Visidunu publication, it's a commentary on Sri Lankan society in an epoch-making era - from 1956 to 1971.

The author has titled the book Pavena Paradel comparing the people who got caught in a capitalist framework to withered leaves being swept away. 

"The values we treasured over the years are gradually eroding. The change can be seen even in the villages. For the survival of capitalism and for its growth, traditional values have been sacrificed. There is no place for feelings like love, affection and closeness which are needed for man's mental satisfaction," the author explains in the preface. 

His story begins at the time S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister and ends with the 1971 insurrection. The social and moral degeneration that took place during this period forms the backdrop. 

How did a society which saw the resurgence of nationalism with the beginning of the Bandaranaike era produce a section of youth who saw the need for a violent revolution? the author asks. He points out that nationalist revival and national development that the people hoped for did not happen. The country got caught in the web of world capitalism. The result was youth unrest and violence. 

Leaving aside a small country like ours, he questions whether even big countries like India or powerful ones like Russia have the freedom to mould their economies and political systems the way they would like to. 

To him, both Bandaranaike's victory as well as the youth rebellion were actions with noble intentions. Of course, the youth may have taken a wrong path, he says.

His novel falls into two parts. The first depicts village society that existed just before 1956. There are two heroes who represent the two leading political parties. He uses these characters to describe how the two parties differed from each other. The two individuals possess different sets of values which in turn represent the two parties. The second part is the story of the next generation. It relates how the younger generation keeps changing with the times. The gradual transformation of traditional society to a 'dollar society' affects their lives.

In an exhaustive introduction to the book, renowned writer and social commentator Gunadasa Amarasekera commends the author's attempt to portray the social changes that took place in this notable period of our country's history. He sees the writing of a novel of this nature as an important event. 


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