Dadié, Bernard 1916–
Bernard Dadié 1916–
Poet, novelist, playwright, government official
One of the most effective features of the film Amistad, director Steven Spielberg’s epic reenactment of an 1839 shipboard slave rebellion, was its musical score, composed by Hollywood veteran John Williams. In addition to the instrumental background music typical of film soundtracks, Williams fleshed out the action with various kinds of music appropriate to the film’s time and place—African drum rhythms, American religious music, and a song in the Mende language of modern-day Sierra Leone, listed in the film’s credits as “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!” Sung by a children’s choir and a mezzo-soprano soloist, “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!” moved many viewers and inspired some of them to seek an English translation of its text. Few of them knew, however, that the poem Williams set to music had come from one of modern West Africa’s most remarkable cultural figures—or that its original language was not Mende or English, but French.
The author of “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!” (original title: “Sèches tes pleurs,” or “Dry Your Tears”) was a writer from the Ivory Coast, Bernard Binlin Dadié. Part of France’s colonial dominions for much of the twentieth century, the Ivory Coast continues to use the French language alongside various African tongues. Dadié was born in Assinie, near the Ivory Coast’s capital of Abidjan, in 1916. His mother, a woman with one eye, sent him to live with an uncle after her first three children died, hoping to spare him the effects of a curse she believed had been placed upon her. He received his primary education in the Ivory Coast, but when he was 17 he followed his school principal to the principal’s new job in Senegal, where the French had set up the most elaborate educational system of their African colonies. In the Senegalese city of Gorée, Dadié enrolled at the teacher training school, the Ecole Normale William-Ponty, where his principal had been hired. He prepared for a career as an educational administrator but also studied playwriting; the school encouraged students to make use of African materials in their work.
Even before leaving the Ivory Coast Dadié had begun to write. His play Les Villes (The Cities) produced at a festival before Dadié’s primary-school graduation in 1933, may have been the first native African play to be staged in French-speaking Africa. In school in Senegal, Dadié continued to write plays, bringing to the stage the first of a long series of historical dramas that would flow from his pen. That work, Assémien Déhylé, roi du Sanivi (Assémien Déhylé, King of Sanwi), was set in a pre-colonial monarchy; at a time when white Europeans and Americans thought of the African past as marked exclusively by savagery, Dadié, not yet 20 years old, broke new ground by looking to the great African kingdoms of the past for subject matter. The play was staged in 1937 at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris during a series of events devoted to France’s colonies.
After graduation Dadié worked for 11 years as a librarian at the University of Dakar, in Senegal’s capital. But he also maintained ties to his homeland, working with two of his former classmates to create the Indigenous Theater of the Ivory Coast, a theater company
At a Glance…
Born in 1916 in Assmie, Ivory Coast; son of Gabriel Binlin and Enouaye (Nongbou) Dadié; married Rosa Assamala Koutoua in 1950; children: René, Michèle, Benjamin, Dominique, Claude, Claire, André, Paule, Pierre. Education; Attended schools in Ivory Coast; graduated from teacher-training school with innovative African-based theatrical program, Ecole Normale William Ponty, in Senegal. Politics: PDCI-RDA.
Career: Librarian, University of Dakar Institute of Black Africa, 1936-47; press secretary to PDCI-RDA pro-independence party, Ivory Coast, 1947-53; department head, minister of national education, Ivory Coast, 1957-59; director of information services, 1959-61; director of cultural affairs, ministry of national education, 1961-; prolific author of plays, 1930s-; also has written novels, poetry, nonfiction.
Selected awards: Received a UNESCO (United Nations) gold medal; designated as member of the French Legion of Honor.
Addresses: Office —Direction des Affaires Culturellles, BP V 39 Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
devoted to the presentation of homegrown African plays. He wrote in various media; some of his essays from this period were later collected in the volume Opinions d’ un nègre: Aphorismes, 1934-1946 (Opinions of a Black Man: Aphorisms, 1934-1946). Looking back on the early days of his literary career in an interview quoted on the website of Radio France International, Dadié said that he and his fellow African writers of the day “sold very little. We were above all interpreters, in the context of a meeting of cultures. We wrote in order to prove that we existed, in order to try to bring something to others. We wanted to show that Westerners were not the only ones on earth, that there were different cultures, and that all humans were equal.”
In 1947, as agitation for independence from the European colonial powers began, Dadié returned home to the Ivory Coast full time. He became press secretary for a group (active in several countries) called the African Democratic Assembly, and in February of 1949 the French, who had unleashed a violent campaign designed to crush the Ivorian independence movement, threw him in prison for 16 months. As usual, Dadié did not let external events interfere with the writing impulse; he filled a set of journals that were published in 1981 as “Carnets de prison” (Prison Notebooks). After his release from prison Dadié wrote prolifically, publishing several books of poetry and short stories.
As the Ivory Coast finally moved toward independence from France in 1960, even as he continued to nurture the country’s infant artistic scene, Dadié parlayed his position as a party official into a full-blown political career. In 1957 he was named to head an office of the government’s education ministry, and in 1959 became the government’s director of information services. In 1961 he began a long tenure as director of cultural affairs for the newly independent national education ministry. Even in the midst of this turbulent period, however, Dadié, who had married in 1950 and started a family of nine children, found time to accelerate his literary career.
Several of Dadié’s six books of poetry were written in the 1950s. Many of the poems he wrote at the time had a patriotic, nationalistic flavor inspired by the political events of the day. “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!,” originally written in 1956, falls into this group. The poem reads in part, “We have drunk of ill fortune and of glory/And our senses are now opened/to the splendor of your beauty/to the smell of your forests/to the charm of your waters/to the clearness of your skies/to the caress of your sun/And to the charm of your foliage pearled by the dew.” Translated from French into English, the poem was included in an anthology entitled 3000 Years of Black Poetry; from there it found its way into Williams’s score and Spielberg’s film.
Dadié also wrote several novels. The first, Un nègre à Paris, was published in 1939; it was followed by several other works that described the situation of Africans living in Western capitals (Dadié himself spent time in Paris, New York, and Rome). Climbié (1956) is an autobiographical work evoking his own youthful idealism. In his short stories, especially, Dadié worked to integrate Western literary conventions with those of the African griot, or storyteller; a volume of Dadié’s stories has been published in English as The Black Cloth: A Collection of African Folktales (1987).
Apart from the Amistad text, Dadié’s best-known works in the West may be his plays; dating from all phases of his career, they range from popular farces, to sharp satires of both Western manners and African political excesses, to full-blown historical tragedies that are uniquely African in their fusion of spoken word, dance, pantomime, and music. Dadié continued to nurture the work of playwrights other than himself, forming a new group in the 1960s devoted to the presentation and promotion of new African plays. His career as a writer extended into the 1980s, and, alive and well as of this writing, he continues to speak out on various issues as an elder statesman of literary Africa. Among the many honors he received later in life were a UNESCO gold medal and designation as a Commander of the French National Order of the Legion of Honor.
Les villes, 1933 (play).
Assémien Déhylé, roi du Sanivi, 1936 (play).
Légendes africaines, 1954 (short stories).
La pagne noir (trans, as The Black Cloth), short stories, 1955.
La ronde des jours, 1956 (poetry, includes original French version of “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!”)
Un nègre à Paris, 1959 (novel).
Min adja-o (That’s My Heritage), 1960 (play).
Patron de New York, 1964 (novel).
Situation difficule, 1965 (play).
Légendes et poèmes: afrique debout, légendes africaines, climbié, la ronde des jours, 1966 (collected poems; includes French version of “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!”).
Monsieur Thôgô-gnini, 1967 (play).
Béatrice du Congo, 1969 (play).
An English translation of “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!” is included in Lomax, Alan, and Raoul Abdul, eds., 3000 Years of Black Poetry: An Anthology, Dodd, Mead, 1970.
Brockman, Norbert, An African Biographical Dictionary, ABC-CLIO, 1994.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James, 1993.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2002 ( http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
—James M. Manheim
"Dadié, Bernard 1916–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dadie-bernard-1916
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