Opening Speech

© Deanna Smith


© Deanna Smith


I never rejected the languages of my ancestors

in favour of English

I never had any choice


sometimes my own voice

sounds like clanging cymbals in my ears

and after years

of these foreign tongues being jammed down my throat

it would take a geo-political

ethno-cultural Heimlich manoeuvre

to get them out


I have no doubt

that this is the source of deeply rooted conflict

this “first” language I’m stuck with

the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer

and “yessir Mr. Boss’sir”

the language of slave ships

and cracked whips

and horror


I could use another language

at my disposal

mais ça serait pareil

à la fois Voltaire et des ongles sur un tableau dans mes oreilles

u otro

sería lo mismo

cómo hablar de dolor en el idioma que lo causa


sometimes I dream that speaking Hausa would make me feel better

maybe Wolof, or Igbo, or Twi

anything to let me tell my story more honestly

because honestly

what kind of artist paints in their own blood

who dances in shackles

who photographs in X-rays

we do

Black writers who use languages like English, French, Spanish

and others

never the languages of our foremothers

we do


the grandchildren of griots

write stories meant to be spoken

our pens choking on every word

so it is not absurd

to question the languages in which we ask questions


they say it is impossible to tear down massa’s house with massa’s tools

that this is a quest for fools

we know

those who have mastered the tongues of masters know

it costs

but what is lost between

the soul and the page

the mind and the stage

is what I seek.


I seek

what was meant to be mine always

and in all ways

I will speak it into existence

call forth the stories of the ancestors

sing of the ones who were silenced

draw breath for the ones

whose throats were crushed

or swung or slit


I am sick of it

but it is all I have

yet, even with this forked tongue

I remain the answer to their prayers

supplications made in languages I have yet to learn

but know

like I know my bones

like I know my skin

and in the depth of this double mindedness

in the bleakest hour of this dissonance

I will speak


because I never rejected the languages of my ancestors

in favour of English

I never had any choice

so, with this voice

with this breath

with my life

I will honour them.




Deanna Smith is a Montréal-based poet, performer and educator. She has a background in Linguistics and Speech-Language Pathology. Basically, she loves words, what they mean and what they can do. Her work is rooted in her experiences as a daughter of the African Diaspora living on Turtle Island.