Kazakhstan and “Be What You Am” poem

The other day I posted a poem from a book first published in UK in 1947 by Isobel Kuhn, titled “Nests Above the Abyss.”  Not sure who the author of the poem was but it can be presumed that it was from black slave origin in the American South.  Coincidentally I found something printed up in a local paper while doing some research on something entirely different, this poem caught my attention because it has some of the same phrases.  Published in October 27, 1922, it is titled “Be What You Am.”  This also follows some of the bad grammar from the movie “The Help” that I saw recently and blogged about yesterday. Such as the phrase oft repeated by the black maid: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”

I’m an English composition teacher and bad grammar should bother me intensely.  However, in all three cases of quotes I took from the movie and these two poems, I really do NOT care if the grammar is correct or not.  The message comes across loud and clear…we should NOT try to be something that we are not.  Even pretending and creating a sham of being better or more superior than you are, grates against most American’s sensibilities.  Or maybe it goes against *my* immediate environment of Scandinavian ethnicity while surrounded by no-nonsense, hardworking Germans.  Whatever the case, I appreciate this poem and think that the Kazakhs might learn something from this “Negro slave” wisdom…

Don’t be what you ain’t

Jes’ be what you is.

If you is not what you am.

Then you am not what you is.

If you’re just a little tadpole, don’t try to be a frog.

If you’re just the tail, don’t try to be a dog.

You can always pass the plate, if you can’t exhort and preach

If you’re just a little pebble, don’t try to be the beach.

Don’t be what you ain’t

Jes’ be what you is,

For the man who plays it square

Is a-goin’ to get “his.”

I like the phrase “for the man who plays it square” which essentially means if they are honest and have integrity, they will be rewarded.  In other words, “is a-goin’ to get “his” reward.  After 20 years of being an independent nation, there has been dishonest gain, especially seen in Kazakhstan’s education. When I mentioned that I think the Kazakhs should move away from the “pakazooka” [Russian word sounded out meaning “all for show with no substance behind it”] appearances of pretending to be something they are not, I got a surprise comment from someone back in Kazakhstan.  Here’s what he said:

” how witty you’ve compared this to the Kazakh realia! This isn’t a problem of a country’s policy, it’s how most Kazakhs live and act!”

Any other comments from my Kazakh readers about this cultural trend that I noticed while working and teaching at two western universities in Kazakhstan?  We all have pride to deal with and academicians can be the worst! The acquiring of knowledge should come from a humble admission of not knowing much and yearning to acquire more knowledge.  Sadly, there are many western professors who exhort and expound outside their area of expertise and believe they are experts on other things as well.

May the Kazakh people yearn to be who they REALLY are and be content in their humble estate.  Hopefully other nations of integrity would find this attractive and westerners would be curious enough to want to visit this amazing place and learn from the Kazakhs!

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