A Young Man’s Thoughts Before June 16 by Fhazel Johannesse is a poem written from the point of view of a young boy on the day before his death. He knows what will happen to him on June 16, and he writes a lament for himself and all the others who will share the same fate as him.
This 13-line poem is written as a single run-on thought that the boy has, and this poem lacks any sort of punctuation or capitalisation. The poem is written in free verse, with no established structure or rhyme scheme. It fully represents a child’s thoughts going on and on without pause or regulation. This poem employs the use of enjambment, and we can see how the thoughts of this child bleed past a single line and do not end where the line ends.
A Young MansThoughts Before June 16 | Historical Background
To understand this poem, one first needs to recognise its place in history. The poet is South African, and he is writing about the thoughts of a young person as June 16 approaches.
On June 16 1976, the black school children of South Africa held a peaceful protest against the education policies that would force them to have Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in their schools. This was brought about by the Apartheid regime, as Afrikaans was the official language of the oppressors at that time.
The Apartheid was a system that maintained segregation between the white and non-white population of South Africa. The all-white government formed by the National Party that came into power in 1948 was the key player in further enforcing the pre-existing racist policies of segregation.
The movement on June 16 is called the Soweto Uprising, and the children protested against the “Afrikaans Medium Decree” that made all schools use both Afrikaans and English equally. The government was full of people from a heritage that spoke Afrikaans, and they wanted to reverse the decline of the use of Afrikaans in the country, and made it an official language of South Africa, even though the black population of South Africa objected to this.
The Soweto Uprising had students marching in protest, and police soon began shooting directly at them. This led to a massacre that ended with over one thousand students being killed at the hands of this government. This went on between 16 and 17 June 1976 and led to national and international outrage, as well as overflowing emergency rooms. Black children were killed ruthlessly so that the government could prove its power over the population. Now, Youth Day is celebrated every year on June 16 in South Africa.
A Young Mans Thoughts Before June 16 | Summary and Analysis
tomorrow i travel on a road
that winds to the top of the hill
i take with me only the sweet
memories of my youth
my heart aches for my mother
for friday nights with friends
around a table with broad belch of beer
i ask only for a sad song
sung by a woman with downturned eyes
and strummed by an old man with
a broken brow
o sing my sad song sing for me
for my sunset is drenched with red.
Reading the poem with the abovementioned background in mind, understanding it becomes a lot easier, and the pain of the poet is clearly visible in his lament. The poem is titled “A young thoughts..” which shows that this is a type of reflection– a sort of readiness and understanding of what is to come. The child says that he is going to make a journey for which he carries only the memories of his childhood. He already misses his family, and yearns to have a normal life again. But now, all he asks is to be remembered, to have a sorrowful woman sing a dirge in his name, because he knows he is walking toward the deaths of thousands, his own included.
“I travel a road that winds to the top of the hill” represents the long, arduous journey he is about to make as he protests the unfair laws of a government that does not care for his people. The top of the hill may represent the end of the journey, and thus the end of his life. This walk is one that he takes with the sweet memories of the life he is forced to leave behind, of having fun with friends and spending time with his family.
Though he has not left yet, he already misses his mother, and his heart aches with the knowledge of what his death would do to her. No parent deserves to have their child die, and this young child already knows the heartache his parents will go through as they mourn him. He misses the way he was able to be carefree, and the use of “broad belch of beer” (Alliteration) shows how he has fun on his nights out with his friends, and how he is still just a child forced to live through an event he should never have to witness, let alone participate in.
However, he has no desire to be forgotten. He wants his death to be for a good reason, and to be respected. He leaves his life behind with a single request, for a funeral with a woman who sings for him, and a man who plays the accompaniment. The sorrow he leaves behind will be reflected in their music, as he lies six feet under the Earth.
The final line of this poem “for my sunset is drenched in red” is in reference to the slaughter of more than a thousand children. The sunset is the end of the day, and here, it is the end of all his days on Earth. This end, however, will not be simple, as it will be part of a much bigger massacre. His sunset will be drenched with the blood of all the children who died alongside him.
The narrator of this story has accepted the role he is forced to play in this, and he speaks as though he knows what is coming. He is so young and is completely undeserving of this. This poem shows us the pain and suffering the black children of Soweto were forced to go through purely because of a racist government. They did not deserve this, and what they deserved was equality, education, and long, fruitful lives.
A Young Man’s Thoughts Before June 16 | About the Author
Fhazel Johannesse was born in 1956, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Most of his writing was between the 1970s and 1980s, and he is an activist who supports the rights and dignity of black people. He is vehemently against racism and believes in equality for all. It is unfortunate to note that not very much more is known of him.
Johannesse was the co-editor of the magazine “Wietie” in the 1980s, built around giving a voice to a new generation of aspiring black writers. This was a magazine themed around Black Consciousness, but it did not last long as it was banned by the Apartheid government.
Some well-known works of his are the poem “The Night Train” and the collection of poems “The Rainmaker.”