Excerpt- Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs


The tongue of Egyptian experience has the most truth. A lie runs in Cuba only until the truth overtakes it. The tree with the most leaves does not necessarily produce Brazil’s juiciest fruit. It is before the drum that a Haitian learns the samba. If you dance with a crocodile in Guyana, you better plan what you’re going to do when the dance is done.

As “daughters of experience,” we share a passion for proverbs. Short, snappy sayings surround our lives. During our upbringings, we both learned that “a proverb is to speech what salt is to food” (Ethiopia).

When Askhari misbehaved and believed she had gotten away with something, her grandma Addie always said

All shut eye ain’t sleep.

Grandma also reminded her not to be picky, but that she always had choices, by saying

Any kind of water puts out a fire.

Askhari’s great aunt Weezy, a proud but poor woman, used to sit in her rocking chair, cross her legs, and say

Even a poor rat has at least one hole.

Askhari’s mama, referring to her father’s dark complexion, told her

The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.

Askhari’s mama frequently used that proverb to remind Askhari to feel beautiful and to strengthen her children’s and students’ self-esteem in a white-dominated society.

In Jamaica, Yvonne’s mother, like Askhari’s mama, warned against premarital sex by saying

He won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.

Yvonne’s mother also warned her that disaster could follow the pleasure of the moment:

Chicken merry, hawk near.

Miss Annie, Yvonne’s grandmother, cautioned her, in particular, against creating problems where there were none before:

Trouble don’t set up like rain.

Yvonne’s dad advised her always to take responsibility for solving her problems:

Who have raw meat must seek fire.

Some of these elders have passed on, but they left us both with words and wisdom collected over centuries. All over the planet, individual experiences have become part of a collective experience: “Proverbs are the daughters of experience” (Sierra Leone). These proverbs provide lifelines that we can grasp in trying to understand and appreciate our world.

Someone once described proverbs as “short sayings based on long experiences.” Around the world, people use proverbs to express basic truths in memorable, commonsense form. These proverbs gain credibility through widespread, repeated use.

Adults often use proverbs to give children advice and instruct them on ethics and values. Many parents and grandparents, as well as many spiritual and community leaders, guide young people with messages.

In that same way, people use proverbs to resolve arguments and to solve problems. One proverb even speaks to this point: “A wise man who knows proverbs reconciles difficulties” (Benin). In fact, since “one who applies proverbs gets what she wants” (Zimbabwe), people frequently use proverbs in discussions to add weight to or to support a particular position. Proverbs can also shed light on problems, from the personal to the global.

Proverbs reflect common human experiences as well as unique views of the world. Messages may be similar, but the wisdom of proverbs is often based on setting and experience. European proverbs often refer to oaks, ravens, geese, castles, kingdoms, porridge, and horses. Asian proverbs may speak of flutes, bamboo, roses, and rice. In contrast, African proverbs speak of drums, crocodiles, yams, and gourds.

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