Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, September 16, 2010

When power overcomes hate

What power does, hate cannot undo. (Uganda)

Dear Zayda,

Please remember the names of these girls: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14). They were attending church in Birmingham, Alabama, when someone threw a bomb that killed them.

This incident took place on September 15, 1963.

At that time, Jim Crow laws existed in the United States. If you lived under those laws, you would have to attend a school for Black children only. These schools were never as good as schools for white children. The better jobs were kept for whites only, and most Black moms and dads worked as maids or gardeners in white people’s homes. Blacks who managed to become doctors, lawyers, or teachers, were also separated from whites.

Jim Crow laws affected where you could sit in a bus. Blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, and could not remain seated if a white person was standing. If you were out and wanted a drink of water, you would have to find a fountain that was meant for Blacks. If you wanted to use a bathroom, you would have to wait till you could find one that Blacks could use. Hotels and restaurants could turn you away if you wanted a room or a meal. Even Blacks who were in the army could not fight alongside whites.

As you can imagine, Blacks protested these unjust laws. In particular, Black soldiers returning from fighting in Europe could not understand why they could not have freedom when many of them had died in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) fighting for freedom.

Blacks therefore came together to oppose Jim Crow laws. They protested against being treated as inferior because of the color of their skins. In some places, they refused to use businesses and services that did not respect their right to be treated like any other human being.

By the early 1960s, Blacks were starting to see some results. For example, a change in the law allowed Black children to attend the same schools as whites. However, there was still a far far way to go.

Reverend Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X spoke out and led protests against the Jim Crow laws. Black people did not see why they had to wait any longer to be treated equally, and a Black Power movement started.

However, there were whites who did not want any change. They thought Jim Crow laws should remain and that Blacks should be their servants forever. The Ku Klux Klan, a group of racist whites, encouraged violence as a way of keeping Blacks from exercising power.

Addie Mae, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia were attending Sunday school classes at their church when the bomb blast went off. The Ku Klux Klan so hated Blacks that some of the Klan members attacked this Black church. Someone saw the person who threw the bomb. That person was at first given a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month sentence for the murders, because the courts still did not value the lives of Blacks. In 1977, however, this person who killed the girls was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Power proved to be stronger than hate. Because of the 1963 bombing, more and more people supported those who were seeking rights for Blacks. Demonstrations continued until the United States government changes the laws so as to allow Blacks to have the same rights as whites.

Zayda, the battle is not yet won. People might be able to drink water where they want, or to be a guest in any hotel or restaurant they can afford. However, pockets of hate still exist. But so does our power to do what hate cannot undo.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Finding happiness inside

Happiness requires something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. (Swahili)

Dear Zayda,

Each of us can decide what happiness means to us.

We can be happy because of what we have, except that human beings never see to have enough. For example, if we have a new car today, we may be happy till we see a state of the art SUV that we think would make us happier still.

We can also be happy because of who we are. Since we are unique and special, we can always tap into ourselves as our source happiness. The challenge is to know who we are and to have the courage to be that person.

So we can add a little to the proverb for today. We might make it read, “Happiness is knowing ourselves to we find something to do, something to love, and something to hope for consistent with the vision we hold of ourselves and our world.”

Let us imagine you see yourself as a writer of children’s stories. You might have something to do as a top buyer of furniture in a big firm. That job might earn you a big salary and allow you to own a home and a car while you are in your early twenties. However, just having “something to do” might not make you happy.

We all need something or someone to love. However, we sometimes love with the hope that the person will love us back. We may expect too much of that person who, after all, has his own life to lead and his own dreams to try to fulfill. In error, we may be relying on that person to fulfill our dreams. We may then turn to something to love, perhaps devoting ourselves to some worthy cause. Love of plants and animals, love of books, cars, and music, may fill the gap for a while. Sometimes for a long while. But if our real yearning is to love another human being, we will need to first learn to love ourselves. Some may say that we cannot truly love even things, until we love ourselves.

Happiness can give us something to hope for, just as something to hope for can give us a feeling of happiness. If we choose to be happy, the world can look good to us even on the dark days. Faith in ourselves can help us to realize that morning always follows night just as spring always follows winter. At the same time, we can make ourselves happy by having a goal to work toward.

If we turn around this Swahili proverb, we can see that an unhappy person is likely to have nothing to do, nothing to love, and nothing to hope for. Usually the person reaches that stage because she has not learned how to love herself. The best gift to that person is not necessarily a job, a mate, or even an animal for a pet. Those may help in the short run. However the person may end up even more unhappy if she loses the things that came from the outside because she did not come to terms with herself inside. The best help is to love the person just as she is, so she can start to see herself as lovable. We may need to hold her hands for a while, being patient with her, till she can take over the job of loving herself. We can best give that help if we already love ourselves.

Happiness is complex, my grandniece. The Swahili are onto something important here, but we may need to add to the advice they give us. Happiness also requires loving ourselves. It needs first of all to be an inside job.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Running toward peace rather than after fortune

He who runs after good fortune runs away from peace. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Money is very important. However, if you chase after money, it can become too important. It could become the most important thing in your life.

One of our relatives (I will call her Winsome) is an example of how someone can lose peace by running after good fortune. She once told me, “If I had a choice to be rich or to be happy, I would choose to be rich.”

Winsome was pretty and always looked about twenty years younger than her actual age. She enjoyed surrounding her self with beautiful things. She wore designer clothes, jewellery, shoes, and even T-shirts. I suspect she even wore designer underwear. Many of these items she bought on her annual trips abroad.

She loved to travel, and I think she visited every continent at least once. And she felt she needed lots of money to live the way she wanted to live. In addition, she wanted lots of leisure to do these things. She therefore had a plan to retire at fifty.

Winsome was bright and multi-talented. She studied languages, and was fluent in French and competent in Spanish. She qualified herself in library sciences before doing brilliantly in her law exams. She created desserts that would be the envy of a great chef. But she was not happy.

She earned well as an attorney, and was able to build her own house in an exclusive neighborhood. Rent from this house earned her a good income each month. She drove nothing but Mercedes Benz cars. But she was not happy.

Her parents were well off, and she wanted what they had. All of it. She had two brothers and a sister, but still she wanted the whole fortune. As an adult, she lived at home with her parents. She kept their company when they were well, and cared for them when they were ill. She therefore deserved to inherit her parents’ luxury home, and whatever else they chose to give her in return for her choosing to remain single and fully available to them. But some of the wealth was not enough for Winsome. She wanted all.

Winsome convinced her father that she was the only one who was faithful to him. The others had had differences with their father, who saw himself as a patriarch whose word was law. Winsome chose to remain under his thumb even as an adult, where her siblings had defied him at different stages in their lives. They had chosen careers of which their father disapproved; they had married persons of whom their father disapproved. They had not necessarily followed his advice on how to raise their children. They had had open quarrels with him when he tried to treat them as children even though they were middle-aged at the time. Winsome held her tongue, gave up her independence, and focused on the fortune.

Winsome’s father died and left all his wealth to his wife, on condition that on her death, she would pass on the fortune to Winsome only. Two of the siblings accepted the father’s wishes, even if they could not agree with his decision to favor one child over the others. The other sibling (I will call him George) saw how Winsome had played her game, and decided to outplay her.

After her father’s death, Winsome and her mother became like twins. They went everywhere together, wore each other’s clothes, and pooled their funds in joint accounts. Winsome could almost relax in her hunt for the complete fortune.

Then a roadblock developed. Winsome fell in love and her mother disliked the person so much that she would not allow him beyond her gate. This provided George with a chance to come between Winsome and their mother, and to put in his bid for the complete fortune.

George listened well to the mother’s complaints about Winsome, and he was happy to take Winsome's place as the mother’s constant companion. He helped his mother to remove Winsome’s name from most of her properties and from several of her bank accounts.

Nothing and no one, not even the man she loved, could comfort Winsome when she saw the wealth disappearing. She said she would prefer to die rather than live without all that her father intended her to have. She could not see life without the trips across the world and the expensive belongings.

She became an example of they way someone can die of a broken heart. She still looked young and beautiful when she died of a disease that caused her organs to stop working. Let us hope she has found peace in the next world where material possessions do not matter.

Just look at the trees in spring, Zayda, and you will know we live in a universe of abundance. We can follow nature by giving of ourselves, and opening up ourselves to receive. We can try to be at peace with ourselves so we attract the best to us.

We can decide if we want to risk our happiness by chasing after wealth. We know we are on the wrong track if we find ourselves competing, trying to deprive others so we have everything, or wanting to hoard for fear the wealth will run away.

I do believe we can have it all, if that all means most of all being happy. What do you think?


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Protecting chickens from hawks

Do not throw an egg at the hawk who has just snatched one of your chicks. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,
Hawks exist in the world. They look for chickens not because they are bad people, but because they are hawks.

Many mothers learned to be chickens and passed on that message to their daughters. We think we must never talk back to those (usually male) who have power. We may believe that if we are nice, the world will be nice to us in return.

Hawks look out for nice chickens. They will tend to avoid the tougher chickens who will squawk and draw attention to the hawk in their midst. Hawks often don’t want to mess with hens that will peck at them and call down their barnyard crew to chase away the hawk. Most of all, hawks might not want to tangle with roosters who will use their spurs to defend the chickens.

So here is what some of the modern hawks do. They may be friends of moms and dads, and they may even be family members. They manage therefore to get between the chickens and those protecting the chickens. They may even get into the chicken coop and pretend to be just another chicken.

When the chicken cries out, a mom or a dad may say, “This nice person would never do or say that to you.” The chicken may also be told, “You are too sensitive,” or “You are being emotional.” Worst of all, those who matter most to the chicken may say, “You must be sick to be making up these stories. You are a liar.”

A hawk may threaten the chicken so she stays silent. He may say that terrible things will happen to the chicken or the chicken’s family if she ever talks about what is happening to her. He may even tell the chicken that it is her fault that he is attacking her.

Hawks often look for chickens on the Internet. In that way, the chickens don’t get to see what the hawk is like in person. The hawk can therefore pretend to be a chicken, gentle and sweet. Even if moms and dads want to protect the chicken, they may not know what is happening in an online chat room.

So what can you do to protect yourself, my grandniece? Trust your feelings. Act on your instincts. You don’t have to wait till the hawk has snatched a chick to know you could be in danger. You certainly do not have to do anything to placate the hawk, even if the person is a family member, your parents’ friend, or an online friend who says he is your age and in your grade at school.

Chickens need to learn to squawk. They may need to stop being polite as their moms and dad no doubt trained them to be. They need to yell, slap, kick, and bite if that is what it takes to scare off the hawk. If need be chickens need to risk going to the police to report the hawk’s behavior. The almost last thing a chicken needs to do is to hold the hawk’s secrets. The very last thing a chicken needs to do is to try to throw an egg to a hawk that shows signs of wanting to snatch a chick.

The world is a beautiful place, my grandniece, but we may not find all the people beautiful as they may seem. We don’t have to blame them for what they are, but we do need to protect ourselves by staying clear of danger, especially when our instincts tell us. “Watch out”.

I hope you will always listen to your instincts.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Forgiveness ends the argument

He who forgives ends the argument (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Two monks were once walking on a long journey. When they came to a river, they saw a young woman who wanted to get across, but the water was above her head. One of the monks lifted her up and took her to the other side in his arms. The second monk paid no attention to the young woman. The monks then continued walking and the young woman went along a different path.

Three hours later, the second monk said, “I don’t understand you, my brother. You know we have taken a vow never to touch a woman. You broke that vow when you lifted that woman across the river.”

“You are right,” said the first monk. “I held her in my arms for about three minutes. However, you have held her in your mind for the last three hours. And you seem set to hold her in your mind even longer. It seems to me that, until you let her go, you will continue breaking your vow.”

Jack Mandora, mi nuh choose none. [This is a way we end stories in Jamaica. The phrase means that I am passing on the story to you as I got it, but I cannot tell you whether or not it is true.]

The first monk did what he had to do. He broke a rule because he saw this young woman’s need and he could help her. He also knew that his vow was meant to help him stay focused on being a monk. However, he also believed in helping others as much as he could. He could forgive himself and move on, ending whatever argument he may have had in his mind.

The second monk could not let go of his view of what he saw. He had an argument in his mind that he kept turning over and over. To him, his position was morally superior. He was protecting the rules. If he were like many of us, he would not be able to resist telling others how right he was and how wrong his brother monk was. With each repeat of his side of the story, more and more persons would be likely to enter the argument and take sides. If he continued the argument, he could become unhappy and ill. In addition others could avoid him because he would not be fun to be around.

If the second monk is wise, he will learn from the memory and let it go. He will realize that he needs to forgive himself for what could be his own frailty in relation to women. He could have past experiences that cause him to fear touching a woman.

If the first monk had truly released all his would be able to forgive his brother monk his inability to end the argument. If he knew and trustws himself well, he would let go the baggage that rightly belonged to the one who decided to carry the load in his mind.

Sometimes people hurt us. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, close cousins and distant cousins may seem to fail us. We may feel friends have betrayed us. People may steal from us what we consider most valuable, taking away our jobs, our homes, and even the lives of our loved ones. The media seeks out those who are victims, so we may find fame and fortune in continuing to show how much another person's conduct makes us suffer.

At some point, however, we may need to choose between being happy and being sorry for ourselves. Old and worn stories may begin to affect the choices we make and the relationships we form. Those who want to be happy will avoid us. Those who at first welcomed the argument may become tired of it and move on to stories from more recent victims.

My grandniece, letting go is not easy, especially in a world that promotes getting our own back at those we think have offended us. I am not asking you to be a door mat, so you need never excuse what you do not wish to accept. You can remember, but not with hurt or desire for revenge. You can remember in order to make better choices in the future. You can remember so as to know whom to bring into your closest circle, and whom to keep your distance from.

Where you are the one who did wrong, forgiveness means accepting that you did wrong, and not trying to excuse or justify your behavior. Admit it, let go the baggage, repair any damage done, and continue on life’s journey.

Forgiving (most of all self-forgiving) is not easy, but it is the only way to go if you love yourself and want to keep yourself whole and healthy.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Learning how to lead

The egg says, “I am like authority. If you hold me too hard, I break; if you let me go, I fall and break to pieces on the ground.” (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

Women are still learning how to lead. Since we know what we do not know, we may be better off than men who think they know. With centuries of practice, men are still making a mess for women to clean up. For too long we have accepted the work and expected none of the authority or even the credit. Increasingly, we women are demanding our share of authority not just at home but in the boardroom and in parliament.

Girls usually become leaders much younger than boys. When the new baby comes, parents usually give some of their authority to the big sister. Parents may blame the three-year-old girl for any harm that comes to baby under her watch. If she and a younger child have a fight when they are grown, parents will say, to big sister, “You are the older one, so you must set the example.” Perhaps some of us avoid authority because we link it to blame, sacrifice, loss of childhood, and loss of fun.

While the girls are doing chores and supervising younger children, the boys (certainly in Jamaica!) are usually outdoors playing games. They therefore learn about authority through games. So while women take authority seriously and often too seriously, men tend to see authority as a game. Where women may take a loss to heart, a man may accept a loss as the price for staying in the game. Women may think their power base is formed in discussions at meetings; men know the power base is formed over drinks at the bar.

Women with state authority used to be rare. The first female elected to head a government was Sirivamo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, in a country where men usually lead while women follow several paces behind. From similar cultures came such leaders as Indira Gandhi of India, and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. Today we had many more women holding state power in countries such as Liberia, Germany, and Chile. Portia Simpson Miller was Jamaica’s first and only female prime minister, and this year Kamla Persad-Bissessar became Trinidad’s prime minister. You can see a list of women currently in power at:

Women continue to search for positive ways to handle authority. Most women, such as Maggie Thatcher of Britain, have decided to hold the egg hard, often so hard that they defeat themselves. Some, like Eugenia Charles of Dominica, stay the course as a strong leader, not seeming to care if others think they are acting like males. Many more women avoid handling authority. They let go of the egg out of fear of being seem as trying to be a man.

My grandniece, you can begin to practice handling authority as soon as you have any kind of leadership role – at home or at school. Remember the lesson of the egg. Carry an egg around with you for a few days and see what you have to do to protect the egg.

Understand that you can be gentle without allowing the egg to fall. Notice that you can hold the egg firmly without crushing it. Remember that if you put down the egg, someone else may pick it up and act as if the egg belongs to him because that is what he grew up to believe.

And if you find no other sources to guide you, Zayda, remember the wisdom the ancestors have set down for us in these proverbs. Remember women such as Yaa Asantewaa and Harriet Tubman. They had the courage to take up the egg and nurture it. They could be tough and gentle, flexible and uncompromising.

Balance and self-trust are some of the qualities we need to feel at home with the authority that belongs as much to us as to anyone else.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Letting go of pretence

No matter how long a log stays in the water, it doesn't become a crocodile. (Mali)

Dear Zayda,

We can admire people, and we can even pattern our lives on the lives of others. But only one original exists, and all else are carbon copies.

Singers on talent shows, like American Idol, have weeks when they perform songs by well-known singers. However, they judges are always looking for to see where the performers are bringing their unique talent to the song.

Fantasia, the winner a few seasons ago, sounded to me like Aretha Franklin. If she continued to sound like Aretha, Fantasia could have been no more than an Aretha imitator. She needed to find her own voice and her own personality on stage. Besides, even if she spent a lifetime trying to be Aretha, she would still be Fantasia. She would have failed at being Aretha, and failed at being herself. For the record, Fantasia has been herself, with all the challenges that can come from letting others see us as we are.

Our unqualified success in life is in being our true selves. We can do that better than anyone else.

Howard Daly was a dancer, singer, musician, and personal coach. He loved life and he loved people. A doctor commented that when Howard was on the hospital ward, his presence brought about changes nurses and doctors had never seen in the hospital.

No one is likely to build a monument to Howard. No one is likely to name streets after Howard. He died last weekend without leaving children by blood or any more than basic possessions. But all who knew him have a memory of a person who was true to himself and could therefore be true to others. He brought a sense of peace, because he was at peace with himself.

He was therefore free to show his heart, the unique part of all of us. Sometimes we want to be ourselves, but we are scared that others might see us without the masks that we think protect us. Many times other people have already seen behind the masks, but they may keep up the pretense because that is what they think we want. They may be wearing masks of their own, so the game might be that they leave our mask alone if we leave theirs alone.

Masks serve a purpose. Our ancestors had to wear masks to protect themselves. They had to pretend to be happy so slave-owners would not know they were planning to resist their bondage. Jonkunnu, Carnival, and Mardi Gras allowed people to relieve stress by pretending to be someone or something else. They could say and do things without being seen for who they really were. But no matter how long we wear the mask, we never can become the face of the mask. We may even forget who we truly are and find ourselves faceless.

So, Zayda, if we are a log, let’s be a great log. Let's seek the sunlight since the log that stays in water too long will probably rot. Others may be scared of the log for as long as they fear it is a crocodile, but the secret will be out when the log is exposed as having no scales or teeth or tail. Or life of its own.

My grandniece, you bring the unique you to this life. You have special qualities that your world needs. Mask when you have to or need to. But seek always to free yourself to be yourself.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at