Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, April 23, 2010

Henry Blair - inventor who couldn't read or write

Creation: Spring & Easter
A bird can't know where the corn is ready to eat unless it flies. (Burundi)

We rightly celebrate our highly educated family members, those who earn higher degrees often at great cost. But what of the contributions from family members who could not read or write?

A friend recently told me she discovered her grandmother was illiterate only after her death, because she had signed her will with an “X”. Henry Blair’s “X” was also the sign that he could not even write his name when he filed his patent application.

Blair was born in 1807, the year before Britain ended its involvement in the slave trade. As far as we know, he lived in Montgomery County, Maryland. Some say he was a slave who found ways to work secretly on his inventions. Others say he must have been a free man, or else he would have been unable to receive a patent. We know he was Black because patent records identify him as a “colored man”, the only inventor referred to by race.

His corn seed planter allowed farmers to increase their profits by planting corn faster and with considerably less labour. He also invented a cotton planter.

Blair died in 1860, testimony to giving wings to our ideas no matter our personal limitations.

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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