Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Balance between stone and water

To be hard doesn't mean to be hard as a stone, and to be soft doesn't mean to be soft as water. (Kenya)

Dear Zayda,

When you start to make your first steps, you will discover balance. You will fall many times before you trust your legs enough to start running. But even adults fall when they lose balance. So we don't have to be always hard, or always soft. But we can always let love direct us on how best to act.

I was balanced (or thought I was) when I first went to live in England. I had gone to a school were I had British teachers and learnt from books written for English children. I also had a British passport. So when I got to England, I felt at home. I could eat strawberries and cream, and in spring I could enjoy the “host of golden daffodils”. In Jamaica, we would line up in the sun to see the queen on here rare visits to Jamaica. But in London, I could get to see the queen as often as I wanted to. Yes, I was at home, even with the winter damp and snow, and with long summer days that could be chilly and bleak.

Then I discovered that I was too Black. Too Black to get a decent place to rent or buy. Too Black to feel welcome in some restaurants. Too Black to be treated as just another human being. I had to decide what to do to save myself while I lived with people who just needed to see my skin colour to dislike me. Being hard seemed as stone seemed a better choice than being soft as water. And if took me a while to see that I didn’t need to be either stone or water.

I fell in love with the children I taught. I didn’t see them as Black, brown, or white. They were just my children. At first some of them saw me as Black only, and carried into the classroom their parents' fears of blackness. But as we grew to know each other, I was just “Miss” who sometimes couldn’t write straight on the blackboard. I was a fun person whom my students wanted to sit next to at the lunch table, or whose music class my students wanted to be part of so they could catch some tropical sunshine in the drum rhythms. I needed to know when to be tough with my students, and when to be soft with them. But most of all, I knew they needed me to the best of me. Authentic.

I still left home every day ready to be a hard as stone with any of the adults who got on my wrong side. If they treated me as “less than”, then I was ready to teach them some tough lessons. I found out how much English people hated tantrums, so I learned how to be yell and cry foul to get their attention.

One day I went to a white doctor’s office and cried foul at him. The office was closed when I got there, but the patient in the waiting room opened the door for me. When the doctor came to call his patient, he was angry to see me there. So he and I exchanged some hot words for a while. He said I had sneaked into his office, and I said he had closed his office ahead of time. I thought of walking out, but I needed to see a doctor that morning.

When I got into his surgery, the doctor and I started to behave like human beings. Not Black and white. Not male and female. Not doctor and patient. Just people. Somehow we started to talk with each other and not at each other as we had been doing. He admitted he may have closed a few minutes early because he had such a busy day ahead. I admitted I may have arrived a few minutes after his official closing time. He treated my complaint, but the lessons of that morning remain with me more than forty years later.

No, we don’t need to be so hard that we can’t feel anything any more. And we don’t have to be water so anyone can push us around. We can be tough where we need to be, and flexible where we need to be. Most of all we can act out of love of ourselves and others.


Your shangazi


Anonymous said...

Completely excellent!

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Thanks much for your comment, Anonymous.



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