Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The difference a mosquito makes

Shirley Sherrod

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

You will grow up as a Black girl in a country where most people are white. Being Black and being female can seem like good reasons to think we can’t make a difference. And if we believe that, we will let our lives slip away with thinking “if only…”

But one tiny mosquito can make a difference. Somehow mosquitoes know where our ears are, and they will zoom us and keep singing all night. If you turn on the light, you most likely won’t see the mosquito, but as soon as you lie down again, it will be buzzing your ear or biting any part of you it can find outside the cover sheet. Mosquitoes don’t give up easily.

Shirley Sherrod is a Black woman whose is right now making a lot of people think again. She is an ordinary, hardworking, Black Woman who is making a big difference. She was in the news because she didn’t keep quiet when people (a lot more powerful than she) treated her unfairly.

Shirley was born more than sixty years ago in Georgia, USA. At that time, Blacks in southern states could not eat in any restaurant or even drink from any water cooler they wanted to. They certainly couldn’t live where they wished, work where they wanted, or send their children to schools where they would get the best education. If they traveled on a bus, they had to sit in the back, or else stand up if some white person wanted a seat. If they talked back to a white person, they could die.

When Shirley was 17, a white farmer shot her dad to death, and a white jury set the killer free. Shirley chose to remain in the south to try to help Black people to have the same rights as anyone else. She studied in Ohio, but returned to Georgia to help poor farmers keep their land. Because of her work, the first Black president Barack Obama appointed her as Georgia Rural Farm Development Commissioner.

Well, about a week ago, she was shown in a short section of a videotape speaking about her attitude to a white farmer who came to her for help more than twenty years ago. The Black group that defends rights of Black people in the USA immediately condemned Shirley. The group said she had used her power against the white farmer, a man called Spooner. She was fired from her job.

All of that happened before people watched the full videotape and heard all that Shirley said. All of that happened before anyone asked Shirley a question. All that happened before anyone heard from Spooner, the farmer Shirley was supposed to have wronged.

Shirley did not stay silent. She may have been “small” but she did not decide to be insignificant. She spoke up for herself on television. When people saw the video, they could see she was just sharing her fears, but she didn’t use her fears to harm anyone. The white farmer said Shirley was his friend, and she saved his farm.

Those who condemned Shirley now said they were sorry. President Obama apologised to her personally, and she was offered her another job.

My grandniece, never believe you have to be silent. Never believe you are too small for your voice to be heard. We have power, and one of the best ways to use it is by speaking up for ourselves and others.


Your shangazi.

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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