Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Monday, August 16, 2010

Finding God in the heart

Adinkra symbol of the supremacy of God

Man looks only on the outside of things; God looks into the very heart. (Nigeria – Efik)

Dear Zayda,

Most of us cannot even imagine God. Many of us make up for that by creating God in our image.

I grew up in the Anglican Church. The God I learned about was old, white, and male, so where was there space for me, young, Black, and female. I knew I could become old with time. I could adopt all things white and try to be white in my mind and my view of the world. But being female would always be an obstacle to identifying fully with the God of the Anglican Church. Until very recent years, the Anglican Church did not allow women to be ministers.

Now, I could have considered joining the Roman Catholic Church. True enough, their overall leader was a Pope (always male). In addition, heads of their churches were priests (always male). However, Mary had a very special place. Sure she was female, but all the paintings and sculptures showed her as very white. I could never be sure how she remained so pale if she was supposed to have lived in a desert climate. However, little girls in my day were not supposed to ask those kinds of questions. Mary was also a virgin when her son was born, a definite challenge to me if I wanted to have a family. Unless I could be sure to meet an angel like Gabriel, and Mary was the only person I heard of with that good fortune. Besides, not even Mary would be allowed to be a priest (let alone Pope) in the Roman Catholic Church.

When I was a child, Anglicans were at the top of the social class, because this was the church of the planter class. Almost every single Anglican minister was white and from England. One Sunday, one of my brothers made the mistake of sitting in a church seat that “belonged” to a white person. The usher tried to make him give up the seat.

Catholics were perhaps next on the social scale, because they supported slavery and didn’t give Blacks any ideas about being equal.

Baptists and Moravians, who reached out to slaves, sometimes found their churches burnt down. Two of Jamaica’s National Heroes, Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle, were Baptist deacons. They believed that God looked into their hearts and found them equal to anyone else whom God created.

People who belonged to planter class churches tended to look down on people who belonged to churches with Black members and even Black pastors. Some of these churches even had drumming and clapping taken from ways in which Black people worshipped God in Africa.

My great-grandmother Priscilla Brown left the Anglican Church to join the Salvation Army. I think part of the reason was that she wanted a change from the dead music of the Anglican Church. She wanted some rhythm in her soul. Priscilla was light-skinned, so her family was shocked that she would go and worship with villagers whom they employed on their farms. But Priscilla didn’t care.

I could have joined one of the newer churches where the leaders and the members looked more like me. But I still had some issues with the image of a God that relied on man’s view of the outside of things. Even today, I would need to be silent in some of these newer churches. The reason, they say, is that Paul told women to be silent two thousand years ago. Now, Paul might have had a wife who was nagging him, or he might have been bossed around by an older sister or other women in his family. Or maybe he told the men to be silent that day as well, but the man who was recording the message somehow left out that part of the advice. Whatever the story, I find it hard to believe in a God that doesn’t want women to express themselves.

In some of these churches, women must wear hats, but men can have their heads bare if they want to. Now, I love hats and headwear, but I don’t see what part God has in what I choose to put on my body. I hold the same view for churches that say women must never wear pants (not even at the gym), or makeup, or jewellery. Interestingly, none of these rules apply to the men.

Rastafarianism attracted me because of its links to Africa. I loved the emphasis on natural hair, natural looks, and natural food. However, when I checked more closely, I realized that the freedom from the white man’s world applied to the men. As in some of the new Christian churches, Rastafarian women were not allowed to wear pants, short dresses, or even sleeveless tops. Even today, Rastafarian women can be set aside at certain times of the month when the men consider them unclean.

I respect those who rely on the outside of things (and people) to find God. However, my choice is to find a route that leaves my dignity and self-respect intact. I believe God lives within my heart, just as I am. He is therefore already and always within my reach.


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