Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Helping the youth to have roots

A youth without a link to the elders is like a tree without a root. (Africa)

Dear Zayda,

A tree might stand without roots for a while. However, the tree like my ancient Bombay mango tree has roots so deep that the trunk and branches can heal from damage. In addition, the roots are so strong that the tree suffers from neither flood or drought. More than twenty years ago, a hurricane shook up that mango tree badly, tearing off most of its branches. Still, the roots kept the tree alive, even if the tree was not strong enough to bear fruit for three years.

My ackee tree also teaches me some lessons about roots. The hurricane that tore up the mango tree brought down the ackee tree. Half the roots remained in the ground, so I sawed off most of the tree and left back a stump. In a short while, the leaves started to grow again, and three years later I had ackees around the same times as the mangoes returned. The new ackee trees grow like branches out of the stump, so they are not rooted directly in the soil. These trees therefore come down with each hurricane. However, the roots that remain on the stump keep providing me with ackee crops, no matter what. I learn from my ackee tree that even a portion of the roots will give new life to a tree. And bear fruit.

My sons were born in Africa, the place I consider as the source of my roots. They were born in Ghana, the land many of our ancestors left behind when they were forced to come to work in the Caribbean and the Americas. I was happy that they were born on the continent of Africa. However, I also knew that my current roots were in Jamaica. I had no name, language, known family, or ancestral village to help me to claim my African roots.

When I moved to England, my two-year-olds were in a place where none of us had roots. I spoke knew all the English kings and poets from my schooling, and I read more about daffodils and strawberries than hibiscus and breadfruit. But people who looked like me and my sons were called names, like monkeys who needed to get back to their trees. My sons were babies living in a country where, according to a song by Big Bill Broonzy:

"… if you was white, should be all right,
If you was brown, stick around,
But as you's black, hmm brother, get back, get back, get back"

As soon as they started school, the winds of racism started to toss my sons around. At times they talked as if they were ashamed of being Black. When they saw mothers come to pick up their children after school, they asked me why they didn’t have a white mummy also.

I saw around me Black people become strangers to themselves when they tried somehow to identify as white. I therefore took it as my duty to create for my sons the kind of roots that could stand up against the racism. I wanted my sons to be whole, proud of their roots in Africa and in Jamaica.

They therefore grew up with elders such as Haiti’s Toussaint L’Overture, and Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey. They heard often about America’s George Washington Carver, and South Africa’s Shaka Zulu. In addition, bedtime stories were the tales my Jamaican elders passed on to me, such as our Anancy stories.

My sons came to Jamaica when they were seven years old. They were happy to see around them so many people who looked like them and their parents. They could also connect my stories to ancestral roots that they could see and feel and touch. In addition, they had the privilege of having first-hand contact with elders, including their great-grandparents who were born in the nineteenth century.

Zayda, I want to pass on to you the strength I draw from links with my elders. I want to help you make your roots so strong that you always have the means to rise again no matter the challenges facing you when you grow up.


Your shangazi


Hilaire Sobers said...

Wow Ma, one often takes for granted this business of roots...I'm so glad that you insisted on connecting us with our's been invaluable in navigating this life...

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

My son, your comment aptly proves the wisdom of this proverb, and the importance of being connected to one's roots. Sometimes people forget in these days of high individualism.

We all definitely stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.


Your ma


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