Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Loyalty to Ubuntu principle

One can't make a pact with the slave and make a pact with the master and not betray one of them. (Yoruba)

Dear Zayda,

The blood of slaves and slave masters runs in our veins. If they wanted to continue living, our female ancestors could not say “no” to their owners. Children of mixed blood often had an easier life than Black children - lighter work, better food, and a chance to read and write. Lucky ones got their freedom. The question then, as now, is who will have our loyalty, slave or master.

Some ease their minds by making a pact with the master. They speak the master’s language (sometimes with the master’s accent) and consider slave-derived language as “bad”. They wear the master’s clothing, intended for cold climates, even in tropical heat. As best they can, they try to make their hair and skin colour resemble the master’s. What they can’t do for themselves, they may try to do for their children and grandchildren by choosing spouses who are white or near-white. Some may go so far as to refuse to acknowledge relatives who look or act “too Black”.

Those who make a pact with the slave could be considered as “too Black”. They will wear their hair long, but in dreadlocks or natural braids, not straight hair weaves. They are proud of having smooth chocolate skin and generous lips. They take every chance they can get to celebrate with the drumming and dancing and stories of their African ancestors. Persons such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X inspire them.

But we live in a world together - Blacks and whites, children of slaves and slave masters. We need to make pacts with each other and with ourselves. Even if one side or the other thinks we betray them, we must never betray ourselves. That means, Zayda, that we allow principle to guide us.

Nelson Mandela is an example of someone who tried to make pacts with slave and master while respecting the rights of all. He tried to follow the principle of Ubuntu. He explained it in this way as:

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

One of my heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is also someone who tries to find principled ways of making pacts. This is how he explains Ubuntu:

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity.

“We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

To me, the essence of Ubuntu is love. So we have to love ourselves enough to find peace between the masters and slaves who may at times seem to be at war within us and around us.

We have to love others to see beyond the slave or the master to the humanity that we all share.

It’s not easy, but we can do it. We have to do it for our survival.


Your shangazi


Best HBCU said...

Peace Sister,

This post is so beautiful and so true. I've had these thoughts myself and I have watched these two videos. Loving ourselves can be so difficult. I think it is the biggest hurdle we have as the descendants of slaves. Self-hatred was not only spoon-fed to us as babies, but the images and messages that we should feel worthless were and are so prevalent that learning to love ourselves can seem as monumental a task as reversing time, but you are right. If we are to survive, we must learn to love ourselves so that we can love others.

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...


Thanks so much for your response to this blog post.

These posts are letters to my grandniece Zayda. I hope to spoon-feed her with self-love and therefore love for others. Zayda is not yet three months old, and I have not yet met her in the flesh as she is in Canada and I am in Jamaica. But today her mom put my call on speaker phone so Zayda and I could have our conversation, and my grandniece babbled in all the right places.

This is such a huge task, and it sometimes seems daunting to give what we may not have received. But Zayda helps me stay on track. And so does encouraging feedback like yours.




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