Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, August 20, 2010

Staying true to what was hatched

What was hatched a hen must not try to be a rooster. (Grenada, Tobago)

Dear Zayda,

Accepting ourselves as we are seems to be one of the hardest jobs, for men as well as women.

Men often need to prove how macho they are. Even little boys can be accused of acting like girls if they show their feelings. Early on, boys find out that they are not supposed to cry if they are hurt, and they are not to give hugs or ask for hugs. Often, when Jamaican men meet, they show how glad they are to see each other by sounding and looking as if they are at war. They thump each other, slap each other, and shout insults at each other. Some of our men are so keen to prove their manhood that they don’t know how to show affection to the women closest to them, in particular their wives and daughters. Sons almost never qualify for affection, and the cycle goes on.

I recently went to a television studio where my make-up artist was a man. I am proud of him for doing what he loves, even if others might say this is “hen’s” work. Some years ago, I had an exciting outfit made for me by “Biggy”, a man who learned dress design from his mother and then specialized in dancehall outfits. Interestingly, men often become celebrities when they have the courage to excel at work traditionally done by women.

The society often decides what is “hen’s” work and what is “rooster’s” work. When I was a child, I loved to whistle. If my elders heard me whistling, they would say, “A whistling women and a crowing hen is an abomination to the lord.” They claimed this was a quote from the Bible, but it seems to come from some old Irish proverb.

Many times, a mostly female group will choose the sole male as leader, because they believe heading a group is rooster’s work. When one of our relatives was on her deathbed, she asked me to make sure no females wore pants to her funeral. Indeed, I was part of a struggle in the 1970s to allow women to wear pants to work.

Women still struggle for equal pay and recognition at work. Low-paying and care giving jobs like teaching and nursing are now mostly left to women. However, women can come across blocks to positions that men claim for themselves: engineers, construction workers, airline pilots, and corporate heads.

So, grandniece, it is important to know yourself and be yourself. If you are born a hen, you can only be a fake if you try to be a rooster instead. On the other hand, you don’t have to let anyone limit you with their ideas of what hens and roosters should or should not do. You only need to be your best self.


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