Tellin’ it Like it is: The African American Proverb Tradition
Written by guest blogger Simanique Moody
In many cultures, proverbs are used to counsel, impart wisdom, and motivate others. The beauty of proverbs is that while their use and interpretation reflect universal human experiences, they also carry localized meanings and frames of reference unique to individual cultural groups. Proverbs allow community members to orally transmit knowledge and cultural values to one another.
Geneva Smitherman, one of the foremost experts on African American English (AAE), maintains that ‘the use of proverbs as a rhetorical tradition’ in the African Diaspora ‘reflects the continuity of the African consciousness among new world Blacks’.
The education I received while growing up in the rural south was not limited to one source. Though I attended school Monday through Friday, I also went to Sunday school and church, participated in cultural events at home and in the community, and spent a little bit of time out in the streets. My mother wit, or God-given wisdom, helped me navigate many difficult situations, adding to my personal growth and development. But I learned some of my most important life lessons from my elders in the form of proverbs. These proverbs are a source of truth and inspiration that I will carry with me always. I discuss a few of my favorites below.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- To this very day, my grandfather reminds me not to be naïve or gullible by telling me don’t take no wooden nickels.
- My great-grandmother would say, every closed eye ain’ sleep and every goodbye ain’ gone, which means that things aren’t always what they seem. This proverb lets us know that people are always watching our actions.
- Feed ‘em with a long-handled spoon means that there are certain people in life that you have to keep at a distance.
- If by chance someone tells you that you got to ease your hand out the lion’s mouth, it means that you must take great care in getting yourself out of a sticky situation.
- Using an analogy from needlework, my great-grandmother used to tell my mother to knit and tuck, meaning that as you work and go about your daily life, you should constantly save or ‘tuck’ something away for hard times.
The cultural knowledge stored in proverbs is often not fully appreciated until you reach adulthood. I find myself using proverbs more and more, mainly when speaking to African American peers and those younger than me. Sometimes, however, I test them out on elders to display my competence in African American English and my home culture after so many years of formal schooling.
In sum, proverbs play an integral role in the formative experiences of many African Americans, and they help to guide their steps throughout the rest of their life. They’re a source of wisdom for me, which I, in turn, share with others, providing cultural continuity for future generations. In this way, the circle remains unbroken. And as the old saying goes, though the players may change, the game remains the same.
Simanique Moody is a postdoctoral researcher in the Linguistics Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research examines the grammatical structure of African American English and the historical relationship between African American English and Gullah-Geechee in southeast Georgia. She is also interested in contact linguistics and language variation. A profile of Simanique and her work appeared in Word. last fall.