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Tellin’ it Like it is: The African American Proverb Tradition

July 25, 2011

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.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2012 6:16 am

    the way you give us the highlight of the proverbs is nice, but we are still unable to get the detail of what proverbs is and the importance of the proverbs. we expect more than what is available on the Internet.Thank you. By Gemechu.BDU,Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

  2. Karehina Mango permalink
    December 10, 2013 11:20 am

    Proverbs are indeed full of wisdom. They are based on individual experiences but have a universal appeal. Even though they are brief, they carry a lot of weight. Ideas about virtues are expressed in proverbs, therefore, each proverb has a moral teaching. When a proverb is given, the listener tries to find out what lesson it is meant to teach. Most communities have proverbs which say, “We speak to the wise man in proverbs, not in plain language.” This means that the wise man is intelligent enough to understand proverbial language. Wow, what beauty language is.

  3. Keziah permalink
    December 12, 2013 7:40 pm

    revered is the woman or man in Africa who has the ability to speak in proverbs. respected is the woman or man in the African American community who has the skill and wisdom to speak in proverbs. for most black people throughout the diaspora, proverbs are little pieces of god, little visits from a higher being, gifts of the spirit. as proverbs are passed down through the oral tradition, proverbs have the power to put us conversation with our ancestors, even if it merely for a brief moment. the part of this blog that moved me most sincerely was the inserted quote by Geneva Smitherman, “the use of proverbs as a rhetorical tradition’ in the African Diaspora ‘reflects the continuity of the African consciousness among new world Blacks’. we are connected, all members of the diaspora. we are connected to each other and to our ancestors. the moment one of our elders provides a proverb in daily discourse and living, its as though a warp of time and space occurs. as proverbs are an offering of life lived, the illumination of a spirit world becomes active even if it is just for a moment, the will and wisdom of generations that came before us are revealed. We do not know where the proverb has come from and sometimes we are unclear as to why it has landed upon us. most times when I hear a proverb coming my way, usually by an elder, sometimes by a peer, there is a visceral response which happens in my body as the execution of such indirect, yet loaded, language occurs. i feel my sense of hearing, ignited. yes hearing through my ears, but also through my heart, mind, and spirit. I am tuned in, and when the proverb has been fully exposed my being is still listening to it, trying to decipher the meaning. the content and reverence of proverbs felt throughout diasporic black peoples advocates the truth that we, black people, are not alone, there is a force watching over us, guiding us, helping us. this force is our ancestors and our story. we are one, language is a realization of this unity.

  4. Grace .A.D. Djan permalink
    December 13, 2013 11:25 am

    I think this piece is one that encourages to hold on to the things that define us as African Americans and Africans as a whole.I believe the author rather shares his personal experiences of proverbs, but to add to that, proverbs do a lot more than that. For instance, in my traditional community, wrong dongs and social vices are addressed through say song, using proverb. Example, people compose song full of proverbs to address a King, whose reign or rule the people abhor. Through this, the King takes council with his elders and he takes resolutions that will favour the people. This way, the use of proverbs brings a change in society for peaceful co existence.

  5. Nora Carroll permalink
    December 13, 2013 12:56 pm

    This reminds me of ways that Black American folk play the dozens. The rhythm of the parables are identical to the rhythms of the disses. Love how both what consoles you in this culture can quickly hurt you.

  6. Brittany Botts permalink
    December 13, 2013 7:55 pm

    The African American proverb is constantly used in my daily life, whether I am directly repeating a proverb that I a familiar with or using the wisdom of a proverb I learned long ago to assist me in a certain predicament. Proverbs are those wise words from Granny that you always keep with you no matter where you go. In these proverbs, which have been passed on for generations, answers to problems can be found. Some of my favorites growing up were, “lay down with dogs and get fleas”, “keep your change in your purse”, “cloused mouth don’t get fed”, and “the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice.” I can fondly remember my Granny using these and others while cooking dinner for the family. The proverb also further solidifies the importance of the spoken word in the black community. Many of our oral traditions were passed down in proverbs as well.

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