New Book: Lifelines: Black Book of Proverbs



Lifelines: Black Book of Proverbs

My sister-author Askhari Johnson and I were raised by elders who had a proverb for every occasion. We therefore consider ourselves blessed to have links with an oral tradition  that kept spirits free even when bodies were in chains.  In our book,  Lifelines: Black Book of Proverbs, we are happy to remind readers of a legacy of wisdom that can still guide us today.

The idea of writing this book arose  about three years ago when  Askhari and I were both approaching landmark birthdays. We had reached crossroads in our careers and personal lives; the time felt right to fulfill our common desire to commit our energies to writing. Proverbs strengthened us through our challenges, just as they sustained our elders before us.  We therefore decided to use modern means to keep our oral tradition alive and accessible to coming generations.

Askhari and I built sisterhood in cyberspace. Her home is in the United States and mine is in Jamaica. We met as members of a human rights mail list, and then for more than a decade we were fellow writers in an online workshop for Black writers. Over the years, proverbs flowed naturally through our email exchanges, since “a proverb is to speech what salt is to food.” So when we began to share our work and our writing goals, we used as subject title, “brick on brick [build house].”  In addition, when we came across mountains in our path, we reminded each other that “time longer than rope” – this too shall pass.

In writing Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, we have pooled our skills as partners who share dreams and support each other’s desire to excel as writers. The proverb that best describes our approach is “when your sister does your hair, you do not need a mirror.” To this project, we brought habits of hard work, a feel for language and editing,  and a passion for the culture of our ancestors.  We had complementary abilities, such as Askhari’s  sharp eye for detail, and my focus on  the big picture. Conflicts were inevitable, and when they occurred, we remembered the proverb, “Black ants bite, but they do not bite each other.”

At first, we had in mind a text of about 6,000 African proverbs.  The proposed title was then “Daughters of Experience”, taken from the Sierra Leone saying, “proverbs are the daughters of experience.” Our Random House editor, Christian Nwachukwu, had other ideas. He suggested a greatly trimmed book – about 2,000 proverbs – arranged according to life passages from birth to death. Askhari and I did not need much convincing to see the value of  a book that offered gems under themes related to life passages. . . 

We chose the title because we intended readers to find ‘lifelines’ – words of support, guidance, and encouragement – in these proverbs. For example:
  1. Health and healthcare: “Medicine left in the bottle cannot help.” (Yoruba)
  2. Economy: “The poor person does not experience poverty all the time.” (Ghana)
  3. Peace and War: “It is better to build bridges than walls.” (East Africa)
  4. Education: “Nobody is without knowledge, except they who ask no questions.” (Fulani)
  5. Spirituality: “The darkness of night cannot stop the light of morning.” (Burundi)
  6. Collaboration: “People sailing in the same boat, share the same goal.” (Wolof)

Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, is packaged as a 256-page gift book. We chose proverbs with clear messages and strong images, representing a variety of ethnic groups and countries. In addition, we arranged the proverbs so they would flow together to create story poems. Themes include Marriage, Sex, Closeness and Familiarity, and Home in the section titled “Love, Marriage, and Intimacy.”

The short essays at the start of each section are intended to show how each one of us can apply these proverbs to daily living. These vignettes are based on incidents I experienced or learned about in Jamaica and in Ghana where I spent four years. I felt honored to be able to share stories showing  the values passed on to me by my own elders...

Archbishop Desmond Tutu – whose life symbolizes to us the values enshrined in African proverbs – wrote the foreword to our book. We are honored by his association with our work.
We donate a portion of our royalties to Save Africa’s Children. This organization “provides direct support and care to orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS, poverty and war throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.”

To an extent, LIFELINES is spiritual, cultural, and sociological. But mostly it is a way of passing to our children the wisdom of our ancestors.


Yvonne McCalla Sobers, a former educator who studied at the University of the West Indies, is currently a human and community development consultant, and also a human rights activist and researcher. Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs (Random House, 2009) is her second non-fiction work. Her first was Delicious Jamaica! Vegetarian Cuisine (Book Publishing Company 1996). She has published short stories in British, Jamaican, and Caribbean anthologies. Apart from a four years spent in Ghana, followed by almost five years spent in England, Yvonne has lived all her life in Kingston, Jamaica.

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