Book Review: Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs
One of the tragedies of the Middle Passage is that much of the wisdom of African cultures was lost on the Atlantic bed. Complicating this loss was the privileging of a Western worldview over the African genius. As a result, much of the “playful wisdom that is characteristically African” has not been passed on to generations of New World Africans. In Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, Askhari Johnson Hodari (USA) and Yvonne McCalla Sobers (Jamaica) have set themselves the task of recovering some of that wisdom.
Unlike the usual arrangement of proverbs by themes, Lifelines follows the pattern of human generational challenges:
Birth (Pregnancy and Childbirth): “A fire and a pregnancy cannot be kept secret.” –Rwanda.
Childhood (Parents and Parenting): “A mother never bites her child to the bone.”—Haiti.
Adolescence, Initiation, and Rites of Passage (Identity and Individuality): “Cutting the ears of a mule will not make him a horse.”—United States (Louisiana Creole).
Love, Marriage, and Intimacy (Friendship): “Good friend better than pocket money.”—Belize, Jamaica.
Challenge (Hypocrisy): “Beware of the herbalist whose wife sells coffins.”—Africa.
Ethics and Values (Debt): “Going to bed without dinner better than waking up in debt.”—Jamaica.
Elderhood (Age, Elders, and Experience): ”Every time an old man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.”—West Africa.
Death and Afterlife (Ancestors): “A person who gives to the ancestors eats with them.”—Tanzania.
By using a chronological pattern, Lifelines provides wisdom for each stage of life and the generational challenges that acompany human growth and development.
Of course, some may argue that similar information could be found in books of Euro-American proverbs, so Lifelines, in a sense, would be superfluous. That would only be partially true. Such criticism would miss a point that the authors acknowledge: “Messages may be similar, but the wisdom of proverbs is often based on setting and experience” (xv). In other words, context is essential. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.”
And this perhaps highlights the importance of Lifelines because it preserves an often denigrated African worldview. For example, the widely quoted English proverb that conveys change, “You’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet,” is similar to its African counterpart, “No rain, no rainbow” (102). But I prefer the African, which is gentler, but no less wise.
Lifelines, then,goes beyond the practicality of offering kernels of wisdom for facing life challenges. It is engaged in the recovery of an African worldview that can only be kept alive on the tongues of the inheritors. This can be done in a variety of ways. As a writer, I can imagine a mentor saying to a young apprentice, “Is heart, not horn that make ram goat brave” (182). Or as a teacher of composition, I could even assign a writing prompt based on the proverb, “Bats who think they are birds are in for a great surprise” (30).
Wisdom may be gained either through contemplating personal experiences or the experiences of others. Some lessons, however, may be too costly to be learned from personal experience: “He who digs a grave for his enemy may be digging it for himself” (151). In this respect, Lifelines is not a book to be left on the shelf to be consulted as if it were an arcane Book of Dreams or literary self-help in times of trouble. Rather as the cover blurb states: “The proverbs found in Lifelines offer the guidance and wisdom of a lifetime.”