Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery

By B. A. Botkin | Go to book overview

PART ONE
Mother Wit

Course, the people be more intelligent in learning these days, but I'm telling you there a lot of other things got to build you up 'sides learning. There one can get up to make a speech what ain't got no learning, and they can just preach the finest kind of speech. Say they ain't know one thing they gwine say 'fore they get up there. Folks claim them kind of people been bless with plenty good mother wit.

We begin with people talking and swapping stories—the way all literature and history began in the days before writing. The talk is canny talk, full of shrewd meaning and sly humor. The stories have the unaffected sincerity of honest folk plus the reticence of those whom cruelty has made wary and whom oppression has taught the art of evasion and irony as a compromise between submission and revolt.

Where there is no tradition of learning or any tradition, for that matter, save an oral one, the folk fall back on mother wit, a kind of inspired wisdom and eloquence, based on intuition and experience. "How I larnt such? .... It come to me." "I ain't talking 'bout what I heard; I'm talking 'bout what I done seed." "This is a fact; 'taint no lie. It's what I done." ".... Most of them things works iffen you tries them." Mother wit tells you what to say and do and think, on the spur of the moment; and yet its promptings come from away back; for there is a kind of accumulated mother wit of generations, which has the weight of tradition behind it and which gives the quality of proverb and ritual to improvisation. How else can one explain the rich allusiveness of language which is both plastic and patterned ?

"Mean a man as God ever wattled a gut in." "He done ever'thing he could 'cept eat us." "I nussed babies till I got against nussing babies." "Right smart spends it foolish." "They [the snakes] commenced to rattle like dry butter‐ beans." And the power of aphorism: "White folks do as they pleases, and the

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