African-American Proverbs in Context

African-American Proverbs in Context

African-American Proverbs in Context

African-American Proverbs in Context

Excerpt

In many ways, it seems that I have been writing this book all of my life. I was born and raised in rural Virginia, surrounded by people who cast the world in vibrant and poetic colors. I grew up on a former plantation, in a community of African-Americans descended from slaves who had toiled there; the Big House still stood at the center of the several hundred acres of land, with the descendants of the slave owners coming and going in automobiles rather than in the horse and carriage of old. I was always hearing stories about those days, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic. And I was fortunate in that one of the community pillars, storytellers, and griots was my great-grandmother, to whom I was very close as I grew up. From her, my mother, and other older people, I learned the beauty of language and metaphor, the grace of the spoken word, aesthetics of poetic and philosophical meaning, and the ways in which all of these can be intricately linked to nature, as well as to private, community, and cultural experiences.

I fell in love with proverbs at an early age. I began collecting sayings from calendars and asking older people what they meant by some of the things that they said. The use of a proverb at a particular moment has always intrigued me and struck me as an aesthetic highlight in conversation. When I was taken on walks through the woods, for example, and shown the beauty and mystery of plants, I might be told a proverb as a part of that experience. Or a story might be told about an enslaved ancestor who performed an incredible feat, with a proverb accompanying the narrative. It was always a particularly rich moment when one of those expressions was spoken in some other context, and the pungent fragrance of cultural and personal history enhanced whatever speech event was happening at the time.

Although I had become a working poet by the time I graduated from high school, it was not until 1975, in a folklore class with Daryl Dance at Virginia Commonwealth University, that I realized what possibilities proverbs had as an academic pursuit. This realization crystalized when a few of the proverbs . . .

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