Academic journal article Western Folklore

Pots, Kettles, and Interpretations of Blackness

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Pots, Kettles, and Interpretations of Blackness

Article excerpt

Like any folklorist: would be, I was honored by the invitation to deliver the 2001 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture. I first attended a California Folklore Society meeting in 1980, during one of my first years in graduate school. Although I eventually selected a different dissertation topic on African-American discourse, I became very interested in proverb study during that intellectually stimulating time. Because they are one of the most popular genres of everyday speech, proverbs encapsulate the appeal of folklore study to scholars dedicated to analyzing the worldview of peoples whose cultures are more oral than written. For those of us interested in African-American folklore, the omnipresence of proverb use in everyday speech indicates that studies of African-American world view may be incomplete without proverb analysis.

At the UC Berkeley Folklore Archives, I ferreted out the files on African-American proverbs as well as the folders on Anglo ones. I was looking for commonality. I wanted to know which proverbs were commonly repeated and reported by both blacks and whites. And were there similarities in the interpretations of meaning? The most frequently reported proverb in the African-American files was some version or another of "Don't let your mouth write a check your ass can't cash." But I didn't find versions of it in the Anglo file. "That's like the pot calling the kettle black" was the most frequently reported proverb in the African-American files that also had a thick folder in the Anglo files. But while the proverb is clearly familiar in both cultures, informant interpretations vary.

I began with my personal understanding of the proverb's meaning. For me, the proverb is probably the most appropriate idiom to use when I "catch" someone making a hypocritical statement. Since my family, my father in particular, did not suffer hypocrites gladly, I certainly grew up hearing this proverb and had it directed at me whenever I might accuse someone of a fault I possessed. Proverbs were teaching tools and by pointing out hypocrisy in this fashion, my parents were trying to mitigate this attribute in me. Another common usage in my own family is to utter the proverb itself in order to get away with a sharp observation. An example here might be, "This is sort of like the pot calling the kettle black, but I heard that Jan was working on his paper right up until the California Folklore Society meetings." Here I've called myself a hypocrite before anyone else can level the accusation but also managed to get in a jab at Jan.

The coloring of pots and kettles posed no problems. I grew up in kitchens adorned by black cast iron cookware and my own still fledgling culinary skills are rooted in the use of these imposing tools. My father's farm kitchen didn't have electricity until I was around eleven so when I ate there, it was food cooked in a cast iron pot on a wood stove. There was always a kettle of water on the stove because of the need to add moisture to the air in the house. I had no trouble understanding the proverb's core metaphor.

My own interpretation of the proverb did not differ that much from those collected from black informants and submitted to the archives. The impulse to check hypocrisy permeates these texts. In 1976 a male African-American student explained the proverb by saying, "A person says this proverb when someone has made a hypocritical statement. It means that one person is accusing another person of a fault that the accuser already possesses. For example, if John said Mary is dumb because she got a D on her midterm and John also got a D on the same midterm, then John has accused Mary of a fault that John also possesses." As is often the case, informants and collectors assumed that this proverb so familiar to them belonged to their particular ethnic tradition. A 32-year-old black journalist explained to a student collector in 1974 that "This expression originated in the south in the days of slavery. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.