Winston Nugent takes a look at growing up in Jamaica and how the discipline, the proverbs and the community shaped a child.
Commentary Jamaica Magazine

Still Water Runs Deep

When former first lady Hillary Clinton used the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” as the title of her best selling book, I felt a little victimized, like someone had taken away a personal treasure of mine. One given to me by my grandma, like her secret recipes. Then again, I also felt like a failure. I felt I did not fulfill my responsibility to my children. That is, reciprocate a tradition that was given to me by my ancestors.

Most of my Caribbean and African-American counterparts’ uttered similar sentiments like, “I should have been the one to write such book.” “Why are those people always using our culture for their exploitation?” “Why is the cultural life of black folks so easily commercialized?” These questions somehow, in my estimation, were a bit arbitrary. I am one who always subscribes to Malcolm X’s famous saying, “By all means necessary.”

I recalled the day my Grandma whipped me good and proper because I’d played hooky from school. That evening when my father came home tired from work, she walked up to him, looked at him with her magnifying eyes, with lips pouted and said, “I think this boy should be taught a lesson.” My father looked at her and knew I had done something unforgiving. It was notorious—-once Grandma made a complaint on you, it was for a good reason. She stared into my father’s face and said, “Look, don’t spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Over the years, I have developed an uncanny reputation of not being late for things that were important to me, not for school, work or even for a date. This was a direct result of Grandma hammering in my head: “Early bird catches the most worms.”

I have proven this to be motivational: by being early to work, I got more done. By being early to school, I was able to use the library all by myself and by being early for my date, I was less apprehensive. It all boils down to being confident and one step ahead.

As a child, I took most of these traditional sayings for granted. What did I know then when I was told to “Kill the goose that laid the golden egg?” I certainly did not grasp it to mean, to lose a valuable source of income through greed. When I was in an awkward or embarrassing situation, I was often told, especially by my Grandma, that I looked “Like a fish out of water.”

On Christmas morning, when we gathered as a family in the living room, ready to open our gifts, Grandma would look at us as gently as a fawn and warn, “Do not look a gift-horse in the mouth.” It took me quite sometime to comprehend that warning to mean not to examine a gift too critically or criticize what is given for nothing and to accept a gift for the sentiments which inspire it, not for its value.

I have come to appreciate such advice in my life, especially, “Study the past if you would divine the future” and “Out of the frying pan into the fire” or “Men are as old as they feel; women as old as they look.”

As I merged my cultural perspective over the years, I’ve developed an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It came first from where I was born, in the land of wood and water (Jamaica) and where I grew up, under the American influence. I’d decided that by living in the shadow of the American influence, it was incumbent upon me to hold on to my Jamaican cultural perspective as much as I could. It was with this determination that I educated myself never to lose who I am. I was able to put my African-Caribbean self into the things I did by holding on to the belief that “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” That is, certainty is better than possibility or the little one actually possesses is of greater value than what one is only likely to obtain. Such made me a humble person. It was Grandma’s determination for me not to be ignorant of even the simplest things.

The legendary Bob Marley came into my life as lasting as the Pyramids. I gravitated to Marley’s music because of how he had infused my culture into his pungent lyrics. When I hear his music, I cannot help but hear the voice of Grandma’s moral sense of purpose.

Marley’s use of traditional proverbs in his message-music on the international front heightened my dormant awareness. When he said, “Who feels it knows it” or “Who the cap fit, let them wear it” or “A hungry man is an angry man”, I immediately identified where he was coming from. I could have related then and understand now, the richness of my Afro-centric existence. It is as rich as a Creole.

My African brothers and sisters in America also were made conscious of these Afro-centric proverbs though their music. I recalled the fabulous Temptations as a teenager singing, “Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he lay his hat was his home and when he died, all he left us was alone.”

At the time, I certainly was ignorant to the meaning in that song. Having no experience at the time of Black America’s struggles, I nevertheless, gravitated to the message in the song. As slaves living in a Western society, be it in the Caribbean or America, the parallels among black cultures suggested next of kin.

Papa was a rolling stone was the lesson: “A rolling stone gathers no moss”, meaning, unstable people never achieve anything worthwhile; people who cannot settle down to business are never successful.

Experience has taught me that it takes time to accomplish anything worthwhile. This I knew from the teaching, “Rome was not built in a day.” I was also told, “A stitch in time saves nine”, that is: if we give due attention to the little details of life, in the long run we will save ourselves from considerable time, worry and expense.

It was a cardinal sin for me as a child to, “act out of hand,” in front of my elders. I was told in no uncertain terms, to mind my P’s and Q’s. That is, to be very particular about my behavior.

In my Grandma’s world, “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” Most importantly, people who do not live blameless lives should not find fault with others. Why? Because “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones”. This has been a common staple in the moralistic lives of most Caribbean people. And, “Let sleeping dogs lie”, according to Grandma because it is not nice to recall matters which are likely to cause pain or grief or embarrassment to those concerned.

Although our neighbors were as quarrelsome as a weasel, we were often told, “Never trouble until trouble troubles you.” I was told on many occasions, ‘To call a spade a spade.” That is, to be brutally frank, outspoken or blunt in speech.

I have no doubt that if my Grandma was alive today, I would see her walking into the U.S. Congress with her Madras-head-band, sitting down with a cup of coffee, chased with coconut milk and say to now New York’s Senator Hillary Clinton: “Yes, it takes a village to raise a child” but ma’am , “Children are what you make them.”

About the author

Winston Nugent