Friday, July 6, 2007

Creole racial proverbs

In the comment thread regarding “Brazilian racial proverbs,” a new UBM reader – Vaucanson’s Duck – pointed me to an 1885 book titled “Gombo Zhèbes: Little Dictionary of Creole Proverbs,” by Lafcadio Hearn.

Turns out that this cool volume – like many fascinating old books now unprotected by copyright – has been digitized and put up on the World Wide Web, where it can be downloaded for free. (Click here and you can download the “Little Dictionary of Creoloe Proverbs” as a PDF file from Internet Archive.)

Most of these folk sayings from the former French slave colonies concern life in general. For example, “He who laughs on Friday will cry on Sunday.” And this: “Lying isn’t as bad as speaking badly about people.”

My fave is a Haitian saying, which you whip on somebody who tells you an unlikely tale of woe: “You pretend to die; and I’ll pretend to bury you.”


A few proverbs, naturally, deal with race. Such as the following. (I’ll provide only the English translations, not the Creole originals.)

“Just put a mulatto on horseback, and he’ll tell you his mother wasn’t a negress.” [Louisiana]

There’s a harsher version of this one from Martinique: “As soon as a mulatto is able to own an old horse, he will tell you that his mother wasn’t a nigger.”


“The negro carries corn in his pocket to steal chickens; the mulatto carries a rope in his pocket to steal horses; the white man carries money in his pocket to deceive girls.” [Louisiana]

“The monkey is sly; it was he that first taught the black man how to steal.” [Mauritius]

“The good white man dies; the bad remains.” [Haiti]

“When the master sings, the negro dances; but when the overseer only whistles, the negro jumps.” [Louisiana]

“Coal will never make flour.” (That is, “You can’t wash a negro white.”) [Mauritius]

“The roach has come out of the flour barrel.” (Said to colored women who powder their faces white.) [Mauritius]

“The horse remains in the stable, the mule in the field.” (According to a footnote: “Here the mule seems to represent the slave; the horse, the master or overseer.” The lesson being, one must know one’s place.) [Martinique]

“The white man’s eyes burn the negro’s eyes.” [Martinique]

I have no idea what that last one is supposed to mean.


DeAngelo Starnes said...

I'm downloading the dictionary. Thanks for the heads up.

Anonymous said...

Good to see that there are some proverbs from Trinidad as well, big up to all the creole speaking Trinis out there just like me!