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Chicken Merry, Hawk deh Near

Two chickens, two pigs, and huts, in Jamaica
Two chickens, two pigs, and huts, Jamaica, William Berryman,

If you are Jamaican, then you know the proverb in the title of this post. I grew up hearing this idiom in conversations about a person or people who had fallen from grace. It was also used as a warning to be mindful about how you carried yourself in the world. My husband, who is not Jamaican but has heard me talk about "when the chicken is merry, the hawk is near," brought it up when I told him about a recent I am Julie Mango video. In the video, Julie Mango compares what a Jamaican vs others would say about standing on a high balcony. Others talk about the beautiful view, while the Jamaican only points out the potential hazards: falling from the balcony, hurting yourself, dying. 

Enslaved people being flogged by enslavers
The mode of flogging slaves, J. Hatchard and son,

After reflecting on this Julie Mango video, I realized that I fight against this cynical and skeptical cultural inclination. I also acknowledge its necessity, borne of historical and contemporary realities. Enslaved people, and free Black people, had to be vigilant of their behavior and surroundings, and the conduct of others. Merriness was a luxury when your body was another's property and your labor was painfully extracted. Joy could be a distraction, and bring unwanted attention. Pointing out the negative consequences of behavior and situations is a protective measure, so are setting low expectations and preempting disappointment. 

I conducted a web search for the origins of Jamaican proverbs. The following excerpt from Daniel, Smitherman-Donaldson, and Jeremiah (1987), quoting Warren Beckwith (1925), perfectly encapsulates my understanding of the role of proverbs in Jamaican life ways.

"African wit and philosophy are more justly summed up in the proverb or aphorism than in any other form of folk art, and the proverbial sayings collected from Negro settlements in the Americas or the West Indies give a truer picture of the metal life of the Negro than even story or song reveals. In them he expresses his justification of the vicissitudes of life.... Proverbs enter constantly into the life of the folk; borrowed sayings undergo a process of remolding under the influence of native conditions, being interpreted to meet the emergencies of native life, and new sayings patterned upon the old. There is no other art so thoroughly assimilated to the life of the people of Jamaica today as this of the aphorism and none employed so constantly in everyday experience."

map of Volume and direction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from all African to all American regions
Volume and direction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from all African to all American regions,

In addition the authors show some Jamaican proverbs have their origins in West Africa, specifically the Akan-speaking people of the Ashanti Empire/Asante Kingdom in current day Ghana. In its history of the island, the Jamaican Embassy asserts "most Jamaican slaves came from the region of modern day Ghana, Nigeria and Central Africa, and included the Akan, Ashanti, Yoruba, Ibo and Ibibio peoples." My mother also makes a similar claim of Jamaicans being descendants of enslaved Ghanaians. There is a modern-day Jamaican diaspora in Ghana. The Gleaner reported in 2019 "there are approximately 4,000 Jamaicans living in Ghana."

Finally, to insert ecology into this post, the hawk in the proverb is the Red-tailed Hawk which was described in Western science from a specimen originating in Jamaica which directly influenced the bird's Latin binomial, Buteo jamaicensis.


Leo Douglas said…
Thanks for sharing this work with us!