Crossed Fingers for Black Birds

Entry: “I cross my fingers every time I see a black bird.”

Context: JJ is a 24 year old woman from Los Angeles. She explained to me that she crosses her fingers every time she sees any type of black bird, and that the reasoning behind this has two parts. When she was in middle school, JJ knew a girl whose uncle died one week after a crow died on his doorstep. JJ then explained to me how in middle school, kids would always say “if you swear to God, it doesn’t count if you cross your fingers.”  JJ told me that she constantly had her fingers crossed, that she “never uncrossed them because [she] was always in fear of going to Hell.” 

Analysis: This superstition is very interesting because it comes from two relatively common beliefs – that black birds are bad luck and (particularly amongst children) crossing your fingers has the power to offset an action or statement. However, JJ combines these superstitions to create her own that is highly steeped in both her own personal history and in the lore of her fellow schoolmates, as well as that of schoolchildren in general. Superstitions and magic are, at least in America, mostly present in children’s folk groups. JJ’s continuation of this action into adulthood thus speaks to the weight of the superstition: connecting death to a specific animal (one that already has negative connotations in most cultures) at such a young age when you are already involved in other forms of magical thinking. The sympathetic connection between black birds and death already existed, but the personal nature of JJ’s story helps us understand how superstitions stay alive for longer because they have more of an effect on the person who carries them.