This proverb is collected during a conversation I had with a friend when she came over for dinner at my house.
is a proverb told to me by the interviewee.
sweep over someone’s feet or else they will go to jail
M: Who shared
this proverb to you?
I: My mom and my dad. So I guess it’s from both Louisiana and Georgia. It’s a very much Southern African-American thing. I’m sure African-Americans from the west or east have never heard this saying.
M: That’s interesting I’ve never heard that one before.
I: Yeah I honestly hate telling white people this one, because then they’ll joke around and like sweep over my feet. And like why would you do that? I’m like a very superstitious person, just don’t.
What is interesting about this proverb is the latter half of it. I have heard from people that if you sweep over someone’s feet that you will have a bad love life, coming from the phrase “getting swept off your feet” as a way to say falling in love. It seems that this proverb takes that same concept but the latter half being about jail. As the interviewee comes from the African-American community in the South, where the incarceration rates for the African-American community are disproportionately higher than their white counterparts, it shows that the zeitgeist has made going to jail a part of their proverbs that they tell younger children. The interviewee also mentioned that this proverb tends not to be respected by her peers, showing that people’s level of superstition can vary even amongst similar age groups.
Informant: “My class always talks about how Alcatraz is haunted.”
Collector: “Really? Are there any specific ghosts that people mention?”
Informant: “Yeah! Al Capone is one of the most common ones I hear, and then the people who tried escaping the island when they were prisoners. A lot of my classmates say that they are stuck at sea, and that on the boat ride over there that the ghosts try to get help from the passengers.”
Collector: “Do they know that Al Capone didn’t die on Alcatraz?”
Informant: “I think so…they say that the reason his ghost stays there is because that is where he suffered the most during his life.”
Collector: “Has your class been there together or have they just hear about it in the city?”
Informant: “We went on a field trip and people working there even mentioned it. They sell some stuff in the gift shop that has to do with it! I think they might give tours about the ghosts.”
Alcatraz offers a prime example of how folklore can be used in a marketable way with a great deal of the tourism to the spot inspired by famous ghost stories. Although the informant is younger and did not have any detailed examples of haunting stories on the island, she probably has a greater idea of it being a haunted spot than some older people she knows. The amount of time that has passed since the prison was actively in use and not just a National Park designated land has allowed it to become further associated with the past identities that it has held, with particular attention to the era in which it held its prison.
My informant is a university professor of English and American literature. He grew up in Chicago during the 1950s, and fought in the latter half of the Vietnam War. After that, he returned and received his degree in English Literature at UC Irvine. He has worked on many textbooks and movies that deal with the Vietnam War.
“I was once taught, at the age of twelve, what I should do if, if I went to jail. And the man gave me three pieces of advice. One, keep your mouth shut. Two, keep your eyes and ears open. Three, find the toughest guy in your cell block, and start a fight with him. ‘Cause even if you lose, he’s gonna respect you and nobody else is gonna fuck with you.”
I believe, although I could be wrong, that this advice has become widespread or a bearer of the advice has become a published author or told it to someone who then published it, because I believe I have seen this piece of advice in a book once. While not fixed enough (and probably too long to ever be fixed), to be considered a proverb, the advice is still worded memorably enough that it is easily remembered and passed along. There is almost a certain lyrical quality to it. The concept of keeping one’s mouth shut is offset by the second part of the advice which involves keeping two other orifices open, and there is the implication that this is a balance, where one shuts one’s mouth and, to compensate for that, one also keeps one’s ears and eyes open. The third part of the advice then comes as a disruption to the balance of this advice, especially the way it was worded by my informant. Whereas the first two parts are standard pieces that could be told to more than just people going to jail, told by mothers to their children, told by bosses to their workers, the third part really establishes the context and the brutality of the environment in which the complete advice is applicable.