If you are Jamaican, you know a million and one aphorisms and proverbs. Ordinary discourse is always punctuated by some pithy saying. As a child, I heard them with such frequency, so I never paid any attention during the countless “teachable moments” that my parents and maternal grandmother inserted in their conversations with my siblings and me. They were also repeated by my aunts, great-aunts; and almost every adult on both sides of my extended family and in our community.
One of my grandmother’s favorite maxims was, “The higher the monkey climbs, the more he is exposed.” She always said it with a mischievous glint in her eyes and a deep chuckle depending on her point of reference. My sisters and I thought that she had a weird sense of humor until we learned the meaning of this expression. A person acquainted with the anatomy of the monkey knows that the anal region that is usually less prominent in many animals is more conspicuous in a monkey because his tail tends to point upwards instead of downwards. Consequently, more of his hindmost part becomes more exposed as he climbs higher and higher on a tree.
A similar parallel may be drawn with people. Generally, others tend to have greater expectations for people in positions of power or influence than their peers or subordinates. It holds true that those who surpass average expectations automatically draw attention to themselves by their position and receive more scrutiny than an ordinary man or woman. No one knows it better than a movie star who fights daily to keep his private life private or a politician whose innocuous comment morphs into a sound bite that ultimately destroys his career.
Despite the risks of climbing social, political, and economic ladders, humans will always strive for upward mobility. Some call it hope and others call it drive. Langston Hughes(1922), in his Mother to Son poem, describes it vividly.
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair
The motivation for more or better will make us wake up in the morning and keeps us up at nights. However, we must be careful to protect our backs and cover our bases because the only other step at the top is the bottom.
- Hughes, Langston, 1922. “Mother To Son.” poemhunter.com>(accessed April 16, 2017)