Sitting at Zabeulah's Knee:
Lessons in Humility from Elders
Beronda L. Montgomery
Ruth Nicole Brown shares a powerful introduction to Zabeulah, her beloved aunt who loved ones call Dottie, and the wisdom she has gained in doing what the elders describe as “sitting at the knee” of her familial elder. “Sitting at the knee” of an elder is a concept introduced to me by my grandmother that entails sitting with and actively seeking to learn from the wisdom of respected elders. Such a practice has roots in African traditions and cultures and is sometimes referred to as to “sit at the feet of the elders.” The interactions between Brown and her family that are shared to great impact in “Zabeulah's Lesson” beckoned me like a prized invitation to quietly enter the space, take my place at Zabeulah’s knee, and join in their engaging exchanges.
The foundation of a humble exchange with others was most powerfully impressed on me in Zabeulah’s saying “you, before me.” It’s a simple, but powerful, act of humility to serve others first. Brown mirrors this philosophy in simple acts, such as sharing a snack with a friend on a ride home after a long performance outing, and certainly in larger and sustained ways, such as her work with Black girls and women, including in her initiative Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT).
As a plant biologist with deep interest in lessons that nature can offer us for thriving as humans, I was particularly drawn in by a specific analogy shared by Brown. Certain acts of humility represent what Brown describes as "negation[s] of self that depended on a complete understanding of generosity divine as trees, gendered feminine outside of patriarchal norms." This recognition of the seeming simplicity but underlying complexity of trees that could be paralleled to the divine resonated deeply with me. Further, trees do indeed live generous lives during which they offer surplus sugars and oxygen to support the growth of other organisms sharing their habitat. They also generously offer other gifts, such as shade and the beauty of fall colors for those deciduous trees that glow beautifully yellow, orange, or red before dropping their leaves in preparation for the rest of winter.
Brown also described how humility can result in demonstrating "power out of delicate tenderness." Indeed, this aligns beautifully with Zabeulah’s principle of “you, before me.” It is a tender heart that first looks at the needs of others and seeks to serve them before attending to self. And working on the part of others first is indeed an act of power. Power is also evident in an understanding of humility as an act of bravery or strength. This understanding departs from a norm of seeing humility as representative of low valuation of self or others, or as inextricably linked to weakness. Accordingly, Brown explains that Zabeulah "formulated humility from generosity so it could not be reduced to something like low esteem" (40).
Brown draws powerful parallels between the exercising of humility and common activities her aunt conducted, such as baking. In parallels to the proofing and rising of bread dough, Brown declares that humility can result in "raising up of people with the stir and stillness collective work requires" (41). Brown highlights the collectivity that is foundational to expressing humility on the part of one individual to the benefit of another in this instance, and that humility also is central to Brown’s own ethic, activism, and scholarship.
Whereas humility is a powerful tool to be employed in service to others—again “you, before me”—Brown cautions us that "not everything can be professionalized or commodified" (42).
In her sharing of Zabeulah’s lesson, Brown offers much food for thought and reflection. For me, core guidance emerges from the strong lesson to “use whatever is most feared to reflect and inform who we say we are as recipe for the rise" (43). To live this out in our day to day, we need to face our fears, which first requires us knowing what those fears are. Too frequently, we fear the vulnerability and repositioning of self from the center that is required to walk in humility—true humility that is. Brown and her beloved Zabeulah offer us powerful reflections on the power of doing so. I hope that the ability to fully embrace and emanate the power of humility are deeply rooted in me and support my flourishing and sharing of abundance, as the growth and thriving of plants are supported both by the uptake of life-sustaining water and nutrients, as well as the stabilizing work of roots. Furthermore, in the spirit of Zabeulah and her powerful guidance of “you, before me,” I hope they are deeply embedded in and flow forth from others as well.