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From the Pastor's Desk: THE CRABS IN A BARREL EXPERIENCE: Another Perspective

Wednesday, June 08, 2016 11:52 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

by: Baba Derrick Jackson

"Be always mindful of what you are doing and thinking. So that you may put the insight of your immortality on every passing incident in your daily life."

Sufi Mysticism


Many of us have heard the expression that some people of Afrikan ancestry act like crabs in a barrel? I would like to bring a different perspective to this expression. I decided to critique this expression when I heard “Sir Charles,” (Charles Barkley) as he is known in the world of entertainment, use that expression. Whenever there is a need for a more thoughtful critique or analysis of an event or situation that occurs in a community made up of people of Afrikan ancestry the media often interview's one of our entertainers, which insinuates that they are the experts on issues affecting our community. But that discussion is for another day.

What I want to focus on was “Sir Charles’” use of this expression known as "crabs in a barrel". In that den of iniquity known as Wikipedia this is how the expression is defined: "Crab mentality, sometimes referred to as crabs in the bucket, is a way of thinking best described by the phrase, "if I can't have it, neither can you." The metaphor refers to a bucket or barrel of crabs. Individually, the crabs could easily escape from the bucket, but instead they grab at each other in a useless "king of the hill" competition which prevents any from escaping and ensures their collective demise. The analogy in human behavior is claimed to be that members of a group will attempt to negate or diminish the importance of any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, spite, conspiracy, or competitive feelings, to halt their progress." If we were to take this interpretation on face value it would seem to be a plausible explanation that this metaphor refers to human beings acting like crabs in a barrel.

Let us take a look at this metaphor through a different set of lenses by first raising some questions that are not normally thought of when hearing this phrase. I would like to offer a series of question that will hopefully focus our attention in a different direction:

  • Is the barrel a natural environment for the crab?
  • And do crabs in their natural surroundings act the same as they do in a barrel/bucket?
  • Who put the crabs in the bucket or barrel in the first place
  • And last but not least what were their intentions in taking the crabs out of their natural environment and placing them in an unnatural environment i.e. bucket or barrel?

By focusing and asking some different kinds of questions, we can see that the bucket or barrel is not the natural environment for the crab. Research shows crabs in their natural environment get along very well together. In fact they get along through mutual cooperation and acts of common unity (community). This is why it is so easy for one to catch crabs when casting a net because they like being around each other, they display collective group behavior. What we may be witnessing when we see crabs hanging on to each other in a barrel are crabs yearning to be free and hanging on each other for support as they attempt their escape.

When a person puts crabs in a barrel, are there intentions to free them or eat them? When placed in an unnatural environment where we sense danger do we sit quietly or do we do everything we can to move to safety. Using a different set of lenses in order to bring a new perspective to the expression "crabs in a barrel" is to see that people of Afrikan ancestry were taken out of their natural environment and placed in the hulls of a slave ships. They were then placed on plantations, and later moved to places in towns and cities were they could only live in certain parts of that town or city. This became our bucket or barrel and the behavior one see's is the behavior of those of us yearning to be free. Acting like crabs in a barrel becomes a normative state when placed in an unnatural environment. Our attention should be focused on the intentions of those who took us out of our natural environment and put us in barrel type communities. Only then can we come to terms with what happened to us and begin to develop principles, strategies, and techniques to free the minds and hearts of our people.

This means “Sir Charles” might have been right in his use of the metaphor that some of us may act like crabs in a barrel. From another perspective we need to ask who put us in a barrel and what their intentions in putting us there were. We would be wise to do what is suggested in our sacred wisdom literature the Husia and adhere to the words found in the Book of Ankhsheshonqi "Examine every matter that you may understand it. Do not say I am learned but rather set yourself to become wise".


Billingsley, Andrew (1968) Black families in white America Englewood Cliffs, N.J Published by Prentice-Hall

Dubose, W.E.B. (1903) The Souls of Black Folks Chicago, ILL: A.C. McClurg & CO.

Diop, Cheika Anta (1990) The Cultural Unity of Black Africa. Chicago, ILL.: Third World Press

Frazier, Franklin E. (1939) The Negro Family in the United States. Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago Press

Mbiti, John S. (1970). African Religions and Philosophies. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Woodson, Carter Godwin (1990). The Mis-education of the Negro. Trenton, N.J: Africa World Press.

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