By Thea Monyeé. Photography by Deun Ivory.
Ancestral celebration is a pathway to heal the scars of colonization, to connect to our heritage, and to resurrect the power of engaging as a village.
I grew up marginally aware of my father’s Afro-Latin culture. His grandparents migrated to Panama from Barbados seeking work on the Panama Canal, like many other Afro-Antillean people during that time. The influence of Western religions stripped away much of the Afro-spiritual practices they’d preserved during the Transatlantic Enslavement, leaving most to either hide their rituals within the practices of their oppressors, or abandon them altogether. My mother’s side of the family identifies as African-American and Christian as far back as anyone is willing to discuss, and mention of Afro-spirituality has been programmed to be considered “devil worship."
The silencing of African practices is not unique to my family. It is a result of Black people being systematically conditioned to view our connection to those who came before us as sacrilegious, and it has hindered many of us from experiencing the joy of these ancestral relationships. Removing the ancestors from our way of life dismantles our sense of natural order and village, but when reversed it can serve as a tool for restoration. Maya Angelou reclaims this connection in her poem, "Our Grandmothers" by declaring “I go forth along, and stand as ten thousand.” Her acknowledgement of the women who came before her, and continue to stand with her, reminds us to remain connected to our ancestors from continent to continent, and from generation to generation.
But how do we feed this connection in a society that suppresses this sacred relationship?
First, we increase our contact with nature. Dagara elder and author Malidoma Somé discusses the connection between the ancestors and nature in his book, "The Healing Wisdom Of Africa." He writes, “In order to crack open something in yourself to allow you to be aware of the presence of the ancestors’ spirits, you have to walk into nature with your emotional self.”
Walking the Earth barefoot and communing with nature reminds us of the ancestral bones that support our every step. When done with the intention of nurturing our ancestral relationships, activities like gardening, hiking, and playing in the ocean become acts of engagement with our ancestors, and opens our hearts to those who came before us.
Next, we make space for them in our mouths, hearts, and minds. We ask questions about them, gather their names, their stories, their pictures, and breathe life back into their existence. When I began to inquire about my father’s parents, who died before I was born, they appeared more frequently in my dreams bringing with them guidance and support that continues to help me to navigate through life’s challenges.
After we have made space for our ancestors in our mouths, hearts, and minds, we can make space for them in our homes. Creating a space, or an altar, signals to our ancestors that they are welcome in our homes and lives. Western culture dictates that altars can only exist in churches, but our history informs us that this is far from our truth. An altar can be anywhere, so long as it is created with reverence, intention, and love. Repurpose an old end table, or simply designate a floor mat and a corner of your room as sacred space. I pass my humbly constructed ancestors’ altar everyday so that I remember to speak with them, as I would a grandparent living with me. I offer them fresh water, incense, candy, songs, and sometimes we simply chat. When possible I add pictures or items from their stories like a favorite color, bracelet, or meal. These conversations create opportunities for me to ask for their guidance. After all, there’s nothing new under the sun!
We can create the space and time to celebrate our ancestors. They deserve to feel welcomed, loved, and to be remembered. Their stories must be resurrected from unmarked graves and salt water tombs. Their sacrifices paid for our freedoms, and they remain present and ready to offer us love, guidance, and support.
Part of our life journey is to become great ancestors. When we do, we will relish in the sound of our names and stories bouncing from the lips of our great-great-grandchildren; we will protect them and guide them from harm as they move through their journeys; and we will support them in their continued fight for the right to live, love, and create, as our ancestors have always supported us.
Thea Monyeé contributes to BGIO to join forces with black women who re-member their powerful abilities, and consider it a part of their divine journey to assist other black women to re-member theirs. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Thea stays connected to her highest self through yoga, chakra meditation, reiki, crystal healing, and spending time with nature and loved ones. You can find her on Twitter/Instagram/Tumblr/Facebook using the handle @theamonyee.