Although I have a daily practice with my ancestors, there are special moments when I spend more time at my ancestral altar and make additional offerings or give gifts to them. February is one of those times as it marks the anniversary of my grandmother Phyllis’ passing. She passed on 10 February 2018. And, February 18 marks the birthday of my paternal grandmother, which I celebrated this past week when I went to Goree Island donning our Jeffers family reunion tee shirt that features her and my Granddaddy Sidney. And, I celebrated her birthday this weekend with sweet treats – chocolate butter cookies smeared with nutella and peanut butter – seven of them – placed on top of my maternal grandmother’s round gold-colored cake box that gifted me pound cakes during much of my twenties when I resided in the DMV and on my 33rd birthday in 2014 when I spent the summer there working with my friend Nicole.
The cake box along with the pewter bowl she gave me and Eddy as a wedding gift are the centerpieces of our church pew turned ancestral altar. In addition to the cookies smeared with chocolate and peanut butter, I offered my grandmother and other ancestors a toast of fermenting white bissap (hibiscus). And, during my time with them, I also offered them a glass of gallah, which is a millet and peanut butter drink of the Serere and a bowl of thiere, which is millet couscous.
I feel grounded and supported when I spend time sitting with my ancestors. And, Eddy’s. I know they hear my cries and my requests for support when I am challenged. At the same time, I find joy and fulfillment by offering them small gifts to say thank you and to recognize them on important days like their birthdays and holidays. Each year since she passed, I have dyed easter eggs using red bissap tea (hibiscus) that turn out lavender in color, which is my grandma Phyllis’ favorite color. I know that she is with me and that she appreciates the gifts and the time I spend with her.
I will also have the dress washed today that I gifted my paternal grandmother when she asked for it a few years back. It is orange and gold and black and vibrant. My sense is that she never got to wear such bright colors like the women here in Senegal do. A perhaps puritanically-imposed muted colorless reality on our sense of what we “should” wear or not. My sense too is that she might appreciate the gifts, the attention, the celebration, the acknowledgement. While I remember vividly going to her funeral in Greensboro, I did not really know her; she died when I was around five years old. I am not sure that much of my family has found a way to attend to her spirit in ways that might be healing and restorative for her or them. But, I have decided consciously to make the effort to speak to her, the her I see in the few photos I have of her and the her my father has shown me in his stories. I know Daddy loves her and I think he has forgiven her as part of his own healing journey. I know she died in pain. So, I hope that some how my dad and I have in acknowledging her can contribute to her peace. That she feels more loved that perhaps she might have on this side, when she was alive. I cannot make amends for her or to her, but I can extend grace and love to her. She cannot fully support us as a family if she remains heartbroken and hurt. No more than she might have been able to when she was living.
Taking time to attend to our ancestors is important. Eddy and I with support of his mom and others encourage the folks who spend time with us in Senegal to find ways to deepen their connections to their ancestors. As I explain in We Got Soul; We Can Heal, doing so is a primary aspect of African spirituality. It is a simply practice that can be grounding and healing for us and them. A practice that can actually co-exist with your current faith practices. Remember that our ancestors arrived in the Americas as Africans with spiritual practices that existed long before the impositions of Islam and Christianity. Remember that they creolized and found ways to hold on and practice what they brought with them from Africa along with what they were expected to embrace in the contested colonized spaces they were forced to live and labor in. Remember that their spirituality afforded them the capacity to resist and remain resilient under brutal conditions including the white violence of Jim Crow America, which I name because clearly anti-black racism and white violence did not end when slavery was abolished.
We also offered a session – Communion featuring my dear friend Levita Mondie, vegan chef, who showed us how gardening and cooking are tied to the ways she remains connected to her mother. Perhaps, you can create your own and begin to connect to those who have gone before you in intentional ways. Perhaps with an ancestral altar. Or, perhaps, in your garden and kitchen. We have lots to celebrate and be mindful of us we recognize that our heritage can be healing when we chose to explore it.