My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams
I keep thinking of the expectations of my childhood, of the respectability politics in which I was raised, of the weight of generations of hope that was settled upon my shoulders.
It is my father’s voice in my head:
We do not get anything less than an A in this house.
Your grandfather did not work three jobs every day for you to treat money like this.
You only have the right to be right, you never have the right to be wrong.
Black excellence was revered in my house. It was worshipped. It was expected. It was the way you showed respect to everyone who came before you.
We didn’t talk about the fact that Martin and Malcolm were murdered wearing suits.
Visible success meant safety. It meant we had ‘made it’. It was the goal. What my father wanted for his daughters more than anything was the safety his mother and sisters had never experienced.
Never to need.
Never to break.
Never to suffer.
Never to lean.
The stories I grew up on were of the greatness of the women who came before me. They worked, they loved, they gave, they taught, they created, they tended. They were beautiful and brilliant and hilarious and perfect.
I carry their names in mine. I carry their stories in mine. And I have never been able to live up to their sacrifice or to that of the ones who came before them.
When you consider your ancestors as human beings, chained in the hold of a ship, in the dark, in the heat, in the piss and shit and vomit — terrorized and terrified — what can you do to live out their dreams? How can it ever be enough? How bright must you shine to banish that darkness?
When you consider your ancestors as human beings, trying to survive on a plantation, through the beatings and the rapes, the loss of family, the denial of humanity, the ripping away of their history — what can you do to be worthy of that sacrifice? How can it ever be enough? What success of yours can reach back through the years and heal them?
Seeing my ancestors as mythical beings, these perfect women, was hard enough. But when I began to consider them as human beings it broke something open inside me. There is no way that they could survive what they did. I should not be possible. And yet here I am. I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.
But am I? When I’m sitting on this couch watching Real Housewives of Atlanta and eating horrible takeout? When I snap at my children? When I ignore a phone call from a friend? When I roll my eyes at my sister? When I am diagnosed with depression and anxiety? When I have PTSD from trauma that must seem laughable to them? Am I still? How do you live as the culmination of centuries of suffering, sacrifice, trauma, hope, perseverance, and love?
How can any of us carry that?
This weekend I was reminded that I am not the culmination of anything — I am a continuation.
As I have ancestors, I am also an ancestor.
Not that I will be, one day in the distant future when I have wisdom and grace and success and knowledge.
I am an ancestor right now. In my imperfection. In my humanity. I can live as an ancestor to all who will come from me, who may look to me for answers.
So, what do I want for my children? For my grandchildren? For my descendants? What do they owe to me?
I want nothing from them. Not one thing. There is no debt to be paid.
I want them to feel my arms open behind them, ready to support them when they stumble. I want them to know that I join a chorus of voices singing joy to them, singing love to them, singing faith to them. I want them to feel me as a light breaking through the darkness in their lives, illuminating the path.
I want them to find rest in me. And peace. And understanding.
I want them to find healing in me.
Even when they fuck up.
Even when they do nothing.
Even when they are broken and hurting and lashing out.
And if my descendants are worthy — always and in all ways, then so am I.
My ancestors shower me with their love, extend to me their forgiveness, and offer me their grace.
I must stop waiting to be punished, to be found out, to be cast out. I must accept the fact that I am already free. This freedom was not bought and paid for by my ancestors, this freedom is inherent.
It was in them. It is in me
My job is to polish myself, to protect myself, to chisel myself until each facet of myself breaks, bends, multiplies the light.
My humanity is the diamond.
My glory has always been.
My light, my grace, my love, my voice shines in rainbow colors from every facet of myself.
From the flaws and the broken places within me — it shines.
It shines from the pain and the anger.
From the trauma and the healing — it shines.
It shines from the questioning and the doubt.
From the honesty and the laughter — it shines.
It shines through the mistakes and the stumbles.
From the fear and the falling — it shines.
It shines through the reclamation of my SELF, my full self.
The more I see my ancestors as fully human, the more I can accept myself as fully human, the brighter my light shines. When I stand in my whole and sovereign self, my light is damn near blinding.
My sovereign self refracts oppression to liberation, trauma to healing, pain to pleasure, and suffering into joy. That is black girl magic. That is the hope of the enslaved. That is the love of my ancestors pouring through me, reminding me to live my life indebted to no one — but connected to all.
And I am connected — not only to my ancestors, the mothers who lived lives of suffering and joy sometimes so far beyond their control — but also to the mothers now, the ones who walk beside me, the ones who lean on me, the ones I lean on, and also to all the mothers to come and their children.
The mothers and babies who will have a deeper, a better, a more fulfilling, happy, and healthy experience of growth and parenting because of me and because of the work I’m doing.
The light that I am shining.
My job is to handle the broken pieces of motherhood with care.
And to illuminate them.
My job is to let go of perfection.
There is no perfecting me.
My job is to stop trying to arrive.
I cannot be finished.
I cannot be stopped.
I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.