Ancestor Worship: Obeisance to the spirits of the dead. In African religions Ancestors serve as mediator by providing access to spiritual guidance and power.
I’ve got my father’s temper, with my grandfather’s sarcasm. My mother’s determination, and her anxiety. My grandmother’s love of literature, with my grandfather’s passion for writing. Her attention to detail, his impulse to act. And what I’ve recently discovered is my great-great grandfather’s ambition and dedication to his empowering his community. I think it’s time for me to tap into this inheritance, and give credit where credit is due.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, in the small city of Little Rock, Arkansas. A place where communicating with your ancestors can be viewed as taboo, superstitious, or both. My family is Black with roots in the Baptist and Methodist sects of Christianity so of course, this means that the majority believe that God is all-powerful, Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, and you may or may not play loud music, shout, or speak in tongues in religious settings, depending on the context. Almost any and everything outside of that is considered Voodoo, or the Devil and you better not let him use you! If our ancestors speak to us, appear in our dreams, or just so happen to manifest on Tuesday we are either being haunted, or someone close to us is about to die.
If you’re not from the South this may sound extreme, but if you are, thank you for understanding exactly where I’m coming from.
After loved ones pass there is an unaddressed tradition of avoiding places that person frequented, rooms they resided in, and items that were treasured by them. This can mean not entering into a room of our own homes for months at a time. Being afraid of their memories, but also making a conscious effort to preserve their spirits. It’s almost as if we fear their physical/spiritual presence but also need them to provide us with a sense of peace. They’re here with us, yet distant enough for our comfort.
I somehow managed to take the less complicated route and become an Atheist. This freed up my time to explore other religions, traditions, and ideologies that I may have been too afraid to get informed about. One of my favorites was the tradition surrounding the Yoruba of West and Central Africa. Not only because of the beautiful gods and goddess that I came to know and love, but because of their close ties to their ancestors. I saw this as my chance to get to know a religion that my own ancestors may have practiced at one point in time. I hoped that learning about these traditions I would learn how to draw on the energy of my own ancestors for wisdom and guidance.
It all started when I decided to get my DNA tested through Ancestry.com. After growing up hearing stories of all of the beautiful features my ancestors had from both my father and my grandmother, I was curious to find out where beautiful people like that came from. And since I was in the process of obtaining my BA in Anthropology, it was natural for me to want to know more about their cultures. My father often tells me stories about his grandmother, Mama Lula, whom he says I resemble. He talks of her long beautiful black hair, which I do not have, and her beautiful golden skin and slanted eyes, which I do. My granny tells me stories of my great-grandfather, her father, whom she called Mr. Bud because of his age and complexion, and the confusion she had growing up wondering why she looked African if he looked like a white man, and why her mother never made her call him ‘dad’ or ‘father’ if he was indeed her biological father. I wanted to solve that mystery for her. I also wanted to find the Native American tribe of Mama Lula. I even wanted to find the roots of my biracial great-grandfather who became the first Black Chief of Police in the small town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
So I got the test, sent in my saliva sample, and wait. Anxiously. Six weeks later I get an email saying that the results are in. I’m excited, but nervous. The thought of the test results conflicting with my self-identity gave me pause, but I had to find out if I was even justified in embracing that identity. As it turned out, although both sides of my family referenced their Native American ancestry, none of our people are from America at all. They were from South Asia. My grandmother had correctly assumed that her father’s parents were from the Iberian Peninsula, which allowed me to alert her that he was indeed her father, although his origin story was far more interesting than the myth she had learned. And there, in beautiful yellow and green highlights were my African origins. 44% from the Ivory Coast/Ghana region and 22% from the Cameroon/Congo region.
Luckily for me, Ancestry provides a little bit of detail on the cultures, so I was able to find out about some of the different groups that have resided in the areas throughout history. Groups like the Akan of the Ivory Coast/Ghana region who can trace their ties to the area back to the 11th century. The amalgamation of 60 different cultures that make up the Ivory and Gold Coasts. The geography which consists of vast terrains and densely populated forests where many empires rose and fell over the course of a millennium. And the religious divide caused by the spread of Islam and Christianity through the Northern and Southern halves. Although I found no mention of the Yoruba, I did learn a little about the complex culture of the Akan, who represent the largest group within the region, a matrilineal society, which I now credit for my independence and strong belief in women’s empowerment. I also learned that in ancient times their religion focused heavily on prophecy, something that is still a big part of my family today.
I had to move a little further South on my DNA Map to learn about my other African roots. In the Cameroon/Congo region, I learned about the tropical rainforests that lie at the equator. The 500 Bantu languages spoken by the 250 distinct ethnic groups. And the over 30,000 years of history that lead the Bantu to populate most of the Southern regions of Africa. Again I found no mention of ancestor worship when researching their ancient religious practices, but I did learn that they believed that ghost could interfere in the affairs of the living. There could be no more than 3 generations of ghosts at a time. They believed that death is an inevitable part of nature. They have complex myths and origin stories, and they believe in omens.
I may not have found what I originally went in to find, but I did find other great cultures that I have come to love and look forward to learning more about. Cultures that are a part of my genetic inheritance. Ancestry.com is limited in the details that they are able to provide so I will have to do a lot of searching before it all makes sense. They even have misleading language in the family tree, often referring to my 3rd great-grandmother as the wife of my 3rd great-grandfather and not his slave. Which only waters-down a history that needs to be told. But through this journey into my ancestry, I was able to dispel a few myths. My 2nd great-grandfather may not have sailed over with his father and started a town, but he did buy his freedom from his father, help his brothers buy theirs, and use their skills to earn enough money to create a small community for freed slaves in Terry, Louisiana. He did work to provide access to education, land, and opportunity for his people at a time when most people who looked him couldn’t do that. I think that’s even more interesting than just having something handed to you by your father.
I didn’t find any ancestor worship, but I did find a new love and appreciation for the religious practices of my own ancestors, and I still plan on drawing on their energy for inspiration and guidance. Even though we never got the chance to meet, I still thank them for all of the passion that is embedded into my genetics.