“Good Googa Mooga girl! Chile, you don’ grown. How old are you now?” Granddad would ask, stepping back slightly to assess my height. That was how he always greeted me – all extra and country! And I loved it! He had lived in the North for years but still had those country ways, complements of Mississippi roots. Technically, he was my Great-grandfather but since that’s just a long title I always called him Granddad like my mom would. I didn’t see him much because I lived in Harlem and he lived in his beloved Philly so his visits were kind of a big deal. On one of his last visits before he passed away, I remember sitting across from him at my aunt’s dinner table while I passively watched the tv playing in the background. And then I looked at Granddad and suddenly realized that I was sitting right across from the last link to a dying generation, chock full of stories and information that only he could give. So I became curious and wanted to know more about him, his life, and the world he came of age in. I very casually began asking him questions: “So Granddad, I have a question. I remember hearing that you lived in Baltimore for awhile. What did you do there?” and “Granddad, what happened to your parents?” He was up in age but he was still pretty sharp. He’d do his best to recall the stories of the past and if he didn’t remember he would just say so. I swear I could’ve sat for hours listening to the seemingly mundane details of his past life. The more he told me, the more questions I had. Our impromptu interview session wasn’t particularly long but I learned a lot. Like, a lot! I found out that his father was born into slavery and was eventually separated from his family after they were sold off, that he tried looking for them but never found them. I found out that he opened up his own soul food restaurant for a short while in Baltimore called “Benny’s”. It turned out that Granddad could throw down in the kitchen, as verified by my mother who adored his biscuits and gravy. He was up in age by the time I was born and lived too far so I was never blessed with a taste of his cooking.
That one interview ignited an undying fire in me to learn as much as I could about my family history. The more I learned, the more questions I had, and the more connections I made between my family and the larger social construct. And most importantly, the closer I was getting to realizing a personal family legacy. And that’s not something to take for granted. That lays my cultural foundation and gives me something tangible to build upon, learn from, and pass down. For example, learning of his cooking skills made me think about the gender roles in my family. When I later interviewed his daughter- my grandmother-about her childhood, I learned that both the girls and the boys were expected to know how to cook. Cooking skills were considered Survival 101 for them. The gender roles in regards to cooking and basic housekeeping weren’t as rigid as I assumed they would be based upon what I was taught about their generation. I also learned that my Great-great grandmother used threading to do the girls’ hair, much to the chagrin of the school the girls went to. Pause. Now, I’ve come to learn a lot of interesting things about that lady ancestor of mine, but that one really struck me for a number of reasons: 1) I went natural when it wasn’t the popular thing to do and it is so dope to know that I had an ancestor who was into natural haircare 2) She knew what she was doing because I later learned that hair threading is known to help with hair growth and 3) it is also a primarily African hair practice which begs the questions “How did she come to know about this practice?” “Were her parents African born?” Was SHE African born? “If so, where?” “What other African hair practices did Southerners use?” It gets real, ya’ll. Also, can you tell I’m excited?
I hope to encourage other Black folks to dig deeper into their family history. Yes, we have an important collective history as Black people but our personal family histories matter as well in the defining of Black culture. And in a world that is constantly trying to define us at every waking hour, it’s imperative that we put some time into defining ourselves. Take some time to figure out WHO you come from, not just where, when, and other trivial details. Those are important things to know but so are the actual people. What kind of people were they? What kind of lives did they live? What were their fears? What were their weaknesses? Their dreams and aspirations? Their views on money, work and happiness? Their views on men/women? The roles of fathers and mothers? Sex and marriage? God and religion? There’s a myriad of topics you can explore. And sometimes you won’t even have to ask the questions because the answers will just unfold in the process. Try not to go into the process with any expectations and assumptions. Sometimes we forget that the older people in our family are complex characters who lived complex lives. Some might have been downright evil through much of their life. Others were just as sweet as pie from birth and others were a mix. Just let the information flow – the good, the bad, the boring, and the weird. If you can approach it with an open mind, you’ll get the most out of it. Everyone has a story they want to tell before they die. All you got to do is listen- to what’s said and what’s not said.
Learning about your family culture, dynamics, and traditions is important. True, these things don’t solely define our entire being but they matter. It sounds so corny but it’s true. They can give you some guidance on what to do or what not to do when life gets crazy because in some way, it’s all been done before. We’re all just living a remix. Or more like a song that samples an old beat. To quote the philosopher Lauryn Hill “But remember not a game new under the sun. Everything you did has already been done,
I your family know(s) all the tricks from Bricks to Kingston…”
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