I Came From These Beautiful People: Honoring My Ancestors During Times of Difficulty and Change
When I First Saw My Ancestors’ Faces
A few days ago, my childhood friend, Hillary, sent me pictures of my great grandparents via Facebook. Her mother had retrieved the old photos when my great uncle died and his wife was clearing the house in preparation to sell it. My siblings and I moved away from the area after my mother’s death three decades ago. I knew the names of my great grandparents, but I had never seen their faces. When I saw the photos, I was not prepared for how deeply they would affect me. Peering into their eyes, I thought to myself, “I came from these people. I came from these beautiful people.”
“I came from these people. I came from these beautiful people.”
I Saw History in their Eyes
I knew of my great grandparents. My maternal grandmother spoke about them when I was a child. They were her husband’s parents. I never knew him either. He died when my mother was just seven years old. I knew these people shared space with my mother. She’s buried next to them and her father under a tree in an old cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida.
When I received the pictures, I looked at them for a long time as if their life stories would come pulsating from the photographs. There they were, neither one smiling but both meticulously groomed. I wondered why they didn’t smile, but it was just the way it was back then. These people were born in the mid-1880’s, just 20 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery in the United States and 17 years after the 14th Amendment became law which granted African Americans citizenship.
They Lived During Times of Great Hostility and Racism
The eyes staring back at me communicated resilience, strength, perseverance, and pride. I saw history in their eyes. I know they lived during a time of great hostility and racism. They did not live lives of ease and comfort, though I’m sure they loved and cared deeply. Instead, they lived lives of tremendous struggle and change. As many strides as they dared to make, they were met with persistent opposition from the Ku Klux Klan and other groups who could never see the once enslaved African American as free and equal. Yet, they owned land, worked jobs and raised two boys who would go on to become first generation college graduates, educators and community leaders. They died in the middle of the civil rights movement. What a life they lived.
“They lived lives of tremendous struggle and change.”
What Would My Great Grandparents Do? They Would be Strong.
I thought to myself as I looked at Barnabus and Viney, the world has not changed as much as it should have since their time. Today, in the news, we hear the White Nationalists are marching again. There’s a resurgence in hostility and racism. Americans are protesting in the streets demanding equality for all people, while the world watches this great experiment in diversity and democracy. I wonder what my great grandparents would say. What would they do? Then, as quickly as the question is thought, the answer emerges. They would be strong. They would persist. They would remember their parents and the struggles they endured. They would determine to get up every day, honor their ancestors and make a difference. I came from these people and that is my charge.
I will not yield to racism. I will not adopt hopelessness. I will never lie down in defeat. I will take a stand, and I will remember Barnabus and Viney. I want my great grandchildren to look within my eyes, whether in person or a faded photograph and know that I was here and I cared. I came to bear fruit. I came to make a life. I came to make a difference.
“I want my great grandchildren to look within my eyes…and know that I was here and I cared.”
May we all reach back to remember the histories of our ancestors, to understand their journeys, and to honor their legacies. Let us continue to believe in a better world for our children and their children. Because of them, we are.
When we know better, we do better.
© 2017 Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved.