I believe that my ancestors are still alive and have many stories to tell.
Last year, I began the journey of tracing my family history. What I found was that while I never met my ancestors in this time and place, somehow I have come to know their humanity and their determination to remain dignified in the face of suffering.
The journey began when I discovered some old photographs that were taken at the turn of the twentieth century. While the people in the photographs are dead now, their images have remained. A distant aunt, called “Sis” stood with strength and integrity next to a horse. She seemed to have a glimmer of hope that perhaps the new century would bring her family prosperity. I could only imagine the mischievousness of “Nell”, who seemed to have a lot of spunk in her as she wore that devious smile. I got to know Uncle Putt who stood in his small mercantile and seemed to enjoy his whiskey. But also, there was a photo of my grandmother taken during days of famine. She had sunken eyes that stared blankly into the camera. And, the eyes of my young grandfather haunted me because he had an intriguing resemblance to my own son.
The journey took me down some old roads of Randolph, Alabama; a tiny place located a hundred miles from nowhere. I knew that I had instantly stepped into the nineteenth century as I discovered abandoned storefronts and a trail that was known to be the old stagecoach road. I traipsed through tall grass and dodged hidden snakes to visit the remains of my father’s birthplace. I marveled at the ruins of the old Methodist Church. The buildings were torn and houses had fallen away, but what seemed to remain were the stories of the people who once lived there.
The journey has led me to familiar strangers across the Southeast. They welcomed me and shared their own memories of my mother and father. I received many hugs from people I had never met, but claimed to know me merely by knowing my parents. I learned about slavery, saw mills, the Confederacy, war deserters, shaped note singing, shameful lynchings, Pioneer Baptists, loves lost, despair and the triumphal strength of many.
Last month, I was living through some dark days of my own. I decided to travel to the old farm where my mother was born. I began looking for clues about the people in those old photographs, and hoping to gain the strength my family found in the simplicity of their land. I stumbled upon a cemetery that I had neither heard about nor had ever visited. I stopped to walk among the graves. And much to my surprise, below the ground that I walked, were the graves of the people in those photographs. There was Sis, Nell, and Uncle Putt buried beneath my feet. It was no coincidence that I had come to this place.
Now I know that I am indeed surrounded by my ancestors, that no matter who these people were in their lifetime, they are with me now – cheering me on. They are guiding me and offering their wisdom. They are telling me that I am a child of the Beloved, and I have the power to change my own destiny.
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