“Those who are dead are never gone:
They are there in the thickening shadow.
The dead are not under the earth:
They are in the tree that rustles,
They are in the wood that groans,
they are in the water that sleeps,
they are in the hut, they are in the crowd,
the dead are not dead.
Those who are dead are never gone,
they are in the breast of the woman,
they are in the child who is wailing
and in the firebrand that flames.
The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the fire that is dying,
they are in the grasses that weep,
they are in the whimpering rocks,
they are in the forest, they are in the house,
the dead are not dead” – Birago Diap
“Africans believe that those who go before us make us what we are. Accordingly, ancestor-reverence holds an important place in the African belief system. Through reverence for them we recognize our origins and ensure the spiritual and physical continuity of the human race.
Obviously, ancestors influence human life through hereditary physical and personality traits, but in the African view they continue to exist and create in the spirit world.” – Luisah Teish’s Jambalaya; The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals
My ancestors always have a place in my spiritual practice. For many people this time of year brings focus to the practice of ancestral work and the thinning of the veil brings about much discussion to those things that happen beyond death. I think it is good to refocus our relationships with those who are no longer with us, and to reset our intention for the upcoming year. While some people do not have ancestral work as a part of their ongoing practice, I do not see separating myself from the Mighty Dead as an option in my spiritual life.
Part of my work the past three years has focused on the stories and experiences of my ancestors, learning about them and connecting in several different ways. I realized a long time ago that I knew very little accurate information about the real history of the ancestors of my African American lineage. I know the same stripped down stories that are taught to us children in our broken American school system, but those stories are neither completely accurate or spiritually fulfilling. As a Black girl born and raised in the Bay Area, it was easy for me to separate from ideas of race or ethnicity; compound that by my light skin color and you had the almost perfect analogy for me to live in a almost “colorblind” system. But the older I got, the more I recognized that the colorblind theory that those around me were trying to live, and that I was taught to believe existed, was one of the most harmful levels of conditioning I had been acculturated into.
Once that realization became clearer to me, and I became painfully aware at how distant I was from my ancestral story, I was deeply hurt on a soul level. How do I connect with what I do not know, and why have I been kept from the knowledge of my own people? The knowledge that would fill the holes in my own spiritual story was missing. Without this knowledge I felt like the wandering homeless in a city that felt like home to most, and strangely unwelcoming to me. And while I am a product of this land, and love the people in my life immensely, there was a void that I needed to fill.
The slow process of unlearning what I have been told, and relearning the stories of my people have included building a relationship with those who are no longer here, and with those that I had no names to call to them. These ancestors that I am left to connect with spiritually were without names, faces, and information that would allow me access to research beyond generalization. I have had only my ability to connect with the energy of the forgotten, and the resources of limited research to tell me some of the stories that are otherwise hidden. My spiritual path changed dramatically as I gave myself the chance to connect to a practice of reverence and connection that I previously found irrelevant to my path.
Today I approach my path from a new place of wonder. Understanding that I am in an ongoing relationship with all the things that I am and all the things that I do not understand that I am. Who I am is largely a part of a battle with adjustment; I think many people of color are adjusting to a world that we were not taught to understand and is the opposite of many things we were conditioned to believe. The spiritual impact of this revelation was, and is, very challenging for me. And as it is a part of my personal story, I find that it is one of the most important pieces for why I must include ancestor reverence in my religious practice.
When my mother died in 2010 I felt I had lost one of the only people that connected me to an understanding of where I came from. Today my practice includes her as one of my Mighty Dead, continuing to give me a sense of magical purpose in my many missions. And in opening myself to her after she made her transition, I have found that I am able to connect to the essence of others that I was not able to before.
There is a permanent ancestor altar in my home; my mother’s ashes reside on this altar along with pictures of those who have gone before. I honor them and continue to make a vow to learn what I can and continue the work that they were not able to do. This is one of the main driving forces for my academic study, my professional social work, and my spiritual work. I do not dismiss the lessons that they have to teach me, and the sacrifice that it took to make a way for me to be right here, right now.
May we all connect to a sense of purpose and gratitude as the veil is thinning this season. Let us remember to work with, and honor, our ancestors of blood and heart throughout the year, and not just when it is convenient or trendy. And may we all be right here, right now, with open ears for knowledge we have yet to gain, and open hearts to love each other through the turning of the wheel.
For more on ancestor practices, check out the Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project.