Legacy is a stick fallen from a deeply rooted tree and dressed with nine ribbons, all different colors, and bells, a mask, a cup of coffee, a glass of water, because where the sun rises for the ancestors, it also rises for me.
I can remember the day I made the conscious commitment to nurture legacy in my home and heart. I was thirty years old and a recently separated single mother to two daughters. But truth be told, the journey began long before that. My first breath outside my mother’s womb marked an affirmative moment in time, a choice, a resilient truth, though new-born and fresh-skinned. In that moment, as a baby girl child, I claimed a legacy simply by getting here to the other side, willfully making my way into this world. Growing into this place and space in time, however, has its memory lapses. There are love affairs with the dangers of life that can leave one numb to such grand notions as an inheritance, a charge, a tradition. There are bill collectors and baby daddies and mamas; there are fears and fallings that dull the senses ‘til one cannot hear the whispers of legacy. But somehow, I made the commitment. It was my own personal rebellion against society’s often deafening rally cry against black girls who become women determined to make love out of life, and it all began on a cold January day in 2004 at Rock Creek Park in the Chocolate City some know as this nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C.
On that day, I walked through heavily wooded land with my cousin, Ernesto, as my guide, and I found a stick among so many others just beyond the creek in a place that was once a plantation dependent upon the bodies and souls of enslaved people. I walked through cold rain without an umbrella that day and recovered what was already and always mine – a lineage of a people who had the strength of spirit to conjure healing and passion for life out of blood, bone, and the most intensely back breaking labor pains. And it is not my legacy. It belongs to all of us. And it is not deep and mysterious; it is as ordinary as block parties and sweet potato pie, as life-sustaining as the rhythmic boom bap blasting from the speakers, as necessary to our well-being as water. And yet, we must recover that lineage, re-member it, caring for this sacred and ever-present force so that our children and their children do not forget: There is great power in our history of blackness here in the Americas, and that history matters in the here and now.
On that cold and rainy afternoon in January, I chose to do my part by taking a small step, and that step moved me on the inside ‘til my daily troubles in the world as a single mama battling the broken family blues became less daunting, because that stick became my foundation for a space in my home dedicated to the lives and spiritual presence of my ancestors, their stories, and their strengths.
Where the sun rises for the ancestors, it also rises for me. I listen, and the elders tell me:
‘Ana was born on the Middle Passage. So, they called her Ocean Ana. That is how we remember her name. It was a whole people born on that water. They carried Africa with them, but they made America, too.’
Love . . . a love so strong that the fear of the unknown and the violent way it could come down on a body cease to matter, because life calls. That’s the kind of love I want to claim, because I have known some times where I could not call upon love, even for myself. At least I could not call upon it strong enough to pull myself out of anger. Separation and divorce left me determined to pout my way through the rest of my life, resigning to the failure of a dream. I almost left my sanity in some dusty corner of my mind all because the man I married chose another life rich with women and parties and the elusive feel good all of that could bring. I had the nerve to find that worthy of self pity and tried staring at walls, hoping to fall into one, finally releasing the responsibility of raising my girls alone. There were eviction notices, dangerous walks past midnight…alone and searching for what might kill me, unpaid phone bills, and children crying for someone I could never be. And I would not dare suggest that I was a pioneer in this. We all have our hurts – those places we can go to and close down to the world. Sure, you get up in the morning, throw some breakfast together, get dressed and breathe through another day on the job, but it’s more habitual than a testimony to strength. I craved meaning, a passion thick enough to make the seeming loss into a truth my daughters could remember in their own life journeys. And it was only acknowledging the stories and beating hearts of those who came before me that got me there. What is divorce but a parting of ways, a departure from the old and a new path beckoning when you still have breath, they told me. What was your choice to birth these children but a marker of your life in God’s hands and an opportunity for you to grow into that existence more fierce for the scars, they whispered. How could I not choose that kind of love?
A cup of coffee, a glass of water for their whispers from the other side, a mask for the spirit that got you here, and photographs if you got ‘em, ‘cause the living like to look upon a face. They tell me many love stories:
‘Daddy John and Mama Emily had a home for all the folks in the community down in Hunstville, Alabama. In the evenings, Daddy John would welcome the people into their small space ‘til it got late and he had to put them out. It’d be white folks and black folks. Everybody. Well, Daddy John had been teaching the black men in the community how to make bricks and build homes, bridges, anything. He was a master brick mason. And one day, he took it upon himself to make a union for the black brick masons down there in Hunstville so they could get the same pay as the white men. Well, don’t you know, those white folks threatened to kill them all so that Daddy John and Mama Emily had to move their family and all the other folks who were a part of that union clear across the country? They stayed in Canada for awhile, and then settled in Seatlle, Washington, where he kept on teaching his craft and caring for his people.’
On my block of Girard Street in Washington, D.C., the inevitable sting of gentrification came slow and looming like the shadow of a promise laced in the most bitter sweet premonition of a flavor not meant for our tastes. The block needed the change, but we also knew that the change would not be for us. Open air drug sales were rampant on the block; young black and Latino men were murdered, especially during the months of spring and summer. We found bullet casings at the front door of our apartment building, and neighbors suffering from addiction wandered the block as a constant reminder of a shared problem we could not solve. Brothers who had once helped me lift grocery bags from the concrete to the front door of my building were arrested and sent to jail as ordinarily as the pigeons flocking to what is always left for the alley. And women I knew as friends bore black eyes behind sunglasses or covered internal scars in whatever masks heart-break could afford. I lived inside of that world, struggling to define myself outside of it, only to find that my family, my heart, and my body existed as evidence of a communal ill, an open wound we chose not to see on the best of our good days.
Of course, my block was not Hunstville. And I was definitely not a brick mason, but in taking the time to collect the stories and strengths of my ancestors I recognized how I could find a space of love inside such difficult emotional and psychological terrain. And it came through my hands first. It came through my heart’s longing to create life in spite of the ever-present dangers at home. I wrote poems and crafted art out of beads and acrylics until my room was cluttered with all of it. These testimonies of the common struggle in urban America became a love story I wanted to share with others as a desire to engage my block, my community, in an intimate conversation. I also wanted to share the cathartic process of artistic expression with others with kindred experiences, especially women, because in my mind, public policy’s often dawdling steps to progress will inevitably witness the loss of many lives. For me, giving life to my voice through artistic expression alleviated a seeming political inertia in my community; I believed that this same healing could matter for others.
So, in January of 2005, I founded Ocean Ana Rising in honor of that small baby who took her first breath on the waters of the Atlantic, hoping to deepen the courageous and resilient love that got her here along with so many others.
Since Ocean Ana Rising’s incorporation, artists and art patrons have been able to facilitate mediation and mask making workshops for women housed in D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Unit, and writing resistance and meditation workshops for young women of Barrios Unidos (Virginia Chapter). We have also incubated art projects and theatrical productions, hiring emerging and seasoned artists of color, and sharing those works with many others.
This is our legacy. My daughters witness this. They live it with me. Whether they choose to make art or facilitate arts outreach or not, their presence on the journey will inform their sense of self and community. I will not censor the often negative myths perpetuated through popular culture but I will speak back against them so that a dialogue can take place. I have not righted the countless wrongs this nation has institutionalized in relation to people of color throughout this land, but I have offered an alternative institution rooted in love. And I accept that a utopian existence cannot be reached in a world governed by individual choice, but I can choose to stand on this particular side of our legacy, waking in the morning to tap my stick in remembrance and celebration of a tradition of abundant love, and sitting still long enough to hear the whispers encouraging me. Some of us will make art, some will teach school, and some will study medical conditions toward healing our physical bodies from rampant disease. It is all the same legacy- a love story passed down through the ages.
Legacy is a stick fallen from a tree and dressed with nine ribbons, all different colors, and bells, a mask, a cup of coffee, a glass of water for their whispers from the other side, a mask for the spirit that got you here, and photographs if you got ‘em, ‘cause the living like to look upon a face to remember.
Note: The ancestral shrine detailed here in the italicized sections of the essay is rooted in Yoruba traditions of ancestor veneration. One need not be a Yoruba practitioner to acknowledge your ancestors, however. Take your time to consider those who came before you, whether they are individuals who were part of your biological family or not, and decide how you think they would like to be remembered and celebrated in your life.
Nina Angela Mercer
*Copyrighted February 2008