Ancestors born before 1900

Ancestors born before 1900
Frances Simpkins, Leah Foote, Emmaline Foote, Rosetta Foote

Friday, July 25, 2014

My Grandmother's Hands

When Gram, Lucille Ruth Lee Stokes, went to Heaven on December 6, 2006, I took down the poem I'd written for her and placed it in her coffin. I finally stumbled on an early version of it today as I try to make a dent in the mess I've made of her once impeccably clean house. Of course in typing this in, it means that I'm once again distracted from the job.

I really loved my Gram and was so blessed that she was always right upstairs. Hopefully she'll be with me as I continue this archaeology dig in her home. This was written on December 27, 1983. I was in Bukavu, Zaire (now DRC) in the early days of my in-country Peace Corps training to be a Fish Volunteer. The waves of emotions during my first trip Home to Mama Africa were such blessings.

My Grandmother's Hands

I stare at my hands.
After years of dainty piano,
at last they can more than appreciate
the stories told by the hands:

Of yesterday's slaves
who struggled through a living hell
Building not only the south,
but, in their fight, laid the foundation
for us, their future.

Of today's African women
who from sun up to well past dark-
work fields, cook food, carry water, clean clothes,
march miles with incredible weight balanced so carefully on their heads,
often with infants strapped to their backs.

And of my Grandmother's Hands
Paled and wrinkled, calloused and firm.
The story of personal struggle and a pride,
comparable to no other.

Those hands, which washed windows and scrubbed floors,
show the strength of generations.
And to those hands, the generations to come owe everything.

For in her fight, head always held high,
My Grandmother, bowing to no one but her God,
built and taught our family
to care, to love, and to be proud.

My hands sense the trials of yesterday's slaves and today's African women,
but it is my heart that holds everlasting love and respect for
My Grandmother
whose hands have held me close
and guided my way.

Gram (1/20/1905 SC - 12/6/2006 NY) and me 1988

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Look to This Shore

This isn't genealogy - it's greater than genealogy, it's the call of ancestral echoes that rest deep inside. One third of the African DNA coursing through my being is Nigerian. I have very strong emotions, love and disappointment, with my ancestral home. The school girls, kidnapped by Boko Haram over three months ago, have not been freed. Even when I lived there in 1989-90, I could feel the wahala. I also want Nigeria to rise up to its role as an international leader as Chinua Achebe wrote in The Trouble with Nigeria:
I believe that Nigeria is a Nation favored by Providence. I believe there are individuals as well as nations who, on a account of peculiar gifts and circumstances, are commandeered by history to facilitate mankind's advancement. Nigeria is such a nation. The vast human and material wealth with which she is endowed bestows on her a role in Africa and the world which no one else in the world can assume or fulfill. The fear that should nightly haunt our leaders (but does not) is that they may have already betrayed irretrievably Nigeria's high destiny.... We have lost the twentieth century; are we bent on seeing that our children lose the twenty-first? God forbid! (1983)
I wrote Look to this Shore in the Fall of 1989 from the inspiration of J. DeWitt Webster when we were interns for Africare in Nigeria. DeWitt's excitement of returning home for the first time and his love of Nigeria sparkled through his whole person! We had been selected as among the second group of James H. Robinson Fellows through a program sponsored by Operation Crossroads Africa, Inc., the Ford Foundation, and various NGOs that was designed to increase the number of underrepresented minorities working in international development. I'm glad I came across a copy of the poem because it reminds me to hold onto hope - hope for the Chibok school girls, hope for Nigeria, hope for a peaceful settlement for Palestinians among their Jewish cousins, hope for children living in unbelievable situations from Buffalo to all parts of the world.

Look to this Shore

Stepping into the sand of the other side.
Flooded with memories that cannot be mine.
Yet they are of me, through me, all that I am.

How often was someone's last act
to grab a handful of this sand,
a handful of home?

Have you on the other side
ever stared across the sea?
Longing to know the lives of the water-washed bones;
Longing to know our ancestral homes?

Look at the Blackness of the world.
Proudly stand and be counted in the history.
Look inside yourself.
You are the child of a history of pride and perseverance.

Look to this shore my children.
Dive into this knowledge.
Rediscover the pride of self-knowledge
Which flows in other Black faces.

Come to a land of fortitude.
So many of the strongest were taken.
Know that we are because they were.

Are you a living legacy to their standards?
Do you still respect yourself?
Do you have a spirit that cannot be broken?

If not,
go to the shore,
stare across the sea,
seek that unbreakable spirit.

Seek the wisdom of people who created civilization,
perfected medical arts, and lived in harmony with nature.
Let that wisdom be the cornerstone of your knowledge.

The spirit of our ancestors
whose centuries-old fight for survival
will come to you.
Let that spirit be your strength.

As their descendants, we fight today.
Called to resist genocidal apples
tossed on our paths each day.
This war is for survival.

Our ancestors knew themselves.
Putting their lives into the Creator's hands,
they did what had to be done to protect their children.

Stare across that sea.
Think of how Africa was raped.
Stare at yourself.
Know that your ancestors fought to survive.

Stare into yourself.
Be filled with the heritage
that centuries of abuse
have not crushed.

Now vow that in the centuries to come,
your children will have that spirit.
Vow that it will not be crushed.

Hold a handful of sand.
Stare across the sea.
Look to this shore.
Step, assuredly, into reality.