My father was a student of history and ensured that I would be as well. More specifically, he was a student of African American history. I knew who Mary McLeod Bethune and George Washington Carver were before I went to first grade. I read Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro in the fourth or fifth grade. And I was familiar with the writings African American historian Benjamin Quarles in high school (whom Daddy always preferred to John Hope Franklin, although he never said why).
For my father, this was greater than the adage (various phrased) that “if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are going.” For him, knowing one’s history, especially one’s suppressed cultural history, is a part of being alive. It’s part of what makes us whole.
It was easy for me to apply this same idea to my personal past. As a child, I loved to ask my mother stories about how things were when she grew up. What games did she play? Who did she like? How did Grandma do her hair? I liked flipping through old pictures. I didn’t just want to know her stories – I wanted to know the stories of the family. I wanted to know about my paternal grandmother’s known slave ancestors, and the blacksmith shop. I wanted to know about my orphaned maternal grandmother and how her family sharecropped cotton. I wanted to know who raised them when their parents died, and how he was related to us. I wanted to know why so many of my cousins have derivatives of the same family names.
My mother told me most of what I wanted to know, even when my grandparents were alive. My grandparents didn’t like to talk about the past. They said it was too painful. I now understand that their histories of death, poverty, racism, migration and loss were not so atypical of other Native Americans and African Americans of their social and geographical background. I also understand that talking about the past might have felt like reliving something that they worked hard to transcend.
I’ve never thought of myself as someone who clings to the past. I think about my future. I set goals. Yet in my ongoing depressions, there are few things I want more than to go back in time. I don’t say it that way. I say things like:
I want my life back
I want things to be like they were before X happened
I want to go back in time. When I put it that way, I know it’s not possible. I know I cannot do anything over. I know I cannot be who I was. That simple realization can feel crushing when I can’t envision new things I will do, and when I don’t know how I will grow. I generally know that I will go on. Tomorrow will come and bring new activities. There are still goals to attain. And I will evolve into a new (hopefully more mature) version of myself. Often, I can’t see the path to that place. In deep depressions, I don’t even trust that such a place even exists.
In the space amidst the knowledge that I can’t go back in time, my inability to see in front of myself, and my desperate need for peace . . . I need the past. I need the good parts of the past. I need to remember that the last depressive episode didn’t kill me. I need to remember that I have been happy before. I need to remember the faith that I can’t feel at that moment. I need the past to come to me.
I believe the past comes to those of us in the present. In the simplest form, the past comes to me in my memory. Even when it’s difficult, I can remember.
Sometimes this is a mystical belief that the spirits of my deceased relatives are still with me. It can be as ordinary as thinking that my grandmother would be proud of me on those special occasions where I wish she were there. Or as complicated as Freudian analyses of the dreams I still have about her.
In the traditional religion of the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria, cultural ancestors, the orisha, come to the community in individuals who dance and sing and drum. Anthropologists have called this “spirit possession.”
With popular images of spirit possession like the movie, “The Exorcist,” engraved in Western consciousness, it’s hard to think of “spirit possession” as a good thing. But religion reminds me that it can be. It can be one way of how the past comes to me in the present – since I can’t go back into the past.
Some Christians experience the Holy Spirit this way. For people in charismatic traditions, it can manifest as “speaking in tongues” and “holy dancing.” For most, the Holy Spirit is a way of naming the fact that even though Jesus is no longer walking the earth, his message and divine presence live on.
These faith traditions suggest that spirit does not come just to remind me that the past once existed. They suggest that spirit comes to remind me of the past in order to help me move into the future. For some people, this next move involves words of wisdom that can indicate which path to choose. For others, the move into the future involves sharing one’s faith and inviting others into community. I understand it this way:
Through spirit, the past can teach and motivate the present.
In this sense my father was right. The past is part of what keeps us alive. And if I can’t go back into the past, then I need the past to come to me. In my saddest emptiest moments, I need memory and more. I need help. I need my ancestors – cultural and familial – to help me. I need spirit.
Because when death is near, learning and hoping can be a bridge towards life.
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