This Thanksgiving was a simple one for our family. It had been a rocky few months with work and potential financial setbacks that I defaulted to my most instinctual response to my world spinning out of control: I wanted my family. So, this year, we spent Thanksgiving with my mom, my younger sister, and my hero, my grandmother. My grandmother is 90-years-old and will be 91 in January. She still makes the best yeast rolls (a BIG pull to family meals at my mom’s house), looks like she may be in her late-60s or mid-70s, and she is mentally sharper than most people alive. Though physically she isn’t as spry as she used to be, she can motivate you to do your best with just a raised eyebrow, and that is just what I needed going into the holiday season.
You see, I would be nothing without my grandmother. My grandmother stepped in to fill the void of a father when mine passed away when I was only eight months old. My mother was 20 and had two children under two. My nanna was and is the best father figure that any young child could ask for, in my opinion. She is musical, playing with amazing skill any instrument she touched. She led the student choir at my church with the same professionalism she led the adult choir and her all-state winning choirs at the high school. She was well-read and promoted reading and education at all times. One of my favorite sayings of hers is, “When you have learned everything, you know your time on Earth has come to an end.” She is my mentor in exploring music and the arts. We discussed Degas, Serat, Van Gogh, Rimsky-Korsikoff, Rachmoninov, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Aaron Copeland, Rogers & Hammerstein, the Gershwin Brothers, Balanchine, Tallchief, Pavlova, Petipa, Fosse, The Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Scott Joplin, Sarah Vaughn, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Bojangles, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, and Herbie Hancock just name a few (and if you don’t know who most of those people are, fortunately, there is Google). She taught me the joy of research and the power of learning who you are. She also taught me that who you are and will be is so strongly influenced by who you come from.
In the Bible, there are endless entries that discuss people’s lineage. Even in the case of Christ, Matthew makes a point to take the most circuitous route possible to show his relationship to the great King David. That continues even today. Walt Disney and the Disney corporation honor the importance of lineage with the appearance of at least one apple in every major Disney film. This is their way to represent and honor Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animated feature film. It introduced us to the movie soundtrack, was Walt Disney Pictures’ first majorly profitable animation, changed the landscape of animation as it was known, won the first Oscar ever for an animated film, but could have also been the film that ended Walt Disney’s career.
In business and politics, we acknowledge the lineage of such families as the Rockefellers, the Hearsts, the Rothschilds, and the Kennedys. We watch the antics of their latest generations because their families have access to the mediums that draw us, “the unknowns” in, and many of us desire to be like them. In the world I grew up in that was based in the Southern African-American Baptist lineage was viewed much differently. It was the foundation of the “generational curse,” in which it was believed that the circumstances of people today is a direct result of the sins and mistakes of their forefathers. This always baffled me because I always wondered why those who bore the names of slave traders, early settlers that killed entire populations of indigenous people, slave owners, and Confederate generals never hung their heads in shame or faced persecution because of the “sins” of their forefathers? When I informed a boy in high school that my grandmother and I learned his family had actually owned members of my family, instead of asking if I had learned anything else, his response was a snide one of, “well, I guess you’re glad you’re free now then. I would have made you miserable,” followed by laughter. The fact that my ancestors were owned by someone was not a point of sadness or shame for me. My grandmother taught me by learning as much as we could about ourselves, we would find more commonalities and more reasons to live in harmony than we would not to get along. We all in a way have humble beginnings that are changed by our belief that somewhere in our past and perhaps, even someone in our future can create a positive difference for our own part of the world.
Looking from the outside in, the difference from those whose lineage and power is derived mostly from money and very little else and those who lineage comes from investing in something they love that could hopefully better the landscape of the world for a lot of people is a difference of quantity and quality. Those in the financial and political spectrum have a power they control through money. Once the money is gone; once it has no value or a value far less than it does now, that power is gone. I acknowledge Walt Disney was no saint, but Disney made his imprint through quality work. He was obsessed with the quality to make a defining animation that would inspire wonder and imagination. He was not afraid to lose money because what he loved was not in the bank – it was in his sketchbooks and then in his films. Closer to home for me, my grandmother opened her heart, pantry, closet, wallet, and classrooms to students from all walks of life for almost 40 years. She taught in the agrarian areas of Virginia which were the home to impoverished Blacks with limited access to education. She taught in her living room and churches. She taught during segregation into integration. She opened the minds of Black students who only saw the limitations that society wanted them to adhere to, changed the hearts of skeptical White students and teachers, and empowered all her students to be their best self. Years after her students graduated and she retired, her students would come up to her and tell her what a difference she made in their lives. They would speak for hours, and her students would tell me how lucky I was to have her every day. Those were words I didn’t need hear but was so proud that I could.
When I come home and sit among the comfort of my family, I am thankful for the line of women I continue. My grandmother’s persistence to do well in all things, my mother’s desire to always do better than the previous day, week, or year, and the overall drive that those women taught me about never giving up is more powerful than any financial lineage I have read about or witness on the world’s stage. It is Christ’s example of giving to those who need it, loving those who don’t deserve it, and raising up those who feel the least worthy. I am bathed in the stories of triumph in the face of discrimination, calm in the face of violence, compassion in the face of inequality, and truth in the face of lies. There is a world out there that would reduce my family down to the whitewashed history of slaves, loud-mouthed preachers, and uppity-negroes, but what I see are the descendants of the same people who can claim the One True King as their own. I hope to continue the line of people who inspire others to be in the world but not of the world. I couldn’t ask for a better lineage to claim as my own.