February is Black History Month.
A few months ago, I saw a tweet from Ava DuVernay pop up on my timeline. It contained a picture of a memorial dedicated to Melvina “Mattie” Shields McGruder, a former slave who is kin to Michelle Obama. The caption of the tweet said, “Become your ancestor’s wildest dream.”
I was intrigued by this quote, and it dawned on me that I really had no idea what my ancestors dreamed for my future. Would they be impressed that I was attending a university that started admitting Black students only 57 years ago, or would they frown at my “assimilation?” Would they give me a standing ovation for my dreams of becoming a journalist? Or would they view the craft as useless, wishing I had instead pursued a career in the sciences?
Since DuVernay’s thought-provoking tweet appeared on my timeline, I’ve seen the phrase pop up on my Twitter and Instagram feeds at least once every few days. It is usually accompanied by a picture of what you would envision when you hear the term “Black excellence” — mostly snapshots of college diplomas, job acceptance letters, scholarship offers, college graduates, Black men and women in white coats. As I “liked” each of these posts, feeling an elevated sense of inspiration with each “success despite tribulation” story, my mind wandered back to the caption attached to each of them.
I admit, when I saw DuVernay’s tweet, I couldn’t wait to use the quote as a caption for the cap-and-gown photos I’ve been waiting to take for the past four years.
But still, that inner battle — my attempts to imagine what my ancestor’s wildest dreams would have been — lingers.
While experiencing that underlying pressure to pass all of my classes so I can graduate this year, I have also been putting in overtime to secure internships and full-time job offers for after graduation. During this difficult process, I’ve often privately reflected on where I came from, where I am now, and where I hope to go.
What kind of reflections, if any, did my slave ancestors have while they were being abused, beaten, raped, and used for roughly 250 years? Sometimes, I think it’s insulting to reduce my ancestors’ dreams down to what their great-great-great granddaughter would be doing on February 9th, 2018.
I believe that my ancestors not only dreamed of what their future lineage would become, but what they themselves could have been or wanted to be had they not been subjected to the inhumane conditions of slavery.
My ancestors dreamed about having large families where everyone lived within a few feet of each other without fear of being split up. They dreamed about giving birth to babies full of joy, full of laughter not cut short by sounds of crying as they’re ripped from their mother’s arms to be cared for by strangers. My ancestors had dreams of picking fruits and vegetables to feed their own families, instead of cotton. They dreamed of being able to freely speak their native languages in their respective countries without forced assimilation.
While some of these dreams may seem rather simple, that is exactly the point.
Now, this isn’t to say that my ancestors wouldn’t be amazed by who I’ve become. I believe they would be proud to witness their African-American female descendant study complex literature and ideas in an institution that she couldn’t even step foot into just six decades ago. I believe they would be relieved to see their descendant achieve, for the most part, financial stability despite the absence of generational wealth.
Then I remember that, because of the abuse my ancestors were forced to endure, my dreams might not automatically align with their potential expectations of me. Would my identity as a womanist make my great-great-great-grandmother feel ashamed of me? Would it clash with the slave values driven into her mind for decades, by no fault of her own? When abusive behavior is all you know, anything that seeks to rebel against it is scary. Being repeatedly raped and labeled as sexually promiscuous left her — and so many Black women who were slaves — with more mental and emotional trauma than I can even begin to imagine.
I can’t think about my ancestors’ wildest dreams without remembering that.
While I will never actually know my ancestors’ dreams for me, I do know that my hard work — the work I’ve put in every single day that I’ve been alive on this planet — has been in honor of them.
It has been in honor of my living relatives who have supported me. With every article I’ve written and every opportunity I’ve received, I know that I am only here because of the suffering my ancestors were forced to endure just to survive. The pressure I feel to achieve my ancestors’ wildest dreams is heavy, but that pressure is what created the determined person I am.