Thursday, November 25, 2010

An Appeal for Ancestor Veneration

so today is Thanksgiving Day, or as some in more conscious circles call it, Thanks-taking Day. i won't do the typical rant about how celebrating this day is the acceptance and support of a country's racist, genocidal, and destructive history, all while placing the white historical perspective at a higher level of importance and continuing to devalue and ignore histories of colored communities. well, i guess that was a rant...

anyway, i've been thinking a lot lately about this idea of ancestor veneration. here's a little background info on ancestor veneration if you wanted nice historical introduction. a number of indigenous societies practice AV, most notably for me are the Mexican, African and Chinese.

i volunteer with an organization that helps to sustain practices of the Mexican culture, and one of my favorite events is the Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). a huge altar is the main focus of the 3 day event. fruits, breads, candles, flowers along with photos and mementos of family members that have passed don the altar. it isn't uncommon to see smaller altars in the homes of many individuals that celebrate this holiday. also, the decorations and face-painting of skeletons and typically "scary" imagery that accompany the celebration have a really interesting concept behind them. in our western society, we typically think of death as something negative, bad, frightening or even taboo. but Dia De Los Muertos is a celebration of the life of the dead; celebrating them, their energy, their thought and goals; celebrating the time we had with them. skeletons are not just bones that signify morbidity and gloom-they're the frame of someone important; the remnants of a loved one. it's a beautiful celebration all around. while i have read about ancestor veneration in African and Chinese societies, Dia De Los Muertos is the only one i have actually experienced.

and i've been thinking what an insightful and positive idea ancestor veneration is and could be for many communities damaged by colonialism and the like. if African Americans, for example, began to think (say in a weekly or monthly celebration or practice...maybe along with an altar?) of our ancestors more often than most of us do (which is usually limited to the month of February), what positive impacts would this have in our lives and in our community?
if we were constantly thinking about those that have died so we could have simple privileges (human rights, really) we overlook, how much more humbling and appreciative would we be? people think about college as something everyone does, but what if we were constantly reminded that our people have been denied until quite recently proper education? would the drop-out rate for black youths be as depressing as it is now?
a while back, i was reading Black Boy by Richard Wright and theres a chapter in which he details how he began to educate himself. he worked for a white man that allowed him to check out books from the library using his card. the librarian questioned him about his need for these books and the became suspect at the subjects, he had to keep them hidden most of the time, and even his friends and family looked at him funny. "why you reading them books?... you think you better than us? need to put them books down and learn you a trade." these are the types of remarks he heard from his own people. if it were found that he was actually getting these books for himself, he could have been physically harmed. like....damn! really? my library card began to have a certain glow after reading that anecdote. not to mention the fact that slaves were likely to be whipped or even killed for learning how to read. how special now, does a book, a diploma, a library card, or self-education as a whole become?
how treasured does one's own sanity, dignity, well-being, or autonomy become when we realize the types of obstacles your ancestors had to endure to get these things? those enslaved were even robbed of choosing their own diets. if your realize that the same shit you're eating at McDonalds is not that much different from the lard and animal innards our people were forced to eat, how would that change our diets and eventually our overall health (which is quite disheartening). how would our consumer choices, life choices, and political activities change? for those of us that have a colonized past, the act of just telling the stories and histories of some of our peoples is quite revolutionary in itself.

the only issue i see is the religious (Muslims and Christian, mostly) communities seeing this as "witchery" and maybe even devil worship. many western anthropologists that studied African societies termed this practice incorrectly for some time as "ancestor worship" (the wiki link shows the issue of this term). and i can see religious individuals assuming the same, as it does suggest reincarnation. but, i think with a little explaining, i think it can work alongside their beliefs, considering it's really just respect and remembrance for the dead, and not actual worship. it also might be very painful for some of us to look at the history of our respective ancestors, but ultimately i think it will be a catalyst for change as well as education in our communities.

comment. think. consider it a part of your day...week...month? be thankful-whatever your situation.

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