How learning to work with my Ancestors created a relationship of reciprocity and parental support
I learned a long time ago that having love for someone did not equate to knowing how to love them.
by Taylor Amari Little
My Ancestors are my protectors. No, really. Truly ride or die. It is imperative that you know this.
As you probably know, sometimes parents ain’t shit. Though this is nothing unusual of cisgender heterosexual men in U.S. society. For me, that was my father who was absent for the majority of my life and to this day━with wack excuses and zero attempts of accountability.
Nganga and Root Doctor, Myesha Worthington once stated, “A lot of times it be the ancestors of a neglectful parent who work overtime.” This deemed true for me, too. I have intentionally worked to cultivate sacred relationships with my Ancestors since around thirteen or fourteen years old. Over this time, my growing connection to them, as well as reclaiming African religious/spiritual traditions, transformed and blossomed in immeasurable variety. Last summer was the first year some of them spoke in their indigenous languages during a divination and announced their tribal identities. So now when I work with them, it is easier and more helpful to identify which lineages they are from, especially when my continental African Ancestors present themselves.
For a long time, I noticed my Soninke and Fulbe/Fulani Ancestors, from my father’s side, would show up for me right away, and when they show up, they show up. Proud warriors, fighters, protectors, no-nonsense-takers. I caught on early, understanding that they, as a collective, were stepping in for family I had lost access to the majority of my life.
I have been so pleased with them and happy to exist with their Ancestral love and support. They make me forget about any wrongdoings that have ever happened to me. They make me feel like I can fly and I am intensely grateful to be alive so I can experience them in the ways that I do. However, some time in late 2018, I began to isolate myself as I fell into anxiety and doubt. Though I have made significant progress over the years, trust is something I still struggle with.
Most people who know me intimately know that I never drink or smoke, and always avoid environments where these things occur, by any means necessary. I later learned that it’s in my odu for this to be a taboo.
When I was younger, being around family, particularly my mother and ex-stepfather, when they were not sober brought me a lot of emotional harm. I did not realize until I was older, just how much. I utterly despised trying to talk to my parents about something, only to find them behaving differently, slurring in their speech, forgetting information, and not taking me as seriously as I deserved to be taken. This practice of predictable unpredictability harmed my relationships. It reminded me not to be too dependent on people and impacted my ability to trust. I had an inability to speak up for myself, feelings of helplessness, disempowerment, betrayal, powerlessness in my environments━and it took a larger toll on me than I realized.
Despite, but also in light of, these traumas, working with my Ancestors has been the most liberating relationship I’ve ever had. They are my biggest source of support, love, and power. I know that even if I were to lose everyone in my life today or completely isolate myself, I would still have them, and that alone could keep me going.
I’m unsure exactly of what triggered it, but there came a time when I began to worry about my Ancestors replicating my parents’ harm against me somehow, even without intention. I knew that my Dead Folx loved me, but so did my living family. I learned a long time ago that having love for someone did not equate to knowing how to love them. Feelings of loneliness, stress, panic, and sadness filled me for a while. I had acknowledged that my feelings could be classified as irrational, as my spirits themselves had not actually done anything to me to make me so anxious or depressed about our relationship. It was simply trauma, resurfacing at terrible times. But I still lacked the strength and direction of how to move with them. So, I began to distance myself from them and my altar because of it.
What if they think my boundaries are silly or not important enough? What if they disregard my emotions and experiences like my loved ones who are alive? If they don’t think my boundaries are valid, then am I valid? Do I just overreact or do people actually not have the right to non-consensually cross my comfortability and limits?
After speaking with a close friend about it, they asked me, “Have you talked to them about how you feel? What does parental support look like for you?” I had no idea. Everything up until that conversation had been scattered and tangled, like webs in my body.
I remember at the end of my first Inner Dance in Brooklyn, facilitated by Jana Lynne Umipig, she firmly said that suppressing feelings is part of colonization. Most people of color come from people who, especially prior to colonialism, let out anger and pain openly, and in ritual. She spoke of the power of fire, how it is not always something burdensome. “Release it, not as in let it go. But as in let it live,” she voiced.
Given this wisdom and the supportive words of my friend, I decided to make a list. I returned to it over the course of multiple days, editing and adding new points. I had to remind myself in the process: I am allowed to be firm. I am allowed to set boundaries. I am allowed to have autonomy over my life, my experiences and my surroundings.
I stood at my altar with candles lit, water refreshed, and I spoke my truth. I took my deep breaths and began stating what parental support looks like for me
- Reminding me I do not have to do everything by myself, but also letting me make that decision for myself.
- Respecting my hard boundaries of avoiding spaces with alcohol, smoking, or drugs and also not bringing them into my home.
- Not gaslighting me or immediately becoming defensive.Taking accountability when something harmful is done or said.
- Respecting my right to my body, respecting my agency, my right to both modesty and nudity, and never victim-blaming me. Rooting for me and empowering me as I constantly engage in the journey of reclaiming my body from both individuals, social groups, and the state.
- Not only not participating in any oppressive systems, but also firmly standing against all of them. Including capitalism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, misogynoir, slut-shaming, patriarchy in general, white supremacy, Arab supremacy, colorism, ableism, whorephobia, etc.
- Being present with me.
- Understanding my lack of capacity and energy whenever I’m experiencing burnout, depression, or anxiety.
- Not being afraid to get the rest of my family on track. Not being afraid to hold them accountable for harmful behavior when they do not listen to me, or anyone else.
- Helping me become my best self in this lifetime and all lifetimes.
- Standing up for me when no one else in the physical realm will.
- Helping me healthily express myself and all of my emotions, not just the ones I was taught to keep.
- Helping me protect, feed and serve my inner child.
- Using words of affirmation and acts of service.
- Parental support for me looks like safety in a world where that is rarely ever possible.
It was an emotional experience, nearly resembling therapy. It felt like an honest and genuine string of words that truly needed to be said out loud in order to be carried properly. I felt in my body the power behind everything I said.
I did not ask if they could provide that support. I merely trusted that whoever stepped up when I called would agree and feel comfortable handling what I asked for. I trusted in them to take care of me and respond in ways they had capacity for.
Months later, a few friends and I finally held a misa, as supported and instructed by our Ancestors. A misa is a gathering of a folks to engage in mediumship, safely communicate with ancestral spirits and let them speak through us. My Ancestors decided to also speak through a friend of mine who was present and visiting me from out-of-state. They gave me days of information, trying to talk to me through my friend for as long as they stayed with me (with respect to their own capacity). I realized after my friend had gone and I was still processing, that they affirmed everything from my letter to them and more.
They spoke of collectively supporting my autonomy, me having their support to love my body, the necessity of addressing and unpacking trauma in order to attain freedom, affirming my needs and right to be treated with compassion and respect as a Black femme. They even gave me multiple instructions so I may better avoid giving away parts of myself in order to accommodate others. My spirits asserted it was imperative for me to continue believing in my power, and for that belief to guide me wherever I went. My abilities, that I am still coming into, are inherently connected to them since I am a compilation of their spirits. They also spoke numerous times about how they never want to cross my boundaries, and assured I would never have to sacrifice my boundaries with them.
Additionally, my Ancestors emphasized that transitioning into the spirit realm has helped them navigate their relationship to their queerness. They were proud to tell me that many of the spirits who show up for me are queer in some way, shape, or form. That my frontline defense is primarily femme, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming.
They affirmed me having distance from my family in the physical realm, but also emphasized them needing to get their shit together. So many of our parents and relatives do not actively engage in the unpacking of trauma, and instead just learn to live with it but end up never really living. It is not in my destiny to continue that tradition, and for many of you it won’t be either.
If you already exist in community with other spiritual and religious practitioners actively working with their Ancestors (especially in African Diasporan traditions), then you’ve likely already heard the phrase that our Ancestors are our first line of defense, and likely have a deep understanding that this is a truth.
Just as in any relationship, sustaining it requires active communication and listening. It requires honesty, compassion, meeting one another where we are, and the willingness to move forward. This does not change in relationships with our Dead people.
It is mandatory to consciously exist in relationships of reciprocity, understanding that we both engage in offering and learning. The two are not separate. An Ancestor of mine told me, “We learn something new from you everyday.” I remember being so surprised and honored. And feeling incredibly valued. It was a shock for me to learn that what we had was not simply one linear connection, that our bond instead consisted of exchanges of spiritual knowledge in all forms. Furthermore, they let me know that I can continue having expectations for them like they do for me.
It is our responsibility to elevate our Ancestors, just like they elevate us. Support them like they do us. And so that they can support us.
One of the last things they told me was that, if I wanted one of my Ancestors to serve as a replacement for a relative in my life, they could be that for me. All I would have to do is let them know and they can make it happen.
Our Ancestors are family. We must not forget that with them, we can make anything happen. If there’s anything I have learned from my Dead Folks, it is that my ability to seek liberation in any form starts with them. And we are not the only ones this concept applies to.
Taylor Amari Little is a Black queer Muslim femme, Hoodoo woman, two-headed diviner, energymotha/reiki service provider, both full-time Criminology and liberatory herbalism student, TEDx speaker, and co-founder of Islamic Healing Space of A2 & Ypsi. She specializes in cultivating liberating healing spaces for LGBTQ+ people of color and LGBTQ+ Muslims. Find more at tayloramarilittle.com.