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Ancestors Do Teach

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

Joy Issue No 5

Art Submitted by Ramon Johnson

I was reading Audre Lorde’s poetry is not a luxury essay because I had come across a quote therein that I wanted to use in a poetry presentation. While reading the essay, I was stopped by a fragment of one of her beginning sentences:

“…there is a place dark within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises…” (36)

At first, I disagreed with Ms. Lorde’s characterization of a dark place. I got that sunken feeling of being in a dark pit where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Maybe that’s just a flashback from my life. Or maybe I was just looking at the word in a western sense, negatively. But, that one word did not sit with me, especially in a phrasing that ended so hopefully.

Dark, as in mysterious, yes. Dark, as in hidden as she said, yes. And, it grows more and more as we face our personal truths.

Facing personal truths is a daunting proposition for most people. Maybe that’s what she meant by dark. There are some truths we have necessarily hidden away whether for our own safety, perceived or true, or for the safety or feelings of others.

I call this clipping your wings, something I refuse to do or let anyone else do to me. We live in a society that insists on clipping wings for monetary gain predicated as a rite of passage. Some are even clipped in designer fashion, however there is always a tribe or crowd surrounding the clipping style.

My life has been manifested in a way that I just keep my wings close and don’t spread them. There just isn’t enough room. And yet, I still refused to let anyone clip or persuade me to clip mine. I inherently felt them to be a greater essence of my being.

There is a folk tale about a people in Afrika, before enslavement ensued, who had wings and joyously flew in their land. But one day these beautiful people were assaulted, captured, and shackled in the hold of a ship. Their wings had no room to spread and were bound.

There is also a legend that when some reached these shores, they flew back to Afrika.

Of those left, there was one man named Toby who remembered and carried the magic words in his heart to make one fly and helped those others who were descendants to remember. And off from the toil of a plantation they took flight…

Censoring myself used to be a way of life. There was not enough space in any room, nor did I think anyone could handle all of me. I have since decided that I am akin to an eagle. Some eagles grow a wingspan of eight feet. They don’t fly in flocks.

My life up until this point has been an uphill battle. A diagnosis of schizophrenia bipolar spectrum at 20 saw me lose my first big dream/goal just as it was about to come to fruition. I was a junior in chemical engineering. I am now 59. Locked in the personal hell of my brain for 24 years with voices so powerful, I could not detect my own, I spent my time in and out of hospitals and mostly alone.

The voices were vicious, and they wanted nothing more than for me to take my own life. But I, being mostly a child, imagined myself an African princess warrior and went to battle daily for my life, literally. Fighting hard, finishing college, although with a Journalism degree and even making a move to D.C. to find a journalism position, thinking that maybe I could leave the torture behind now that I had finished college. This was a game I played with myself to take me to the next phase.

Of course, your head travels with your body necessarily. And I did find a position and thrived despite the voices. But after about a year of trying to keep it together and fight the suicidal thoughts, I had to leave. I didn’t want to become the stench in the hall someone had to investigate. My second major disappointment.

And, there was a constant series of these, a barrage of jobs, and hospital visits. The 24 years only came to an end with a new medication on the market, however, I was left with a life of paranoia, depression, and the scars from the aftermath.

Even after accosting the voices, though I was totally relieved to be rid of them, the challenges of life seemed insurmountable. There I was 44, actually feeling, for all purposes, like a 20-year-old. I could not and still cannot on some levels relate to others because my life experience is so out of the ordinary. And, because it involved mental health challenges, something I kept as a very close secret until I decided to speak publicly about it at 44, most, especially in the Black community, want nothing to do with me. The stigma is so great, and some people are as vicious as the voices I had in my head, it was like suffering twice.

I find that I am most at home and accepted in the mental health community. I also carved out a small monetary niche, creating and facilitating self-care and mental wellness workshops through an artistic lens.

Facing personal truths, no matter how frightening, was the only way out for me though. And, most of them were faced, believe it or not, during this pandemic isolation time. I remember I wrote in a poem in the first few months:

The truth sits in your living room chair and waits for you to address it/it knows you’re going nowhere. there’s nowhere to go.

And at first, I didn’t really understand it’s beckoning though I articulated it in the poem. Those months sent me in a frenzy that almost drove me over the edge…again. And I moved, in the middle of a pandemic, South to where my parents live, hoping I could escape and get some relief. But of course, it was like D.C., the truth followed, only it introduced itself in doses. Doses that tore me apart, but they were manageable with a therapist.

And now I know why I was so haunted by that word, dark. Most of my adult life has been spent in a dark place, following the light of an oil lamp at my feet step by step. It lasted so long I had come to think that it was just my way of life, my life. However, as Ms. Lorde’s words brought out, it’s in those darkest moments that we are faced to confront the issues that are weighing us down. It forces us to uncover those hidden things we would never see if we had not held a light to the shadows.

You see, I guess I, like a lot of other people, would like to believe that we could grow and rise intellectually without any sweat, blood and tear equity. If you’ve done it, I admire you, because every spiritual growth moment I’ve had was attached to loss or pain. And still, I wanted to believe in a lofty kind of self-discovery and felt assaulted by the “dark” in her sentence, though I had walked through it.

I’m still not out. But I have faced enough of my person to find myself almost at the top of that mountain I named an uphill battle. There, I will be poised to take flight.

It’s my belief that the magic words the ancestor, Toby, helped the descendants remember was a metaphor for us to glean glory from. We must always remember our essence. Only then, can we transcend and as Audre Lorde indicated our true spirit rises.

In case you’re wondering, I did go on to read the rest of the essay. It chilled me to the bone as she articulated exactly my stance, passage, and transition. And dark will never daunt me again, I will only remember her characterization. We are of a people dark and ancient; there are no new ideas, they wait, growing within, to be rediscovered. And that is the only dark I will know, now inspired to reimagine my past


Perhaps, I was drawn to this essay and line for that purpose. She is an ancestor and ancestors do teach.

Work Cited

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press feminist

series. 1984

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