Vox Populi

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Adrienne Maree Brown: Accountable to Our Ancestors

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), Octavia Butler, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Frida Kahlo and James Baldwin. Illustration by Michael Long

Lately it feels like ancestors are talking to me all the time. 

I think this is good news. For most of my life I have been told what my ancestors have done so that I might live, so that I may experience freedom and voting and vacation days and peanut butter and other joys now. I try not to place my ancestors on a universal pedestal, to remember that they, too, were flawed and perfectly imperfect humans. But I do think they have the wisdom of death, which I hope is, at minimum, a liberating lens. 

There are, of course, my familial ancestors, of which the vast majority are unknown to me—not only their personalities, but also their names. They exist in my mind and heart as stories and songs and memories. They offer instructions that I can feel myself wanting and needing. 

And I am fortunate to experience the continued blessings of some of my ancestors who are known to me. My Papa (maternal grandfather) and my (paternal) Grandma Brown feel present with me in a steady and ongoing way, distinct energies of the same generation. They lived their entire lives two hours apart but never met—unable to cross a social distance that was, at that time, galactic. 

And I have always felt my work to be in collaboration with specific ancestors, those whose blood may not course through my veins, but who have helped shape me and the work I am called to do nonetheless. I feel responsible for uplifting and continuing the work of Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin, Frida Kahlo, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. 

I had the privilege of sharing space and time with some of the ancestors in the lineage of my work: I met Octavia Butler before I was 20 years old; I saw Nina Simone wield a peacock feather and piano in concert at 21; I was able to sit with both Ursula K. Le Guin and bell hooks in my 30s, reveling in the brief and delightful moments where the ships of our lives crossed paths. And, of course, there is Grace Lee Boggs, whom I got to befriend and neighbor in Detroit during the last eight years of her life. 

As I explore accountability within this column, I find myself wondering how, exactly, can I be accountable to my blood and chosen ancestors? How can we be accountable to those who lived and died before us?

The answer to this question feels most clear in the context of my ongoing relationship with those ancestors I met, saw, touched, and was held by. I know what they approved and disapproved of in me when they lived, so I can extrapolate some sense of their opinions on my life now, although I suspect that in the portal from life to beyond life, the limiting beliefs and phobias that some of us carry can fall away as we return to being part of something whole.

I sometimes feel my Papa’s hands on my shoulders, see my Grandma Brown’s smile on my face, hear the shape of Grace’s excitement about an idea. There are times when I am thinking about a character and I clearly hear a voice of critical development that feels like Octavia. I am grateful for even the slight possibility of specific ancestors who care for me, who watch over me.

Simultaneously, I hope these ancestors, in their current planes of existence, don’t actually spend their cosmic energy intervening in the petty business of humans. But perhaps the guidance I have felt from these ancestors is part of our shared connection to a collective whole, much greater than any individual, time, or place. Perhaps our ancestors are connected to us by the threads, transformed but not broken, in that portal between life and what’s beyond it. For the ancestors I love, this thought is comforting—I want them to feel free and remembered, honored, and needed.

What feels less clear to me is what to do with all the ancestors I never met, whose legacies flow through my life even if their blood doesn’t, to my limited knowledge, flow through my veins. I have such an extravagance of lineages that it sometimes amuses me, just imagining them all in a space with each other that grows more global and rebellious with each addition. 

And thinking about that space shared by all the ancestors I do and do not know, I find myself grappling with a more challenging question: What about being accountable to ancestors who believed in things I don’t believe in? What does it mean to honor all our ancestors, including some who colonized, some who share responsibility for creating the mess we humans find ourselves in today? 

I often feel this unspoken hesitation when I am in rooms of mixed cultural heritage, when we are invited to call our ancestors into the room. A flitter of questions across the brow: Are you sure? Even myancestors? Even the ones who messed everything up?

My answer to that hesitation is that our ancestors are already in these rooms with us, because we are there. But I suspect that the ancestral accountability we need, in more cases that we want to admit, is to continue to learn the lessons; continue to course-correct their mistakes and limited beliefs, without negating the long arc of our young species. I think about the things I grew up believing that now seem ignorant to me. This thought floods me with humility about how fast we can learn in times of change. 

To be accountable to my ancestors who were racist, homophobic, colonizers, capitalists, to those who killed and raped and stole land and people, to those who lied and robbed and hurt children and manipulated partners and generated systems of punishment, I live my life not in denial of all this complexity, but as an evolution from those harmful, dehumanizing, and traumatizing worldviews. 

There is a saying that has been popular in the past few years: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.” I love this idea, and I have put seeds in that soil. I love that it highlights those ancestors that dreamed of their own liberation and of their successors. But there are also, in my lineage, ancestors for whom I am likely their worst nightmare. A Black, queer, pansexual, poly-curious, unmarried, childless, defiant, feminist, post-capitalist, Earth lover, constantly thinking about what might be the most revolutionary next step I could take. Yes, I know there are ancestors who would feel they had failed in their work because I exist.

But what I know, which maybe these ancestors have some sense of now, is that the impulse to dominate, and control, and harm, and deny the truth of divergent human experiences is rooted in self-loathing. There is something in those fear-based, scarce, damaging worldviews that is a fundamental rejection of the miracle of life. So many of the systems my ancestors survived are structural, systematized self-loathing. 

I have to honor that those ancestors lived in a time of less knowing, less connectedness, and less possibility. I have to honor that their lives are crucial to my callings. I pass my current experiences of freedom and delight back to the ancestors who did not have access to rest, or agency over their time. I pass my current experiences of self-love and radical self-acceptance back to my ancestors who thought they could only belong through some version of destruction, of themselves and others.

These rituals, along with those that help me listen to my ancestors through tarot and prayer and writing, are ways I keep growing my accountability to all who came before me. 

Stepping outside is another practice of ancestral accountability for me. I know in a scientific, tangible way that ancestors fill the land, are part of the dirt and the air and the water. Everyone who ever lived and died is buried or burned or otherwise deconstructed back into the matter of this world. These ancestors existed, and in the same way the matter of their bodies is part of the earth, the things they thought—their mistakes, their ignorance, their curiosity, their experimentation, their complicity, and their brilliance—are what fills the world today. 

Many of the conflicts we are currently embroiled in are rooted in ancestral misunderstandings. We are trying to break the future out of cages some of our ancestors constructed, and we are still caught in the power dynamics of ancestral beliefs of worth and destiny. Being accountable to the unknown lives—the foolish, the wrong-headed, the ignorant, the lives that caused harm—helps me have more space for those I see living those ways even now. The human experience is not designed for perfection, or only loving those just like us. I think this is why we experience blood and cultural relations before those we choose—we are connected. We are experimenting across time, to see if humans can find a way to belong to each other and our world. Our ancestors teach us what to do and what not to do, if we are accountable to their teachings.

First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing WorldsPleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited.

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