We Cannot Discard Our Elders

by Candace Simpson

A few weeks ago, I sat on the train after a long day of work. I was tired, frustrated, upset, drained. I was kicking myself for committing to more activities than I should. I was running in and out of a revolving door of guilt and shame. I was disgusted with myself. I was mentally adding up my hours for the week and drafting a thought-spreadsheet of expenses. I was overwhelmed. Magically, I started humming a song out of nowhere.

“For every Mountain, You’ve brought me over. For every trial, You’ve seen me through. For every blessing, hallelujah, for this I give You praise.”

Suddenly, the weight of the world evaporated. I can only describe it as a spiritual experience. It was as if the ancestors had taken the seat next to me and were whispering words of comfort to their great-great-great-granddaughter. I had my own personal team of ancestor-cheerleaders who saw me in struggle and conspired to hold me in that moment.

It’s a song I remember hearing in the kitchen while my mother made waffles on Saturdays. It’s a song I’ve heard on Sunday mornings at church.This song behaved like freedom breadcrumbs sprinkled in the forest of despair. I hear them and they remind me that I belong to someone. That people before me have come to fight the same monster. That I am not the only one in this world with trouble. That the ancestors have developed strategies and tools to cope with the troubles of their world. Strangely, that is comforting.

This epiphany caused me to reflect on my own actions. Where have I made space for elders? What harm might I be doing to the task of slaying the monster if I’ve imagined myself to be the first one to visit its cave? What might be the danger in calling on elders and ancestors only in times of trouble? Where might there be room for my aunties and uncles and grandparents?

I need my elders. And not just in some “let me sit at your feet and soak up your wisdom” way, though that’s satisfying. But I need them present. I have learned that elders will only be present if they have meaningful and affirming relationships with “young people.”

I realized this summer at my home church’s Freedom School program that I was drawn to the promise and potential of intergenerational relationships. I served as director for the program, but I was heavily influenced (and lovingly bossed) by a woman I call my “teaching mentor.” With a sonic boom voice and a kind smile early at 7:00 am, Ms. Z taught me that I need everyone. Ms. Z would send me home early because it was important that I “enjoy the blessing of summer.”

She surprised me with lunch when I was waiting for my first summer check. She listened when I would vent about wiping up a child’s vomit, and gave advice about how to manage a fussing child. She showed me how to talk with parents and not “at them.” She taught me how to choose books and trips that might be “good disruptions” from their school routine. I learned so much from sitting next to her as the children played at recess. I felt I had a mentor, but also a friend. Someone who understood my passions, had been where I was before, and helped me articulate my own teaching philosophy because she asked good questions. We learn through love. Ms. Z became the whispers in my ear when I talked with parents, led workshops, and had “redirecting conversations” with students. Her voice is what I hold to. I know that she holds me right back.

Perhaps this is a side effect of using this “movement” word as as we have. I have felt that I’ve had to reaffirm my identity as a 24-year-old with something worthwhile to offer. People in my age cohort have been patronized, excluded, put down, harassed, and accused of “not thinking things through.” I know what it is like to be policed and regulated by a few elders who champion suits, voter’s registration, and scholarships as the way to stay alive. I get that respectability is violent, and I get that we think that elders are the guilty ones. I also know what it is like to be loved by friends like Ms. Z.

This movement, this present set of energies and responses, is nothing like what my parents have experienced. But to frame my story in direct opposition to theirs is unfair. History is not linear. The supremacies (and supremacists) my parents experienced have gone to college, gotten married, and had children. I am dealing with Jim Crow Esq. I am dealing with with Executive Director Jane Crow of the Non Profit Industrial Complex.

I never want my elders to feel like they are useless or ancient. And I think we may need to find more sophisticated language that deals with the toxins of “the ways of the past” and still preserves the humanity of the Black folks who are elders. I’ll be the first one to say that some of the most toxic attitudes have been spewed from a church pulpit or fellowship hall. And I’m clear that there are some projects of the old movement that need to go away immediately.

It is true that this set of energies is particularly marked by a rejection of traditional respectability politics, a democratic flattening of voices due to the accessibility of social media-based organizing, and an intentional “we all gon’ get free together or none of us will” intersectional approach.

I am still not ready to throw out my elders. I’m not ready to let them get away with whatever they want, either. I want to sit at a table over a plate of delicious healing food and chat about the world. I need your chorus in my ear, but I have to sing too. Let’s make music, good people.

Photo: Shutterstock

Candace Simpson is a seminary student and a Brooklyn native. You can follow her tweets on Nicki Minaj, shea butter, and faith at @CandyCornball.

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