At the end of every school year, there is a twinge of bittersweet joy that rises up in my heart.
Through my work as an artist-educator, I have the privilege and honour to witness students explore the creative process and share their artistic projects and ideas. This year, I encouraged students to explore themes that kept reoccurring in my own journey: ancestry, home, belonging.
In February, I traveled to Kenya to visit my grandmother and I made it my mission to ask the questions I always wanted to ask her. In speaking to her, I discovered that her mother never went back home after getting married. She never saw her parents or siblings again. She had no idea when or how her parents passed away. Once she boarded that dhow to travel across the sea with her husband, she left all hope of seeing her beloved home again.
To leave for love, for obligation, without the promise of return.
To stand at the shore and say goodbye to everything familiar to you.
I can’t imagine.
But it was a reality of the times.
Packed in my suitcase was one of my favourite books, In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty, by Mark Gonzales. I’m perpetually astounded by his insights and reflections about ancestry and the inheritance of behaviours, ideas and burdens passed on from one generation to the next.
I lifted a quote from the book and wrote it my journal, plastered it on sticky notes, and committed it to blackboards and whiteboards across the province.
It became a mantra for me, a call for action and response.
Back in Canada, I asked students what this quote meant to them.
What they were training for?
What did they value?
What did they want their legacy to be generations after they are gone?
I asked them to reflect upon the legacies of their ancestors.
A story emerged of a Jewish grandfather who was spared by the Nazis because the week before he was picked up for the concentration camps, he found an SS officer’s wallet and returned it without a penny missing.
Stories surfaced. Stories that pulled at heartstrings and tugged at tears. Stories that reminded young people of the very reality of their existence being a direct result of the choices and decisions of their ancestors.
It got me thinking about our legacies.
How are we training our hearts, bodies and minds to make decisions that will benefit and support generations ahead of us?
What is the responsibility of being an ancestor-in-training?
In order to ask ourselves what we need to do in the present, we need to reflect upon our collective and individual stories. To ask the hard questions about legacies we didn’t ask for. To ensure that we don’t pass on harmful “traditions” of thinking, being and believing.
Keeping these questions in mind, I’ve launched a new website, Questions for Ancestors.
Each month, Questions for Ancestors will feature an artist, writer, artist-educator, creator, collaborator or community activist who will respond to the prompts:
If you had one question to ask an ancestor/ancestors, what would it be?
If you had one piece of knowledge to share with a descendant what would it be?
Descendants being children, grandchildren, torch-bearers of traditions, mentees, generations of creators. Descendants not limited to the bloodline or the biological.
As one grade 6 student told me, “I just want my descendants to be proud of me.”
And another grade 7 student wrote, “You must be the hero of your own story, you must do something that makes you feel complete.”
So simple. Yet within their words lies a challenge.
A call to action. A determination. A choice.
I hope that these responses will inspire you ask questions of your ancestors.
Questions that will determine your path and shape your journey.
To watch my response to the prompt “if you had one question for your ancestors, what would it be?” Click here.