UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF HERITAGE IN DEVELOPMENT

Just recently I had the privilege of traveling with my friend Jonathan to explore his paternal roots in Greentown, a community located in Brunswick County, in the state of Virginia, USA. My purpose for the visit was to research, chronicle, and document Jonathan’s family’s ancestral roots and family heritage. I was also there to hear and film his family’s stories, which had been passed down to them on front porches by previous generations. These front porch stories would serve to be material for my docuseries “Front Porch Stories-The Recipe o Me.” I knew that Jonathan would be inspired by the journey of discovering and exploring the ingredients that make up the recipe of who he is. What I did not know was how his journey would also become my journey, and how this shared journey would change both our lives.

As a cultural and ancestral historian, and an Afro-centric genealogist, I love to hear and read about the family histories of African Americans. There is always something new to discover through the forgotten art of story-telling. Listening attentively to those precious stories shared by your elders can cause you to grow as a person. That is their true worth and value. Their retelling to the next generation ensures heritage is passed down. And once that heritage is acknowledged it can be an important stimulus to personal development.

Let me explain. When you think about the word ‘heritage’ as a noun its definition reveals something quite interesting. It means something from the past that is handed down – a tradition. It can also mean that by reason of birth something comes to you or even belongs to you—your birthright. It is what you may have a share in, or what is allotted to you as your inheritance. It may be something simply reserved for you. As an adjective, ‘heritage’ can be that which produces a sense of tradition or history because of your connection or association to a place, or even a thing. This is what we call nostalgia.

I sat on the front porch at the house of Jonathan’s uncle, on a street named for their family, listening to their family history. Watch here. They shared them with such pride and reverent humility. These were the stories told by their elders, passed down to them, which they were retelling to their children. And this method had been serving as a means to keeping their family heritage alive. The actual house was built by Jonathan’s paternal grandfather, on the land that he inherited from his father. And hundreds of acres of land had been passed down to his extended family by his 3rd great grandfather (the son of the white enslaver) sometime shortly after 1865. They managed to purchase the very plantation they were enslaved on. And so for nearly one hundred and fifty years Jonathan’s family has not only been landowners, but they’ve made sure this legacy remained a huge part of their family heritage.

The two days Jonathan spent with his roots compelled him to adjust. I could see it happening. Before he returned home he had gained a deeper sense of who he was, which gave him pride, focus, and determination. He understood what his responsibilities were – to do his part in ensuring the family’s property remains in the family. And while for Jonathan, a great part of his heritage is land ownership, for others it may be something entirely different. But whatever it is, it should never be dismissed or deemed inessential. I am made from the ingredients of the collective traditions of my ancestors. What they have passed down to me contributes in various ways to why I am who I am. And when we can pause enough to understand and embrace the role that heritage plays in our development then we can discover what is truly invaluable and priceless.

But I for one had been missing the trees for the forest. I had been searching for that historical thing my ancestors did or accomplished that made an indelible mark and impact on society, or at least on a community. I wanted something to carry about as my heritage badge. I had been searching for something I could recount to the younger generations in my family as a tradition we could be proud of. And for one branch of my family I was hard pressed to find any such thing, or so I thought.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the funeral of a cousin who passed away due to an illness. At the repast I began to see something that I had been overlooking in my quest of finding my family heritage. There were more than a few people unrelated to me who had embraced my family as their own family. And as I began to talk with them the same reframe was repeated over and over again: your family is so loving and welcoming. They have accepted me and treated me like family. When I paused to actually hear what was being said I began to understand what my family heritage is. And it made me feel even prouder to be associated with a family that comforts the lonely, takes in the homeless, extends a hand to the helpless, and even welcomes those who are not less fortunate. I think one thing that contributes to and even serves as the basis is that by and large my family is a God-fearing people. The family legacy was indeed coming into focus and it was clearly a heritage I could be proud of.

When researching my family history I saw the proof of that heritage written in census records, documents, etc. These sources of information showed children who had lost their parents now living in the home of my 2nd great grandmother as she and her daughters raised them. Some sources even showed how my 4th great aunts and uncles shared in the role of caregiver for their mother who was born enslaved. She was my 4th great grandmother who had passed away at 100 years old living with one of her sons where the grandchildren in the house affectionately called her Grannie Gandy. And I didn’t have to remain in the distant past to see the acts of kindness my family displayed.

I remember being a little child and my parents served as local missionaries to an unincorporated African American community in the state of New Jersey, USA. I can recall watching my mother and a group of women bathe a community of children that lived with no running water. I remember my father rolling up his sleeves and working with the men in that community. My paternal grandfather even opened up a mission there, which my parents ran. My brother and I played with the children in that community by riding atop of hogs through the mud, and chasing around chickens. Little did I know that the objective of the chicken game was to catch dinner, which meant the ringing of the neck of the unlucky bird. The children played with bare feet, however, and tattered clothes. They even relieved themselves in mason jars. Yet even with this, my family never shied away from embracing and caring for the less fortunate. Today, as adults, all my siblings and our spouses serve in one capacity or another to help those less fortunate. This is my family heritage. I must continue to allow it to develop me into the person I need to be to carry on the task.

I am sure there are some family heritages that are not very honorable, and probably something someone may want to keep buried if possible. But I believe that there can be some part of a family’s heritage that is worth preserving. And the important thing is how we will allow that heritage to form and shape our character because that is what heritage should do. Whether it’s a heritage worth embracing or not, it can still serve as a catalyst for growth. One’s heritage can inspire one to both maintain and further the legacy. This necessitates personal and family development, unselfishness and a positive attitude even in the face of opposition. Yet, one’s heritage can be something that one should turn from if it’s unlawful, cruel or unproductive. And so, the discipline and willingness it takes to be different or even better also necessitates the same.

On the six hour trip back to my home from Greentown, and for the next couple of days, I pondered deeply what it means to understand the role of heritage in development. Heritage has not only shaped who I am today, but the ingredients of my heritage must be cultivated to ensure I become a better person tomorrow, and that takes work. The family heritage serves not only as a reminder of the past but as signposts for the present and the future, and not just for the individual, but for the larger family, and even the community. One of the things that I appreciate about being a genealogist and a cultural & ancestral historian is that it enables me to see the heritage of my family. It forces me to challenge myself because I have the obligation to sustain the family heritage. I keep the ingredients passed down to me and simply add new ingredients here and there, enriching the recipe. Or, I have the obligation to do the opposite of what has been left to me. The reality is that sometimes it may be necessary to discard most if not all of the ingredients and create a new recipe from scratch. In either case, one must first understand that there is an importance to the role of heritage in one’s development. And once we understand that, we can then begin the journey of discovering the recipe of what we can be.

I would love to hear about the role your heritage has played in your development. Please visit my website myancestrychronicles.com to find out more about me and what I do. You can follow Di Shawn on his YouTube channel: My Ancestry Chronicles with Di Shawn J. Gandy. SUBSCRIBE, LIKE, & SHARE. Instagram: @dishawnjg and on Facebook: Di Shawn J. Gandy 

Written by: Di Shawn J. Gandy

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