An Ode to Ancestors

They’re probably wishing we’d get off their shoulders, by now.

There is a thunderously emotional scene from the movie “Amistad,” where John Adams is preparing Cinque, the African lord who had been brought to America on a slave ship that mutinied, for a seemingly impossible trial for justice.

CInque: “We won’t be going in there alone.” (to court)

John Adams: No! We have right–we have righteousness on our side.

CInque: I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgement. I will reach back and draw them into me, and they must come, for at this moment I am the whole reason they have existed at all.”

From Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, 1997.

I’ve never forgotten that moment, especially as I’ve become more adept at navigating my genealogy over the years. Even if we don’t call on our ancestors in such dramatic ways, think about how often do we look for strength or guidance.

Some may look to the church, but I look to my ancestors’ examples strength and perseverance. I’ve often thought about my 18-year-old grandfather leaving Ireland alone tp sail to New York City, or my maternal great-grandmother being left with five children and a small grocery store in Brooklyn, after her husband died.

Or my grandfather James, who lost my grandmother Margaret in childbirth in 1919, leaving him with two boys: a newborn and a one-year old. He was 22 years old at the time. How do people go on from there–ordinary people without resources of wealth or connections?

At times when I’ve been in most need of strength, I think about reaching back for support from my ancestors, who showed courage and strength in impossible times: World Wars, potato famines, loss of income, loss of spouses and children and siblings and parents and a whole catalog of losses that could bring Atlas to his knees.

IN Cinque’s, view he sees them come and stand behind him, offering support, strength, and perhaps a hand in battle. Perhaps they speak or sing to him, or embrace him as he faces his crisis.

But that expression — I am the reason they were here — is such a powerful, awe-inspiring one. Of course they would come.

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