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Okay, Ancestors. Now What?

Updated: May 4, 2023

When we talk about Ancestors in Hoodoo, and African Diasporic Religions in general, we speak of honoring and seeking the guidance of the relatives who came before us. Ancestors are spirits who offer protection, wisdom, and blessings to their descendants. By venerating one's ancestors, practitioners of Hoodoo establish a strong spiritual connection with their lineage. But what exactly is venerating your Ancestors?

Venerating your Ancestors is ultimately a way of life. It is being cognizant of your life as an intersection between the deceased and future generations. It's weaving the lessons of the past into current life for future blessings. When you take Ancestor veneration seriously you gain an objective appreciation for your lineage. You see relatives as humans who rose to the occasion of their destiny or fell short knowing they both deserve grace and elevation after they transition. Ancestor veneration is offering water, light, and prayer to the roots of your family tree knowing those offerings will produce new branches decades from now. Ancestor veneration is sacrifice.

I don't mean to make it sound intimidating, but I feel like the current social media conversation about Ancestors oversimplifies the complex and makes the simple overly complicated. If you're like me, you didn't grow up with any conversations or displays of African religions. However, we shouldn't feel stifled because of this. The more I practice Hoodoo, and the more I convene with ADR practitioners, the more I see we share the same principles. It's the principles that bind us and the main principle I see Hoodoo practitioners sharing with other ADR practitioners is Ancestor veneration.

This blog post is based on how I began venerating my Ancestors, however, none of this is written in stone. Life circumstances, family, living arrangements, and other responsibilities affect what we are able to do from a veneration perspective. Do what you can how you can. What's most important is if you feel compelled to begin then do so.

I'm always asked what one needs to do to connect to their Ancestors. I always say you don't need to do anything. You are them. You are made of what they were. Embrace that fact. Take time to understand that the connection is made but the relationship can be strengthened. Venerating your Ancestors is building a relationship with them through consistent time and offerings. You don't have to erect an Ancestor altar. You can spend time with family, learn about the generations before you, visit family homes or towns, regularly clean the gravesite of deceased relatives, be a good mentor for young relatives, and learn from your elders. Giving your Ancestors your time by serving your family is a valuable offering.

In my experience, an illuminating aspect of Ancestor veneration for beginners is learning about the healer in your lineage. I mean healing in the figurative and literal sense of the word. Who were the people who kept the family emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially healthy? How did they do it? What are the stories about them? How are they related to you? For me, this person was my mother. I knew that was her mantle but it wasn't clear until she passed and I would hear how she played that role for coworkers and friends. When I understood that's how my family saw my mother it made me respect those characteristics in other family members. I learned about how my great-grandmother was the family healer. I realized that my father's father filled that role for his family. These people have a place on my Ancestor altar not just because they are my direct Ancestors but because they loved their families so much their lives were devoted to caring for them. Those are the Ancestors you want to honor by having their pictures in your home (or on your Ancestor altar if you are able). These are the Ancestors whom you want to give offerings of water, their favorite drink, favorite foods, or favorite music. Presenting these offerings regularly is the foundation of your Ancestral relationship.

When beginning your Ancestor veneration practice it is difficult to not compare it to other religions. I've learned to take a step back, look at the way Black Americans live in America, and highlight the ways we remember the loved ones who passed on. It isn't called Ancestral veneration. We call it reminiscing, we make their favorite foods and tell stories about them, we hold cookouts for Mother's and Father's Day, we see their personalities in younger generations, and we may even share some of their setbacks as lessons for other family members. When you string all of these acts together, you see that we do have a practice of respecting our Ancestors. When you think about Ancestor veneration in this way, can you identify practices that currently take place in your family?

What's most important to keep in mind when beginning your Ancestor veneration practice is this is a relationship you are building every day. Like any relationship, it takes time for it to flourish and hit a rhythm. In the same way, someone you don't know, even if you are related, can't come to you asking for money and favors, you shouldn't do that with your Ancestors. You will also need to take time to learn about your lineage. Going beyond great or great great grandparents is difficult for most of us but never forget that you have more Ancestors than you realize. If they were all alive in a room you wouldn't be able to build a relationship with them in a day and the same goes for them in death.

Relating with your Ancestors is an honor and privilege. It opens your eyes to see just what it means to be in your family but also what it means to spiritually preserve your lineage and contribute to your family's heritage.


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