Some people are your relatives, but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you wantRalph Ellison
to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of [their] values.
Be on the lookout, friends. The ghosts are on their way! After all, you can’t talk about heritage without
talking about – and encountering – ancestors.
And we’re not talking about relatives here. As Ralph Ellison points out, there’s a big difference between
relatives and ancestors. Relatives give us our brown eyes and bowed legs; ancestors bestow a legacy.
Relatives are those we tell stories about; ancestors call us to carry stories forward. Relatives live on in our
DNA; ancestors live in the whispers of our hearts. Our relatives allowed us to be here; our ancestors tell
us why we are here. The difference comes down to values. Values we use to construct not just our stories
Take success. Remember that old line, “He was born on third base but believes that he hit a triple.”
People with a clear sense of heritage and ancestry, know the truth of how they got where they are.
Instead of telling tall tales about their magnificent swing, they speak of “the shoulders on which I stand.”
Hubris or humility? Ancestors at their best never let us forget the latter.
You will also hear ancestor-conscious people speak of blessings differently. When we get gifts from the
kind of ancestors Ellison is talking about, those gifts always come with a responsibility. There is no such
thing as keeping the gifts of heritage to oneself. They are meant to be passed on. Ancestors don’t just
remind you that they came before; they remind you of those who will come after.
Another way to put this is to say that ancestors remind us that we are part of something larger. Even
obligated to something larger, because as much as we need these larger webs and stories, they need us
too. Ancestors say: Whether or not the sacred stories and values stay relevant, depends on you! Whether
or not each other’s histories are told truly, depends on you! Whether the family cycles of health are
strengthened and family cycles of dysfunction are stopped depends on you! Whether or not that arc is
bent back toward justice, is up to you! Ancestors plop these incomplete and intimidating endeavors in
our laps and say, “We’ve done our part and taken it as far as we can. The next step of the journey is in
Which of course also means that our hands are connected. Our ancestors handed precious projects to us.
We are asked to hand those precious projects on to those who follow. And they will hopefully continue
the sacred chain.
And in the end, maybe that’s what this heritage thing is all about: seeing ourselves as part of a sacred
chain. We are not small. Our lives are not insignificant. Our lives aren’t even entirely our own. Every
choice we make has consequences for others. Every word we write with our lives twists and propels a
plotline that began before we got here and will continue after we are gone.
It all helps us see that it’s not just relatives and ancestors that differ. Heritage & history do too. History
may rightly shout, “It’s important to know where we came from!” But heritage says, “You matter! Even
more than you know.”
And what about those ghosts? Yes, some of them are here to haunt us. But the bulk of them are just
excitedly hanging on to the edge of their seats, watching and wondering which direction we will take the
story they started.
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