A Personal Note on Reclaiming My Ancestry by Monyae Kerney

I am an Afro-Indigenous [non-binary] womxn. I come from an ancestral line of Native and African peoples. Theirs is the DNA I carry. Their existence lives on through me. With that said, the process of reclaiming the fullness of my identity has been and continues to be anything but easy. I continually move through feelings of fraudulence, as I am met with cultural amnesia and erased documentation. It has been especially difficult since my grandparents have already passed on into the realm of the Unseen. Their wisdom is no longer able to be transmitted through verbal tradition. 

My father is a Native man. His mother, my grandmother, was a Native woman. Both she and my paternal grandfather passed in their 50s due to the effects of environmental racism: diabetes. I was but three years old when she passed. I’ve grown up my entire life being called her twin. To this day, my father will still stop at random moments, look at me, and smile. He’ll shake his head and say the same thing each time: “You look just like Gretch.” Gwendolyn was her name. Gretch was the name her family had called her. I have very few memories of my grandmother, but in some recent digging, I found an album full of pictures from when I was a toddler. Always lovingly held in her arms. Always with a huge smile on our faces. 

My grandmother wore her hair pulled straight back into a single braid. And if not one, then two, parted straight down the middle. She’d walk around the house in stained oversized T shirts (I supposed some things just get passed down in the blood). My grandmother loved me, and I her. I was born just six days after her own birthdate. She is my eternal twin. But her blood was something I never acknowledged until a few short years ago.

I felt fraudulent. I hadn’t had any “proof” or official documentation to wave around as evidence of my paternal ancestry. In the words of Dr. Umar, “Why do you need white man’s paperwork?!” All I had were the few stories that were passed down, pictures of my departed grandmother, and the remaining relatives of my father’s side. I wish I could emphasize the word “All” in that last sentence because it really captures how I felt at the time. I thought that the survived existence of my family was insufficient. 

The importance we, as a society, place on documentation and blood quantum is twofold. In one vein, it is a courageous act of self-preservation. Necessary. On the other, it serves as a barrier for displaced identities who just want to find their way back home. This feels especially true, seeing as though the history of my mother’s side was wiped out through enslavement and my father’s history the victim of genocide. When my siblings and I were growing up, he would always say he was going to go through the process of officially documenting us so that we could heal that hole in our lineage. With the financial struggles we faced, survival became the priority, and the reclamation of our family history was put on the backburner.

This created great discomfort for me as a child. I was proud of my family, but I hid from the richness of my bloodline for fear of shame and dismissal. I had heard the jokes: “All Black people think they part Cherokee.” “All Black people swear they ‘Indian.’” I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I knew what I was feeling. I didn’t want the truth of my existence invalidated. As funny as those jokes were, I didn’t want the pride I felt in my family to be dismissed in the banter. So, I kept my mouth shut. But in my own personal protest, I frequently wore my long thick dark hair parted down the middle and braided on two sides. Just like grandma. 

Now, as a twenty-something-year-old, I have started out on my journey of decolonizing my mind and reconnecting with the fullness of my ancestry. It began with me subconsciously moving away from religion, and toward embracing the wisdoms of hoodoo, African spirituality, and other Indigenous teachings. I began reading, incessantly, in an effort to honor and understand the beliefs practiced by my family. I began growing my own gardens, practicing herbalism and healing my connection with the Earth. I began to fully lean into the call I’ve always felt toward Nature (my favorite physical manifestation of God). I began reconnecting with my ancestors, placing offerings, and singing songs of love and warmth before their altar. I’ve always been deeply invested in my spirituality, but only recently have I begun to uplift and be in communion with those whose blood still runs through mine. 

It may seem trivial to you, however, to honor the entirety of my divinity, it is necessary that I honor those who came before. This is difficult to do when power has deliberately disrupted your lineage. Poked holes in your memory. In connecting with the Divine and the eternity of my ancestors, my spirit craves to do it “right.” To speak the words that my family spoke. To engage in the rituals that my ancestors engaged in. To no longer practice “secondhand ceremonies,” as Kimmerer called them in Braiding Sweetgrass, but to finally know and invite Nature to speak my True Name.

My journey back to my ancestors began when my maternal grandmother died. A beautiful Black woman. She loved me so dearly. She was the grandmother I grew up with. The one I visited every Sunday. This writing does not center our connection because I was never disconnected from her, to begin with. She passed from cancer about two years ago. And in her transition into an Egun, our connection never waned. But when she passed, I had only one surviving grandparent. I was desperate to find a way to keep the connection alive between myself and the people who meant so much to me. Funerals and cemeteries never resonated with me. They seemed so finite and rigid, in no way a reflection of the interconnectedness of all Beings. I knew their spirits lived on through me, and only by understanding that connection would I be able to tap into their eternal presence. I did not want the early deaths of my grandparents to mean those relationships were lost. By honoring their place within me, they would live on forever. And I would always have the love of my grandparents. 

But to honor my ancestors, that meant I had to acknowledge the beautiful parts of me that I had tucked away as an adolescent. I had to find the bravery to confront those feelings of fraudulence if I was to ever rekindle those spiritual bonds. My plan? I revisited an incomplete third-grade project: the family tree.

I began digging around, within myself and in old family archives, to find pictures, obituaries, birth certificates, death certificates, any and everything I could find to begin to learn about those who came before. Those who were responsible for my existence. Where did they migrate from? What were their maiden names? What did they look like? Who were their parents? I began reaching out to relatives that I didn’t know were alive to hear the stories that were passed down to them in their childhood. The dismissal of oral history is a colonist mindset. For a lot of communities, particularly centering my own, oral history was all we had to keep our lineage alive. With the forced separation of our families, erasure, displacement, genocide, etc., most don’t have the privilege of official documentation that traces all the way back to our beginnings. We have to make do with our memories. I didn’t understand that growing up and so I discounted the existence of my family. People who were walking around, breathing, talking- the literal embodiment of my ancestry- I dismissed because it wasn’t deemed as significant as a written record. Again, cue Dr. Umar. To this day, my father’s family wears their long dark wavy hair pulled back into a single braid. Just like grandma. You see it in their eyes. Their skin. Their hair. Their smile. Survival. Presence. We’re still here. We’ve always been here. 

I still have a whole lot of digging to do. I’ve dedicated my education, research, art, and activism to this process of reconnecting with my ancestry and uplifting the voices of my people. Finding community amongst those who walk similar paths, craving kinship and the remembrance of ritual. I do this, not because I need “white man’s paperwork” to validate the existence of my family, that’s for damn sure, but rather because I owe it to my lineage to ensure that we continue to survive. It is an act of dedication to those who fought to live on, to all those whose spirits I carry with me, for those who made my existence possible. And as I learn more about them, I learn more about me. My act of self-discovery is political. It is resistance. It is rebellion. It is to continue to push back against colonization. It is to ensure that my family lives on forever. 

I buried my last grandparent, my mother’s father, but two weeks ago. Just like his wife, he too passed from cancer. I can no longer sit with them, hold them by the hand, and ask of their childhood. I can no longer look back in time by looking into his eyes. He now sits, with the rest of the Egun, atop my altar. He now rests knowing that his life, his spirit, lives on through me. My Black grandparents. My Indigenous grandparents. They all live and breathe as I live and breathe. This work will never be done, never finished even when I eventually transition into my own place atop an altar. But until that time comes, I will continue moving forward by looking back. 

I sit here now, my long dark hair completely shaved off as an act of rebirth. My hair, a tribute to my lineage, a source of spiritual strength, receptors to the land of the Unseen, all gone. I could no longer hold onto that which was no longer serving me. My spirit demanded a new beginning. I listened. As my hair continues to grow closer to the Earth, it bears testament to my rootedness. The cultivation of my self-knowledge. My strengthened connection to all that is and all that was and all that will be. And as it grows, I will continue to wear it pulled back into a single braid, bringing visibility to the continued existence of our people. Just like grandma.

Monyae (she/they) is a Black/Afro-Indigenous non-binary womxn, queer feminist scholar, pleasure activist, educator, researcher, ally, and full spectrum doula. Her work centers the holistic wellness, mental health, and radical healing of the Black community; more specifically, Black womxn and femmes (including queer, trans, and gender diverse identities). They are a recent graduate from Teachers College, Columbia University where she earned her Masters in Spirituality Mind Body Psychology and an Advanced Certificate in Sexuality Women and Gender with a special concentration in LGBTQ populations.

Monyae’s work focuses on the intersections of spiritual healing and political resistance in Black womxn and femme identities to promote and embody pleasure-centered ways of being. They have facilitated holistic wellness workshops with academic institutions, grassroots organizations, and many other community spaces seeking to transform their wellness practices. Monyae is currently earning their 200hr yoga teacher certification on a social justice scholarship to increase accessibility to the practice in BIPOC AND 2SQTPOC communities. In her research, personal practice, and service, their work centers critical race theory, black feminist thought, and ancestral/indigenous healing wisdom as necessary modalities to both personal and collective liberation.

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