Ancestors

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 19, 2017

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeLast weekend I traveled to Fort Lauderdale to see Mislet Harry, the senior member of the Cudjoe clan. It didn’t hurt that Miami was celebrating its annual carnival celebrations. The daughter of Aunt Elaine, Mislet has lived in the Miami area for the past thirty years or so. She started the Boston carnival in the 1960s and began to participate in Miami carnival once she got there.

About four years ago, my cousin Marva and I went to Miami to mourn with Mislet the passing of her husband Edward. To my astonishment, there was great celebration after he was buried. Mislet had rented a dance hall and had a regular party, kaiso included. She said: “That is what he would have wanted.”

I couldn’t come to grips with the notion of partying when someone dies even though my cousin Marva swears that when she dies, she wants a calypso sendoff: “You must play Shadow, ‘Dingolay.'” As for me, annually, I pay for my spot in the St. Mary’s Anglican churchyard where all the known ancestors are buried except for my grandfather’s brother who was buried in the family yard in Tacarigua.

Mislet is 82 years old. She lives alone. Sometimes her friends take her to the supermarket. Other times she takes a bus to do her shopping. Since four of us went to see her, we took her to the supermarket to do her shopping so she would have supplies for the next two weeks or so.

After shopping at the American supermarket—that is, a supermarket that primarily sells American foodstuff—she wanted to go to a West Indian supermarket where she could get West Indian supplies, such as Pimento peppers, Spanish thyme, dasheen bush, and pigtail. Most of all she wanted to buy a fish.

When we got back to her house, she thanked us and blessed us for coming to see her. Then came the shocker. She told us she was glad that we had come because she wanted to get the fish. Mislet had lived with our grandmother “Tan Darling” who was 86 years old when she died. Tan Darling assisted Mother Gerald, the leading Orisha devotee in Tacarigua, cooking the saltless meats for the Shango Festival that took place annually for about a week in November.

Mislet said she needed the fish so she could make her annual offerings to our ancestors. Asked what that consisted of she said: “Every September or October, I prepare a meal for our ancestors. It consists of one slice of saltless fish, rice, dhal, and any kind of provision. Then I place a glass of water and a glass of white rum beside the meal. Then I begin to pray to our ancestors, calling them by their names, saying I have brought you food and drink and ask you to guide all of us. Then I leave the food overnight for them.”

I was shocked. I had heard of this practice but never knew it was carried on within my family.

I asked Mislet who taught her this and how long she had done it.

She replied. “I saw Ma [meaning my grandmother] doing it. When Ma died I continued to do it.”

Mislet had grown up with Ma. As was the custom then, the grandparents always took the firstborn of their grandchildren to live with them. In her home, Mislet learned the ways of those who came before her through my grandmother.

Then she confessed, almost reflectively, “You know, I have never told anyone about this.”

On July 1, 2017, my dear friend and distinguished Nigerian scholar Abiola Irele died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both of us spoke at the Pan African Pantheon Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa in June. Irele died a few days after he returned from the conference. We spent the entire conference together.

Biodun Jeyifo [BJ], Professor of African & African American Studies and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, was at Irele’s bedside when he died. He offered the following testimony:

“Even as I approached him to say my farewell…I knew that I was addressing his spirit, addressing Spirit itself which binds all of us, the living, the dead and the unborn, together. Both the real and the factitious, trivial line separating ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ had vanished as I said the following words to him, simply:

“Egbon, we shall not forget you….I testify that you crossed many borders, you are the greatest border crosser of your generation. The innumerable borders that you crossed enabled me and other members of my generation that you inspired to do the same….Go gently and courageously into the shade, Egbon” (The Nation, Nigeria, July 9).

BJ is an immense scholar in African literature and culture.

My cousin Mislet never went to high school. However, through my grandmother’s teaching she understood the ties that hold us all (the living, the dead, and the unborn) together. In offering her sacrifices to our ancestors, she was giving thanks to those Cudjoes who had gone before to make us who we are.

Two days ago, the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago reminded the nation of the importance of honoring our ancestors.

It is a lesson from which we all can learn.

6 Responses to “Ancestors”


  • To appreciate someone’s heritage is more aspiring as appreciating your own and that is the foundation of civility. However, the practice of offering food to the dead seems to cut across a number of cultures viz. Haka Chinese, Indian, African, Filipino etc. As a young person it’s a practice I do not understand up to this date as I also witnessed my aunt doing the same for my grandmother. I remembered distinctly when I asked her as to why she does this, she could not really explain herself to me. I have never seen any Caucasian doing same having lived in the UK and North America for a number of years. Has anyone witness such?

  • Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Professor, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

    Why does the criteria always have to be what is done in Europe or the United States?

    The African world view (to the degree there is an an African world view—and I am speaking mostly of West Africa) is entirely different from the European or Chinese worldview. The (West) African world view sees the living, the dead and the unborn as being bound together in a spiritual unity. Such world view places the ancestors at the pinnacle of wisdom since they have done and seen so much. This seems eminently sensible to me.

    An individual does not always have to understand why one does what one does. When a Christian takes communion s/he is supposed to be eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ (we call it transubstantiation). A believer does not have to understand all of the intricacies about this ritual but s/he does it nonetheless. It is a pagan rite which is performed with enormous fervor throughout the Christian world.

    I am a bit old but I have great faith in some of the things my ancestors did. I don’t have to understand everything because I know that everything in this world cannot be explained by reason alone. The believe in reason is an Enlightenment ideal. It’s not the only way that we know.

    Perhaps if we can return to a time when we respected one another, respected the aged, honored those who went before us and privileged the ancient wisdom “I am because we are; we are because I am” we would be better off.

    • Muzorewa, Sithole, Tutu and others of the same ilk contribute much to the African world view that supported Christian values in their respective societies. The enlightenment I received in expanding my knowledge in the metropolitan countries reinforce into me that required understanding of beliefs, principles and values of all peoples regardless of their heritage. Like Mandela (African black) and King (American black) adopting the principle of non-violence; a tenet of Gandhi’s philosophy in his quest for an independent India. All three gentlemen respected the bible teachings.
      Born and bred in San-Fernando my eyes opened up at a young age to see an Indian woman ‘catching’ the spirit in Chandanagore and a black woman ‘catching’ same in La Romain. The interesting thing that ensued after some years both women were at Mt.St.Benedict trying to get their respective descendants exorcised by a RC priest. Telling a Jehovah Witness the need for a blood transfusion for a lifesaving surgery is their own respective wisdom drawn from their teaching and belief from their wise elders. This should not be confused with symbolism as representation during communion service. Paganism dare I say?
      The aspect of food is an interesting one during the days of starvation in India and China (50’s) and the mantra of not wasting food that was fed to us; it stands within reason what is a fair question as to the offering of food to the dead, when food was delivered to Peter during his days in the wilderness. In the Western world we were told to taste the love in preparing the meal. In my country I was warned as to whom you choose to eat from. So what is Faith, ‘it is the substance of things hoped for the evidence of things not seen.’ Trinidad would always be my microcosm of world views despite some of the retrogressive thoughts and practices as expressed by some.

  • Thought provoking article and a salient reflection of ones history. Very touching stories, family matters.
    In today’s world with all the busyness family is slowly slipping into “unconsciousness”. As a boy I remember sitting on a log between our family homes and listening to stories late into the bright moonlit night. There were no tv, cellphone, radios, Internet to distract us. Can’t say I recall the conversations but I felt a great sense of belonging.
    As my grandfather aged I spent many nights at his home sleeping on the mattress and prior to falling asleep listening to my grandpa stories that fired my imagination. Most of his story involved hunting, forest, deers etc.
    Then there was the annual large Christmas gathering of cousins at my grandpa place (mother side of the family). We would chat excitedly with each other, swing in the hammock, play hide and seek, etc. There were always the cousins who had on their best and neatly comb hair who spoilt it for us. We were awake late into the night my uncles and aunties playing all fours till pass midnight. The morning saw us up and sitting in the back porch waiting for breakfast, then racing down the hill for mangoes, calabash, spice mango etc, along with fig, pomercac, etc. Yes I could go on but it is a short reflection of life in rural TNT, the best…..

  • The forced adhered indoctrination to Greaco- Romanism have relegated the practice of re-membering with our ancestors to the hidden back rooms and closets.Today modern people would term it occultist. The spiritual baptist believers, have this ritual. It all started in ancient KEMET, the funeral of the GOD kings was very lavish as we can see from the discovered tombs, they knew then, that dieing was the beginning of a new life, and the link was made, most of the established civilizations, with the exception of the indoctrinated, believe that it is only the physical aspect of the human that dies, for regeneration to happen. The millions of our ancestors murdered, lynched, thrown overboard, some jumped over board, burnt alive, massacred in vast groups, executed for being part of freedom uprisings, to this day, their spirits have not been put to rest through rituals that can bring peace to their sufferings. Our ancestors of Ancient KEMET, left us true documentations, one in point states,”A THOUSAND YEARS IN THE EYES OF MAN, IS ONLY A DAY IN EYES OF GOD” so the crimes committed against my people, happened a couple days ago, WE STILL MOURN AND WAIL.

  • Atta boy Professor. Some might miss it but it is really a Cultural thing.These types of Articles go a longer way than the “we” an “us” senario.I do admire your work as it applies to making the Caribbean African Brothers aware that without a Cultural Tradition ,there is no real togetherness.” Thanks” to the European “Capitalism @ Slavery” for breaking a long and Historic Heritage (Traditions}.It is Imperative to keep that awareness on “de front burner”….CONSTANTLY…..Just look around at the other Cultures in T@T and you will get the picture .The Brothers playing “catch up “, so to speak.The great UN had a Black leader,so too the most Powerful Country in History ,so there are plenty Incentives.After all,Emancipation was not Day before and Independence was not Yesterday.The world is speeding by faster and faster.It seems that what took a century taking a decade now, so I Applaud your efforts to Educate.Keep it up…If you want to Cast blame,do so to the Europeans {Check the wonderful work of Sir Hillary}, not the other Cultures that came after you.They had it hard too but what made them Strong and United, was that they were allowed to keep their Traditions and CULTURES .That is just my opinion from a Secoundary School Education but I still attend “The University of hard knocks”.Looking forward to some more Articles in the same Ilk.Many thanks Indeed.

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