“Nana, you were a cheerleader?” I stared incredulously at the black and white photo of a teenage girl who had my grandmother’s luminous eyes, broad nose and sweet, wide-stretched smile. Her sweater negotiated her curvy chest and tucked into a pleated skirt that stopped mid-calf above a pair of pristine saddle shoes. Whoever had taken the picture caught young Nana midway through a demure kick that appeared to lift only a few conservative inches into the air. She’d been raised in the church by her own grandmother and, cheerleader or not, she was first and always foremost a good, pedigreed Christian girl.
Nana pushed a renegade piece of bang from her eyes that had dropped out of its tightly curled formation. “Yes, I was a cheerleader. Is that hard to imagine?” she giggled. Her face lit up with the same girlishness that’d been memorialized in that picture two generations ago. She turned her back to me, conspiratorially bent over her bottom dresser drawer and, still laughing, handed me a small brown notebook. It was her high school yearbook. “I was even kind of popular,” she smiled.
They weren’t her soul secrets, just part of her personal history she didn’t often have occasion to remember, and I could tell that sharing her memories was fun for her. I flipped through the pages, laughing at the 1940s slang and tried to picture my beloved grandmother — the apron-wearing master cook, the hymn-singing secretary of her tiny country church, the wisdom-bearer I relied on for varying degrees of affirmation and advice — as a cool high school student.
My grandparents have both gone home to glory now, and there are so many things I didn't think to ask them while they were still here. How did Granddaddy feel when he was about to go off to World War II? Did he enlist because everyone else was doing it or did he have his own reasons for serving? Why the Army over any other branch of the military? How long after they met did Nana know that my grandfather was worth marrying? Had she been thinking about a husband before then or did her husband-to-be inspire her to start considering marriage? What did she dream of becoming? Did she become that? I have questions and no one to ask. Also, I just miss them.
We communally celebrate our well-known public figures and for sure Harriet, Nat, Frederick, Mary, Bessie, George, Marcus and them all did the work to earn their spot as our heroes. But our aunties, uncles, cousins, parents, friends, neighbors, grandparents and their parents before, all of those folks whose names won’t make it to a history book or museum exhibit, are knitted into the fabric of our history, too. Their stories have as much merit and value as the biographies of ancestors we revere and honor. Learning more about them makes them feel heard and appreciated, but just as important, it helps us understand our own journeys a little more clearly.
If you still have your elders in your family, talk to them. Ask questions. Listen as they meander through their thoughts and memories to unearth a truth, a revelation, a gem of insight that will inevitably sweeten the conversation. They're part of your story, but they're part of our collective story, too. If you have no idea where to start, here are a few ideas for questions to get you and your folks talking:
- What were your parents like? How are you similar or different from them?
- Where were you when the news announced that Malcolm X was assassinated? Where were you when you heard about the assassination of Dr. King?
- When did you fall in love for the first time? How did you know?
- What was your favorite subject in school? Were you a good student? What did you want to do when you graduated? Did you do it?
- Were you involved in any civil rights protests or the movement in general? Did your parents or family talk about race at home?
- Why did you make the decision to put down roots where you did? Where else have you lived?
- What did your family expect of you as a woman or man? Did you feel limited by those expectations?
- When have you felt your happiest? When have you felt lonely or sad? What experience do you consider your greatest survival story?
- What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? What made you do it and how do you feel about it now?
- What’s the best piece of advice someone has ever given you?
These are just suggestions to start ongoing conversations. Add your own and record them, if you can, so you can preserve their voices and their answers and refer to them for whatever need you have in the future.
I try to be an above-average human being in honor of my grandparents and jump at the bar they set for being patient, loving, compassionate, forgiving, understanding and just so phenomenally kindhearted. Neither was a famous first-person-to-do-something in Black history or American history or even family history. Neither went to college or led any revolutions. My Granddaddy worked in a Pennsylvania steel mill for more than 30 years and would come straight home to hand-build a house for his family that’s still standing today. My Nana was apparently a cheerleader-turned-housewife and mom of five from a rural community so small it qualifies as a village, but people who had even a passing encounter with her remember her sweetness.
They were married for more than 40 years before my grandfather passed away — not married just for show or on paper, but happy, teasing, playful, in-love married — and they spent their lives giving in all the ways they had in them to give. They were just regular, everyday Black folks, but everything about them and the lives they lived makes me proud. Your people don’t have to be somebody to be somebody. They don’t have to be famous or historically notable. They don’t have to be highly educated with a rack of degrees and certifications. You’re part of their legacy and they are part of yours. Enjoy your time learning about them: one-on-one, conversation-by-conversation, question-by-question.