Because of Them We Can

As we inch closer to the Holiday Season, we thought it’d be a great time to reflect on the importance of relationships. You may have figured it out already, but few of us get to where we are without the help or advice of others. This week we invite you to reflect on the key people in your life, both past, present and future. 

By Marla Robertson, ’06, ’19 

Tonight, I am having dinner with one of my ancestors. She lived during a time when European enslavement of Africans had not yet disrupted world history. She and I are joined by another one of my ancestors. This woman lived during enslaved times on the east coast in the US during the 1700s. Our last guest is the futuristic embodiment of us all. She lives during a time in that is long after I have transitioned on past this life. Together, we represent the past, present, and future.

We are having traditional African cuisine, mixed with a little soul food, prepared and adorned by all of us. As we finally sit to eat, we speak power, health, clarity, and joy over our bounty. We ask for higher vibrations and acute understanding. We ask for clear hearts, open minds, and warm souls. Mostly, we all hope to learn more about ourselves through each other.

My African ancestors takes a small bite of the butter beans I prepared and looks at me. “How are the children?”

“They are healthy and strong-willed,” I meagerly answer. The power in her voice is strong too and I am humbled and intimidated by it. I’m not sure why. Does she represent all that I have lost along the way? Is she who I imagine I should be?

My enslaved ancestor looks up at us both and quietly eats. I look back at her and she shuffles her eyes back down to her plate. “How is everything?” I ask her.


There is an air of awkwardness. Our futuristic predecessor looks over the food and smiles gently. I feel pressure to drive the dialogue, but I feel inadequate to be the initiator. I feel shy and I also feel ignorant.

“So, I am grateful to have this opportunity to fellowship with you all tonight. I have questions and would love to just dive right in, if we’re all okay with that.” I rumble all of this off as quickly as I can. I pull out my listing of questions and start re-reading everything I’ve been thinking of for, what seems like lifetimes.

“Speak from your soul and your heart, not your mind,” my predecessor says. In my mind, she’s younger than me because she came from me, but her words are much wiser than the ones on my paper. Her eyes are engaging and have stories and worlds in them. “How do you feel about us being here?”

“I’m overwhelmed. I feel like everything that I ever was or could ever possibly be is in this room, yet I feel far removed from you all.”

“It’s because you have not spent enough time knowing yourself, therefore you can’t really know us,” speaks the African ancestor. “You’ve spent too much time learning about yourself through the stories, lies, and images of those that know nothing of you. But you obviously find your way.” She nods at my predecessor and they connect in a way that calms me. “Sometimes, it is the journey back to us that teach us the most about ourselves.”

That sits heavy with me.  Knowing myself through the lies of others… The journey back to them… What does this all mean?

“If I had to sit with the poison of what they told me I was, I’d never be nothing. My children would never be nothing and so none of yall would never be nothing. But I’ve always been something, even if I tuck it away and only share it when it’s safe. Only share it with my kin, only share it with my children. I am here and because I am here in the most powerful way, I am something…something big.” My enslaved ancestor peers at me deeply, as if to get me to see all the things she’s tucked away.

“Look at you. Look at her. Yall is something big. Look at what I came from. Something even bigger than yall. Even when I didn’t know I was something big, I felt it. And you and you are proof that you don’t have to know about all your bigness to go on in the world, being as big as you are.” My enslaved ancestor takes her fork and points at me and my predecessor. My heart is racing. I feel nervous. I feel scared. Not fearful, but scared. Almost as if I not only have this huge thing now that I don’t know what to do with, but I also feel all the pressure to understand this huge thing in a meaningful way. I feel a terrible sense of urgency.

“She makes a really good point,” my predecessor points out. “We don’t have to know with our minds all the ways in which we are great, but we must know with our hearts all the ways those that came before us were great. Maybe it is not our business to take stock in our own potential, but it is our responsibility to take the actions to live up to it. Maybe it’s the business of those that come after us to search for reminisces of their greatness in the ways we’ve lived, survived, and thrived in our own lifetimes.” She looks down at her plate and takes a huge forkful of everything on the plate and puts it in her mouth. She closes her eyes while she chews. I follow suit and we all eat together.

Marla Robertson, ’06, ’19 is the program coordinator for the College of Charleston’s Master of Public Administration program where she also directs the Community Assistance Program. 


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