Loud are the Voices of the Dead

I was out shopping the other day, getting groceries for the household, when something rather unsettling happened. I got stuck behind a black woman in an aisle, with her and her cart taking up half the aisle and a rather inconvenient cardboard display stand taking up the other. That’s not the unsettling part, bad traffic happens everywhere.

No, the thing that shook me was that something in the deep shadows of my mind suggested words to embody my frustration, something to say to the woman to hurry her out of my way. Something sickeningly racist.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a white man. That there’s racism in me is no surprise; I spent the 1970s growing up among working-class folks in the South. Racist jokes, threats about what to do if a sister or an aunt were to date a black man, and the casual assumption of white superiority were as much a part of the atmosphere as oxygen. I’ve spent the last twenty-five years actively trying to scrub all that out of my head, and while I don’t think I’ll ever get it all, I thought I’d gotten more of it out.

Or, I had thought so until something in my head suggested I use words calculated for maximum shock and shame to resolve a minor inconvenience in my day.

I take responsibility for this. We can argue over whether or not learning racism as I was growing up was my fault, but dealing with it here and now is definitely my responsibility, as it is the responsibility of everyone who learned it when they were too young to resist.

Of course, I didn’t say the crap my brain served up. I didn’t say anything; if the woman in front of me needed to stop for a minute while doing her shopping, that was no different than all the times I’d had to stop, and not noticed I was blocking someone else’s path. It happens.

It got me thinking. Where the hell had that suggestion come from? Why had I just had a thought unlike any I’d had in years? Of course early childhood social programming was part of it. So was being tired, in pain, and in a hurry to finish my errands and get home. But it seemed like more, somehow.

The ancestors are still with us, even if they died centuries ago. When they speak to us, it’s frequently in our dreams, though there are other methods. They can do this because they have back-door access to our minds, wherever their lives and actions influenced how we live today.

Me, I had ancestors who were slave owners. I had ancestors who were Confederate officers. People in my bloodline directly contributed to the messy intersection of race and class and hate that we live with today. Is it impossible that those ancestors can use their back-door access to whisper in my mind’s ear?

Let be clear: I am not using the ancestors to disclaim responsibility for the racism in myself, or in the world I live in. I am responsible for my own actions, and how the effects of my actions shape the world. I am responsible for raising the next generation to be less racist than I was raised, and for working to heal the damage my ancestors caused.

Can part of engaging that responsibility not be accomplished with ancestor work? Surely lighting candles, pouring offerings, and praying isn’t enough; the intentions expressed there have to be carried out into the world. But it’s still one place to start, one angle of attack on the problem.

In my ancestor prayers, there is always a bit about “ancestors lost and reviled.” I acknowledge that there are people in my history, who have shaped the life I lead and the world I live in, who have done things I cannot easily accept, and possibly cannot forgive. I have to acknowledge that–one can’t solve a problem with knowing what the problem is, where it came from, and taking responsibility for it.

So perhaps I need to do more work on my relationships with those ancestors. I don’t have to agree with what they did or why they did it, I just have to accept that they did it and that the results are now part of my burden. And, who knows, maybe they just want more attention, and will shut up after I pour them a drink.

But back to the other day, in the grocery store. The other thing I realized as I thought about the ick that bubbled up from the dark places in my head was what I’d been reading about over coffee that morning. This had been the Monday after the April 15th anti-fascist action in Berkeley, and the internet had been full to bursting with reporting on the white supremacists who had been there.

These articles used plenty of photos of smug-looking neo-nazis sieg heiling, clear photos of their signs and slogans, and tweet after reprinted tweet of racist ranting. All for the purpose of analyzing and critiquing their actions, of course, but the pictures and such stuck with me more than the critiques.

It is possible that seeing these people and reading their words emboldened my inner racist, or perhaps increased the firing potential of related neurons by activating nearby memory chains. Whichever.

The ancestors are still with us, even the ones we don’t want to have around. We can get a sense of their presence when we experience the lasting impact they had on the world. The ancestors we Americans wish we could forget are still with us; we hear their voices in every racist tweet, see their influence in every headline about a person of color murdered by cops or fascists.

It seems obvious to me that we, as a nation, need to take responsibility for the sins of our ancestors, and act on that responsibility. A good deal of that is through personal action, whether directed in protest against white supremacist speakers and rallies, or directed against individual acts of racism encountered every day.

Perhaps we, as Polytheists and Pagans, need to do work with these ancestors. Perhaps we need to directly acknowledge them, to pour out clean water for them, so as to encourage them to spend more time in the place of the dead and less time inspiring their more enthusiastic descendants. It’s not likely anyone else is going to do it.

About the Author

Lon Sarver is a Dionysian priest in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's been at this for 28 years, more or less, in the Midwest and California Pagan and Polytheist communities and is still functionally sane, or at least puts up a good front. Lon leads a devotional group, Thiasos Bakkheios, in monthly rites to Dionysos and annual public rituals at Pantheacon. He edits fiction and provides disability care for his paying gigs. His cat approves of his blogging activities, as it gives her more opportunities to climb up onto his shoulders as he tries to type.

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  1. Thanks for putting this out there. I have also been feeling that doing healing and negotiation work with the ancestors is essential and integral to other forms of activism.

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