Remembering the Ancestors on the 4th of July

As I began writing this, the crackle-sizzle and rumbling boom of pyrotechnic color displays were drowned out by firecracker gunners and flash-bang mortar fire, rattling windows and setting off car alarms. It’s as if the current, Hindenburg-esque fire show that is America isn’t enough; folks were forced to sublimate the urge to revolt into war-like noise. Perhaps they’re simply insisting very loudly that everything is, or is going to be, all right, using the explosions to drown out their panic.

At my house, it has been our custom to observe US Independence Day with a barbecue, a toast to the ancestors, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and a viewing of the musical 1776–singing along optional, singing in key unlikely. This year, though, everything feels a little off.

There’s a lot that’s problematic about celebrating any part the history of the United States. We began with genocide and slavery, with every inspired step forward accompanied by a major failure to make justice part of the national character. This has continued, and to this day it’s difficult to have an open, meaningful conversation about the festering wounds in our national soul that our culture does everything it can to ignore.

That was not going to happen this year. Perhaps that current of national, historical dis-ease is part of what inspired me to bring the ancestor reverence aspects of the day into the forefront. Perhaps it is just the natural progression of my practice as I work to integrate my own ancestors more deeply into my polytheism. In any case, the honoring of the ancestors who, directly or not, willingly or not, brought about American independence was more overt this year.

The simplest way to honor the ancestors, ritually, involves lighting a candle and offering a glass of clean water. More often, I pour out bourbon or rum for the dead, but this time I was specifically invoking populations for whom European liquors were a weapon of genocide, so water it was.

I got out a glass tray, with a brandy snifter in the center for the water. Three tea lights in glass jars went around it, for the three classes of ancestor I would be honoring in the opening ceremony of our July 4th tradition. This was placed on the family shrine, near the front door, so that everyone gathered could see it, and so that it would greet anyone who might arrive late.

The first libation and flame were dedicated to all those who had been killed and enslaved to make this nation. The Native nations who were decimated with disease and pitted against each other for the profit of European colonists. The European indentures and convicts transported to the new world, and the far more numerous African slaves, whose bondage played a greater part in shaping the nation, to our shame.

As part of this honoring, we acknowledged our debt to these ancestors for the crimes committed against them then, and those that continue to be committed against their descendents. We owned our responsibility for this, and reaffirmed our personal dedication to work to heal these wounds, to break the silence, and to create a better world for our mutual posterity..

The second libation and flame were dedicated to all those who had worked and sacrificed and fought for Independence from the British Empire, but whose names were forgotten or erased from our history. The countless women who weren’t Betsy Ross, Abigail Adams, or Martha Washington, for instance. The free Blacks and Native people who fought alongside the European colonists. Immigrants who helped (literally) build the nation, but were excluded from the wealth and glory their work brought others.

As part of this, we assured the ancestors that we remember their contributions, if not their names, and promised that we would neither forget them nor allow anyone else to do so. We asked them to reveal themselves to us, if they would, so that in future we could better honor them.

The last libation and flame were for the known Founding Fathers and heroes of the revolution, the fighters and politicians, the authors and activists. We expressed the hope that, in death, they came to see what their pride and shame allowed them to ignore in life, and asked that they deny their aid to those who now threaten to destroy their legacy, that they lend their strength to the struggles of those who seek to redress the harm done by their failures, and that they lend us wisdom in building a bridge from their American dream to ours.

Reading back, I find that description lacks the passion of the moment. As we did this, there was joy and anger and sadness. The folks in attendance called out particular names or events of personal importance to them. It was a small group, just a handful of white, mostly queer folks, but I remember the intensity shining in their eyes.

I have worked with people whose attitude toward the founders, or any of the generations of dead between them and their prefered, romanticized Pagan ancestry, was “to Hell with them, they were horrible people, and I want nothing to do with them.” That’s a bad Idea, and a bad relationship with the ancestors.

First off, the ancestors and all the dead are still with us. Their influence is undeniable, for good and ill. They live on in the world they helped to shape, in the language we use and the cultures we live in. They live on in us. We simply can’t make a better world for ourselves and our descendants without knowing the ways in which the dead move among us, for all the same reasons one can’t get to a physical place we’d rather be without understanding where we are now.

Second, it is dangerous to ignore them and pretend that they, and history, are separate from our lives today. Ignoring the bits of the past we don’t like is part of the problem we’re having today, whether it’s denying the connection between Black slavery and modern racism or pretending that Native genocide was something that happened back in the mythic days of Cowboys and Indians, instead of something happening now, in Cleveland and at Standing Rock. Pretending the bad thing is not there does not work. In fact, it perpetuates past harms and leads to future damage by making it impossible to see where the world needs healing, where our culture continues the injustices of the past.

This is my commitment to the ancestors: to know them and to build a relationship with them, in full knowledge of the things they’ve done right, and the things they’ve done wrong. To accept that I am part of the world they built, in all it’s pain and promise. To accept that it doesn’t matter whether I like what I’ve been given, only what I do with it here and now. To accept my responsibility in the present for redressing the injustices of the past, and for leaving the world better than I found 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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