Our elders are the carriers of our culture


For three-and-a-half years, a group of amazing people have been attending monthly gatherings here at the Cultural Wellness Center. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of seniors at Sabathani Community Center on the topics of culture and wellness. I did not expect such a deep relationship would evolve.

I readily accepted the invitation at the time because of the cultural studies that have given birth to my understanding of the value of the Ancestors and the Elders in African thought and spirituality. These two roles epitomize the old hymn “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, Soldiers of the Lord.”

As we study African culture, we see how our people who have endured horrific treatment, direct destruction, and indescribable pain were able to preserve their spirit by creating metaphors of heaven as a place of refuge and salvation, through songs, stories, life ways and community laws.


Jacob’s ladder

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder

Soldiers of the Lord


Every rung goes higher, higher

Every rung goes higher, higher

Every rung goes higher, higher

Soldiers of the Lord


The repetition of these verses allows us to enter a realm of consciousness where all the physical or material realities shrink into distant experiences. We become far removed from all physicality and closely tied to a spiritual reality.

The spiritual reality is our home, our heaven. We exist mentally, emotionally and intellectually among the stars. Higher and higher we move into a plane of unchangeable endurance.

The men and women that I am speaking of here are known for their long lives. They have a combined total of more than a thousand years of life. We count each life ranging in age from 65 to 93 years as its own book of stories, which should be written and read to our children about our ancestral roots. Each life tells a very simple, beautiful story of endurance.

As an example, Miss Jackson, who is 84 years old, tells the story of her life on a plantation in the South. She remembers the 83 families who were on this plantation. She describes the hard, hard work, the experiences of a life deprived of education in the publicly owned schools, of having been isolated and limited in personally fulfilling the dreams that are offered other free citizens in this country.

She holds these memories deeply inside of herself at the same level where her own cultural knowledge also resides. This cultural knowledge, which is a blend of information, wisdom, love, faith, hope, vision, and experiences of a people from the beginning of creation, sifts and separates Miss Jackson’s memories and expresses them as if they were a part of an alchemical process for her and her people.

She is closer to the Lord, closer to the Creator, closer to a state of consciousness that gives her a place in the heavens among the stars. She is prepared to move from this life to the next life with grace, beauty, wholeness and health.

The spirit inside of our experience, as Miss Jackson sees it, is vital, vibrant, and without the qualities of numbness and hatred. This spirit is connected to the most-high God, the Divine in all of creation. These are my Elders, our Elders, who at our last meeting told us the following:

They are not afraid of death.

Death has no hold on them.

They are full of sweetness and purity of mind.

They are channels through which God brings a message of life to our community.

They will be here to teach as long as they have breath.

They see themselves as guides, carriers of the culture. They have in silence preserved the culture and value systems of our people.

They are anchored in African culture, heritage, spirituality, and a vision for mankind’s future that will bring balance to the past. For the African in America, this is essential to restore people-hood, family and community.


Next week: seven stages of growth toward Elder-hood

Elder Atum Azzahir is executive director and elder consultant in African ways of knowing of the Cultural Wellness Center. She welcomes reader responses to atum@ppcwc.org.