The title of this article comes from a colloquialism those who have lived in the Deep South will be familiar with; it is used to determine first and foremost one’s place in the world. For example, when I got married the grandmother of one of my oldest and dearest friends was at the wedding. This stately woman had been born and raised and lived her entire life in East Texas-definitely the Deep South-and was concerned about my spouse. She had heard tell that he was from Pennsylvania, The NORTH, a yankee. So, a bit before the wedding she pulled me aside and said, “yes, he’s very handsome and polite, but who are his people?“
For those who do not live in the South and don’t have friends who do or did I know how this can sound, it can sound prejudiced in the extreme-but it isn’t. She was simply trying to put my soon to be husband within a context that made sense to her and what is interesting is that she did this by inquiring not about his living family but about his ancestors-those who had been long dead but whose loves, losses, successes, and victories made up his lineage.
When I explained that in his case his people were from South Carolina and Georgia there was a sigh of relief–she now had a context for the man I was about to pledge myself to. In knowing “his people” she knew him-even though they had not had much conversation with one another there was an intimate knowing because she knew his history. There are entire cultures that are known to do this-Scotts are notorious upon meeting a fellow countryman to search and seek out through the annals of family history until they find a relative that they have in common or at the very least two relatives who knew each other.
We are bombarded with advice to figure out this and determine that for ourselves-by ourselves-with no one but ourselves as an authority. This is taxing and I feel that it misses a vital part of our story-which is told by those who came before us. “Your people” tell you where you come from-and if the power of inference is not completely lost on you-they can also tell you where you are going.
Your people provide clues about your talents, your mojo, your gifts, and your challenges.
Your people do not completely determine you-but they are the warp and weft against which you act-their ambitions, heart breaks, skills, dramas, talents, decisions, and traditions have resulted in at least one concrete being-you. They are your heritage.
Your people are like the religion of your birth-the faith traditions your grew up practicing-as you age you will no doubt find fault with these traditions and you may even leave it completely, but its there on a bone deep level-you know it and as far as you may run, you will never full outrun it.
This is the blessing and curse of lineage. It is one side of the self-knowledge coin and its why ancestors are honored, celebrated, and most importantly have their stories told-because through knowing them we come to know ourselves.
If you know who your people are then you have access to a part of yourself, to what Twyla Tharp calls “your creative DNA”, that is entirely and completely unique to you and your ancestors. If you feel bound by your family and have always wanted to escape them then I will tell you its even more essential to discover who your people are and to listen to their stories-they are your stories too-to tell, to re-tell, or to change up completely.
Its Memorial Day. A day when I will be at the graveyard honoring some of my people by cleaning up their graves, leaving flowers, and offerings and talking with them awhile-telling them how they are missed, telling them how they are remembered.
My petition for you today? Remember who your people are.