By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 19, 2017
Last weekend I traveled to Fort Lauderdale to see Mislet Harry, the senior member of the Cudjoe clan. It didn't hurt that Miami was celebrating its annual carnival celebrations. The daughter of Aunt Elaine, Mislet has lived in the Miami area for the past thirty years or so. She started the Boston carnival in the 1960s and began to participate in Miami carnival once she got there.
About four years ago, my cousin Marva and I went to Miami to mourn with Mislet the passing of her husband Edward. To my astonishment, there was great celebration after he was buried. Mislet had rented a dance hall and had a regular party, kaiso included. She said: "That is what he would have wanted."
I couldn't come to grips with the notion of partying when someone dies even though my cousin Marva swears that when she dies, she wants a calypso sendoff: "You must play Shadow, 'Dingolay.'" As for me, annually, I pay for my spot in the St. Mary's Anglican churchyard where all the known ancestors are buried except for my grandfather's brother who was buried in the family yard in Tacarigua.
Mislet is 82 years old. She lives alone. Sometimes her friends take her to the supermarket. Other times she takes a bus to do her shopping. Since four of us went to see her, we took her to the supermarket to do her shopping so she would have supplies for the next two weeks or so.
After shopping at the American supermarket—that is, a supermarket that primarily sells American foodstuff—she wanted to go to a West Indian supermarket where she could get West Indian supplies, such as Pimento peppers, Spanish thyme, dasheen bush, and pigtail. Most of all she wanted to buy a fish.
When we got back to her house, she thanked us and blessed us for coming to see her. Then came the shocker. She told us she was glad that we had come because she wanted to get the fish. Mislet had lived with our grandmother "Tan Darling" who was 86 years old when she died. Tan Darling assisted Mother Gerald, the leading Orisha devotee in Tacarigua, cooking the saltless meats for the Shango Festival that took place annually for about a week in November.
Mislet said she needed the fish so she could make her annual offerings to our ancestors. Asked what that consisted of she said: "Every September or October, I prepare a meal for our ancestors. It consists of one slice of saltless fish, rice, dhal, and any kind of provision. Then I place a glass of water and a glass of white rum beside the meal. Then I begin to pray to our ancestors, calling them by their names, saying I have brought you food and drink and ask you to guide all of us. Then I leave the food overnight for them."
I was shocked. I had heard of this practice but never knew it was carried on within my family.
I asked Mislet who taught her this and how long she had done it.
She replied. "I saw Ma [meaning my grandmother] doing it. When Ma died I continued to do it."
Mislet had grown up with Ma. As was the custom then, the grandparents always took the firstborn of their grandchildren to live with them. In her home, Mislet learned the ways of those who came before her through my grandmother.
Then she confessed, almost reflectively, "You know, I have never told anyone about this."
On July 1, 2017, my dear friend and distinguished Nigerian scholar Abiola Irele died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both of us spoke at the Pan African Pantheon Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa in June. Irele died a few days after he returned from the conference. We spent the entire conference together.
Biodun Jeyifo [BJ], Professor of African & African American Studies and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, was at Irele's bedside when he died. He offered the following testimony:
"Even as I approached him to say my farewell…I knew that I was addressing his spirit, addressing Spirit itself which binds all of us, the living, the dead and the unborn, together. Both the real and the factitious, trivial line separating 'believers' and 'unbelievers' had vanished as I said the following words to him, simply:
"Egbon, we shall not forget you….I testify that you crossed many borders, you are the greatest border crosser of your generation. The innumerable borders that you crossed enabled me and other members of my generation that you inspired to do the same….Go gently and courageously into the shade, Egbon" (The Nation, Nigeria, July 9).
BJ is an immense scholar in African literature and culture.
My cousin Mislet never went to high school. However, through my grandmother's teaching she understood the ties that hold us all (the living, the dead, and the unborn) together. In offering her sacrifices to our ancestors, she was giving thanks to those Cudjoes who had gone before to make us who we are.
Two days ago, the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago reminded the nation of the importance of honoring our ancestors.
It is a lesson from which we all can learn.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached at @ProfessorCudjoe.
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