Elders in Tennessee
There’s a tradition in Yoruba where elders lay hands on you when you venture beyond the village.
Interviewing in Tennessee, I stepped forward to the security desk occupied by an older black man in full security regalia, I first noticed his hands; knotted into an unnatural position. I couldn’t help but remember I was in the south and though the year was 2019, our living civil rights history was still present in faces we meet everyday. Scanning his gently lined face only his hands told me he was past retirement age.
On the surface that means nothing. Maybe he likes to stay busy…maybe…but you can’t really look at our elders, especially black men, and not see your people, a piece of your living history. The collective stories of exhaustion, burst bubbles yet resiliency.
He greeted me warmly, asked my name and dispensed instructions. But when I told him WHO I was meeting he raised himself slowly from his chair, you could tell this movement was rare during his day. His warmth turned familial and he wrote my name on a visitors tag bringing it around the security desk. Even though I felt I should be bringing him what he needed, I took this gesture as recognition and protection. Sometimes traditions are so buried in our fiber we do without knowing. But my heart knew.
Whether we admit it or not there is a pyramid of power that begins on the backs of our elders and there’s something about the respect in old black peoples eyes when they see you at a impactful levels; in places not originally made for us. Pride is there if you take the moment to pay attention. And they’re not angry with us for entering spaces once forbidden to them, they’re angry at us for forgetting these spaces weren’t always ours.
He then held my hand for a few seconds and wished me luck; lifting me up. After my interview I returned to thank him for the welcome. I gave him my hand and while he didn’t stand this time, I could see all of the pride in his face and even if I never returned to that place, we saw each other and it was all good.