The importance of ancestral spirits in African identity


Carina Lopez

Dr. Sonya Maria Johnson explains to the audience her research about the nature of homemaking within certain circumstances among African descendants.

Carina Lopez, Lifestyle Editor

The Office of Student Diversity, Engagement and Success continued its African-American Heritage Lecture Series Feb. 13 with a presentation entitled “Without the Dead We are Nothing: Homemaking within the Black Atlantic” given by Sonya Maria Johnson, Ph.D.

Johnson holds a dual major Ph.D. in Socio-Cultural Anthropology and African American & African Studies from Michigan State University and is currently the Andrew W. Mellon assistant professor of Religious studies in the department of Philosophy and Religious studies at Beloit College.

UW-Whitewater Business major Neil McCants began the presentation by introducing artistic expression presenter, Nia Mooney, a UW-Whitewater student majoring in Social Work. Mooney began the presentation with an untitled poem she wrote.

“I hope my ancestors are listening to this poem, I wonder if they can feel their spirits dancing between the stanzas. I hope their faces are glowing like the north star. At this moment, right here, is what they fought for and I intend on making them proud,” said Mooney.

The reference to an ancestor from Mooney’s poem led directly to Dr. Johnson’s presentation. Dr. Johnson spoke about her research pertaining to Cuban-African descendants. More specifically, their relation to ancestral spirits and how through them they built their identity that continues to be maintained today.

“I am pleased that my current research interest in the nature of homemaking within certain circumstances among African descendants fits inside of the thematic of your lecture series this year. While my work focuses on Eastern Cuba there are significant connections between the United States and Cuba in terms of how social actors, within these countries, have created dynamic and durable land spaces, home spaces, that offer many lessons to teach from their central practice,” said Dr. Johnson.

The ancestors play a role as big as defining what places are considered home and what it means to be human. Dr. Johnson also discussed the feelings of displacement and the idea of radical empathy.

She also called for the feeling of discomfort to create knowledge. She encourages students to use their discomfort for their creations.

“You are recruiting pain with purpose,” said Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Eileen Hayes, Dean of the College of Arts & Communication, best summarized Dr. Johnson’s presentation.

“I have learned a great deal from your lecture. I’d like to point to several of the points that Dr. Johnson left us with. She taught us about un-silencing, she mentioned the power of naming, she pointed to life homework as opposed to coursework. She inspired us to engage in radical empathy and she told us to lean into productive disruption, which are all excellent goals.”