Jelani & Ray

  • Jelani & Ray, Philadelphia, PA

“It really sucks not necessarily knowing, but for me I’ve used it as a motivational tool. I want my children to know that family is about knowing you come from a lineage of kings and queens, that you come from a legacy of greatness. It’s within our history as African-American people. It’s within our history as descendants from the continent of Africa. It’s a part of who we are as a makeup of people. With that knowledge you can become something. So from what I didn’t know about my family, I’ve grown to learn of people that look like me, that come from places like me. I know their greatness.”

Ray:

I was born and raised here in Philadelphia. I only know the story of my mom’s side of the family back to my grandmother being a child. My great grandfather, who was her father, got into altercation with a white gentleman in the area in which they lived, in South Carolina. Saluda, South Carolina. It’s not even on the map. Anyway. He got into altercation with a white gentleman there. Race was a very major issue in our country at that time, it was around the Civil Rights era. So they had to leave town. They packed up and moved to Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, then later on Norristown, Pennsylvania. My grandmother often shares stories because she counts every one as a blessing; to be where she is now, the process, the growth and the journey of her life.

Then the story begins for me here in Philadelphia. My dad’s side, they are from Virginia, the Freeman, Virginia area I believe. I’ve had a chance to visit both Freeman and Saluda, SC. Very deserted, Saluda’s even more deserted than Freeman. I take that back, I don’t know. They’re both really deserted, really small quiet lands, lots of small houses. I still have family in both of places, but they’re much older. Not many of my younger cousins and relatives stayed there, they left to seek new opportunities.

The biggest idea in my family is togetherness. It’s really funny because my grandparents, my grandmother and her relatives, they have a really tight bond that only they understand. They always push us to spend more time together as a family, to never turn our backs on family, to be there and support your family, to love and to care for each other. That’s the biggest message I get. We are not perfect, but we are family, and we’re supposed to be in support of each other. That’s what I hear echo the most from my grandparents.

I actually wrestle with this question all the time, where do I come from? What impact has my family made on this world and this country over the years? It really sucks not necessarily knowing, but for me I’ve used it as a motivational tool. I want my children to know that family is about knowing you come from a lineage of kings and queens, that you come from a legacy of greatness. It’s within our history as African-American people. It’s within our history as descendants from the continent of Africa. It’s a part of who we are as a makeup of people.

With that knowledge you can become something. So from what I didn’t know about my family, I’ve grown to learn of people that look like me, that come from places like me. I know their greatness. Therefore, I’m using that history to help move me forward and to shape the way I build my family going forward.

Jelani:

My mom is from New York and my dad is from Philly. I believe my one of my grandmas is from Philly as well. My other grandma is from New York and my grandfather is from Coffeyville, Kansas. I believe his grandfather is from Oklahoma. We actually went over the whole family tree this last Thanksgiving, my grandmother’s side (my mom’s mom side). We came to find out something like Ray said, one of my uncles, my great-uncles or great-grandfathers, got pushed up here, left town in the middle of the night and left his whole family because he punched somebody in the face or burned some store down or something like that. He had to leave town that night. I think he went over to Florida and then that’s when some family started moving up here.

I know my grandfather went through Oklahoma, then Kansas, before arriving to New York. He was in the Army. I’m not too familiar with my dad’s side. I just know my great-grandfather grew up in Louisiana and then he ended up in Philly. I’ve been to New Orleans. I haven’t been to where my great-grandfather was born and raised. I’ve been to Coffeyville, Kansas. I got a lot of different things from both sides. Both sides said, “get your education, study up.” One side was more by-the-book and thought that there is only one way to get an education. The other side wanted us to get an education, but knew that there’s more than one way to be successful in life.

Ray:

To be American is like an awakening – you have this idea of what you want to do in the world and what you want to change and then you’re like whoa, this is a lot larger than you expected. You live in a world that is just not quite ready and it was built on some structural foundations that limited the opportunity of so many people. I’m not going to say the majority of those in power limit us, but many do dictate things based upon their wealth and economic status.

Jelani:

I kind of wish my brother was here because he now lives in Canada. He grew up in America but he met his wife who was Canadian, and then they moved to Toronto. He loves it up there. He loves America, too, but says it’s different. There’s way less racism because everyone is together up there. You might see an Asian and an Indian, or a Spanish person and an African, not the typical couples. For me, on a positive note, there are a lot of different things that we get to do here that we do take for granted. We can travel whenever we want to, but you need money for it. You get to say what you want to, any time you want, in certain situations. Then on the flip side of things, if you are a certain skin color, or look a certain way, then you have to watch when and where you do those certain things.

Jelani:

From one side, my mom’s a nurse practitioner. I have aunts who are doctors, engineers, my grandmother was a teacher, she had her master’s degree. So they are very well-educated and went on and on to get multiple degrees and accolades, and things like that. When I was younger that put a lot of pressure on me. Then, growing up a little bit more I go through college, and it was more of an honor to be the next in line to represent the family name. It was bigger than me. I had to grow up a little bit in my own to see that it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than my vulnerable feelings right now, and I’m going to have to pass this last name on to the next generation and have them represent what I want to be.

On the flip side of things, being the first to graduate in my dad’s side of the family for college, it was also an honor because no one had done that before. So it came together for me education-wise.

Jelani:

What would I pass on to the next generation? Learn what you learn in the schools but always make sure you’re doing your own homework. Ray is a teacher, and we were talking about this the other day, he was saying it’s always good to read and study – but I want you to go and explore and learn on your own. Then we’re going to come back and discuss it – bounce ideas off other people and debate the facts versus the opinions versus the bullshit. It’s always good to educate yourself to get both sides of the story.

Ray:

I want my children to know, first and foremost, that the most important thing is to know yourself. Know who you are. I think it’s so important to know who you are because that’s you determine how you will respond to the world around you. It’s also going to help you propel yourself forward because you’re going to be met with adversity, no matter what. Second, is to know how you’re viewed in the world. That doesn’t mean accept it, but understand that some people are going to respond to you in ways based upon their prior experiences – or what they’ve been taught. So know how the rest of the world sees you. That’s not to limit you, but just have an understanding.

Third thing is, be true to your family. I hold family in the highest regard and most of what I do now is to help establish myself in a way that prevents my children having to go through some of what I’ve gone through, like growing up in the projects, living under the poverty level, and having a mom who had her own issues. So, a lot of what I do now is to prepare to bring children into this world that are steps ahead of that. Be true to your family.

The last thing is give back and give it graciously, because I think my life has only been a blessing because I’ve given so much of myself to so many other people. Half the opportunities I’ve gotten weren’t because I had this enormous amount of money or had the right political connects, but because my heart was always in the right place and people recognized it. They’re more free and willing to lend you opportunity, and when you get those opportunities you have just got to show up and let that take you forward. Know yourself, know how you’re viewed in the world, be true to your family, and give graciously.

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