Ancestors: In Praise of the Imperishable
by Sandra Jackson-Opoku

BEFORE READING

Background

Poet, novelist, travel journalist, and educator Sandra Jackson-Opoku's interest in her African heritage began in 1974, when she was an exchange student in Nigeria. Born and raised in Chicago, Jackson-Opoku currently teaches fiction at Columbia College in Chicago, gives frequent readings of her work, and actively promotes educational and cultural activities in Chicago's African-American community.

Among Jackson-Opoku's many publications is a novel called The River Where Blood Is Born (1997), in which she traces one family's history from ancient Africa to today's United States. She has received many awards for her writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the General Electric Foundation Award for young writers.

In this poem about ancestors, Jackson-Opoku explains the ongoing importance of her African ancestors and her timeless heritage. These spirits serve as an important life force for all African Americans.

About the Author

Sandra Jackson-Opoku, U.S. poet, novelist, travel journalist, and educator, was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Her maiden name was Jackson. She adopted the hyphenated name Jackson-Opoku when she married. After studying at Chicago's Columbia College, Jackson attended the University of Massachusetts as a Peabody Scholar, earning a B.A. in Afro-American Studies in 1976. In 1974 she lived in Nigeria as an exchange student. Her education also includes an American Film Institute Certificate in creating for TV.

Jackson-Opoku's first book of poetry, called My East Is in My Limbs, appeared in 1978. During the 1980s, Jackson-Opoku earned a living as a writer-producer of educational materials, a freelance writer, and a TV producer. Her fiction and poetry began to appear in publications such as Cumbaya, Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago, Open Places, The Country of Herself, The Woman That I Am, Aim, Africa Woman, and others. She also wrote articles and nonfiction for Afrique, Black Books Bulletin, Chicago Daily Defender, Essence, In These Times, and many other publications.

Her first novel, co-written with a friend, was called The Tender Mending (1982). This work helped her win a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, which she used to write The River Where Blood Is Born (1997). This evocative novel spans two centuries and three continents, tracing one family from eighteenth-century Africa through the middle passage to Barbados, then to Illinois and elsewhere in North America and Europe. In this novel, Jackson-Opoku pursues her interest in joining the spirit world with the actual world, as river goddesses and ancestor mothers watch over the lives of their descendants. Also in 1997, Jackson-Opoku's play called Affirming Traditions, Transcending Conditions was produced by the ETA Theater.

Jackson-Opoku has received grants and awards from the Illinois Arts Council, the New York Film Festival, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, General Electric, One Village, the Ragdale Foundation, the American Library Association, and many other organizations. She currently is the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar in Residence at the University of Massachusetts and teaches undergraduate and graduate students as an adjunct professor in the fiction writing department of Columbia College, Chicago.

Vocabulary

1. endless—being or seeming to be without an end or a limit; boundless.
2. spirits—supernatural beings.
3. roaming—moving about without purpose or plan; wandering.
4. memory—all that a person can remember.
5. heir—one who inherits or is entitled by law or by the terms of a will
    to inherit the estate of another.
6. wrapped —covered, enveloped, or encased, as by folding
    or coiling something about.
7. stirring—moving about actively.
8. older—having lived or existed longer than another.

DURING READING

Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection and improve your comprehension of the essay.

AFTER READING

Answer the Questions to Consider questions in the book as a way to deepen your interpretation of the selection.

1. Who are the River Mothers that Jackson-Opoku refers to? What does she mean by "History wrapped around my tongue"?

2. What meaning does the visual structure and overall "look" of the printed poem on the page convey? How does it add to the message the poet wishes to communicate?

3. What does Jackson-Opoku want to give her readers through her poem that she experienced herself?

4. Does your history have to be all "good" to be helpful to you? How do you think Jackson-Opoku would answer the question? How would you answer it for yourself?

Bibliography

Sandra Jackson-Opoku

My East Is in My Limbs (1978)

The Tender Mending (1982, co-author)

The River Where Blood Is Born (1997)

Affirming Traditions, Transcending Conditions(1997)

Women's Voices

Dorothy Allison. Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). A celebrated novel about the life of a poor Southern girl.

Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex (1949). The first feminist analysis of the roles, status, and condition of women in Western societies of the twentieth century.

Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). A Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of "mystical naturalism" in which the author finds personal and spiritual lessons in the natural world.

Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique (1963). A revolutionary document of the women's movement, exploring women's real feelings about their societal roles.

Elizabeth K. Helsinger, et al, eds.The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883 (1983). A history of the early women's liberation movement, showing its impact on society.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku. The River Where Blood Is Born (1997). An evocative novel that traces one family's life from eighteenth-century Africa to Barbados, then to America.

Danzy Senna. Caucasia (1998). A forceful novel that explores what it means to be a biracial woman in America today.

Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). The personal memoir of one of America's most influential experimental writers.

Gloria Steinem. Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (1992). Discussion of issues important to women, by a feminist pioneer and founder of Ms. Magazine.

Eudora Welty. The Optimist's Daughter (1972). Autobiography of one of America's most celebrated women novelists and essayists.

Virginia Woolf. A Room of One's Own (1929). A celebrated experimental writer's honest look at the cultural plight of women in early twentieth-century England.