“As a Black person, in order to prove you were fit to vote in any election, you would have to guess how many marbles were in this jar” the older Black man said to my family and I. His worn and ashy hands held a dusty mason jar full of marbles in front of me. He stood in silence letting the reality of such a test settle into the air. I looked at the jar and felt inadequate, angry and lucky.
In the middle of Georgia’s sticky, July heat, this man walked us through a museum dedicated to the history of the civil rights movement. That rickety old building held tears, pain, heartache, and triumph in its walls. I had already learned plenty about Black history and those who paved the way for people like me. But having something like a literacy test explained to me in such a way carried with it a heavier weight than learning about it from a textbook. Looking back at that moment reminds me that there are generations of people who look like me, standing behind me while I walk through life and express myself creatively in my freelance work. Here we will discuss what it means to draw inspiration from our ancestors as BIPOC freelancers and creators.
When you truly sit in the reality of Black history many things can happen. Sometimes it’s too heavy to carry. Other times it breeds a unique type of rage inside of you. In this season of my life, as a writer and photographer of color, it still brings sorrow, but it also brings inspiration. To be inspired by one’s ancestors is to reflect on where you come from, where you are, and where you want to go. It’s easy to shift your perspective on what it means to create when you draw from ancestral inspiration.
Ancestral inspiration can make you no longer feel anxious about how many people acknowledge your creations on social media. It challenges you to avoid comparing the success of your creations to the success of other creatives in your field. You start wanting to strive to just put your work into the world and let it have a life of its own. The question of “will people love this?” ceases to exist when you start to think, “would my ancestors be proud of me?”; not because you need their approval, but because they lived their lives in a way that was meant for you to be able to create freely whether it is deemed a “success” or not. Ancestral inspiration has been challenging me to change how I look at my creativity and my freelance work. For my other creatives and freelancers of color, maybe it can bring you some inspiration too.
The easiest way to look to your ancestors for inspiration is to first ask yourself, “what resonates with me?”. When you find what resonates (books, poems, songs, plays, speeches/lectures) you can start incorporating those things into your self-care routine as a freelancer. When I need inspiration to write or reminders to just create, I listen to James Baldwin’s lectures. When my photography game feels insignificant, I grab Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives off of my bookshelf. What ancestral art, history, or creations resonate with you? Why do they resonate? Let it inspire you to keep creating.
For many years and for obvious reasons I have always assumed that one must draw artistic and morale inspiration from the most well-known artists or leaders. It’s natural to assume that we can only be inspired by those who have been deemed “significant” in this world. We forget that inspiration is subjective. You can find inspiration in anything that is significant to you; family members, lesser-known civil rights activists, writers that most people don’t know about. All of these can inspire you too. My sources of inspiration will not be the same as yours. That is what is beautiful about this resource.
The whole idea of drawing from ancestral inspiration is much bigger than repeating quotes from MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This idea means accepting that you are part of a history of creatives, innovators, and warriors. Black, Indigenous, People of Color wrote poems that went unrecognized at the time, they made movies that no one cared about, they drew breath-taking images on their train rides home. They also became global sensations in music, writing, and painting. They broke through barriers in science and technology. The famous and the obscure BIPOC, did all of this, whether they knew it or not, to inspire you. The next generation of BIPOC creators. That is part of the “moral responsibility of the artist” as James Baldwin would say; therefore, you are invited into this history. So, do your research and discover new BIPOC role models and creatives in your field (or outside of it) and embrace what their creative journeys teach you.
Drawing from ancestral inspiration is about more than just finding motivation to keep doing the work you do. It also serves as a reminder that we need to cheer each other on in a world that has for so long, kept us isolated and in a box. We do not have to only view each other as competitors. We are a community that has inherited the responsibility to authentically reveal our humanity through the work we do. With that responsibility comes the chance to intentionally follow and support one another. Look for opportunities to connect with BIPOC freelancers/creators in your community. If you can’t find it, then create your own.
So, look to your favorite poets, authors, musicians, activists, painters, etc. Look to civil rights activists that are well known and those that are often forgotten; MLK Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and Claudette Colvin. Listen to lectures by James Baldwin then put on some Kendrick Lamar (like I just did while writing this post). Share the work of other BIPOC creators. Ask each other questions. Share with each other what keeps you inspired and what makes this work difficult. Be authentically you while the people who inspire your craft help carry you through.