Elevating Our Ancestors

Written by

Debra Brandon

Thoughts on the Connection between Youth, Crime, and Labels

I once read a story about a group of young boys knocking on doors in search of work to do in the neighborhood. One lady opened her door and asked the boys why they needed the money. They wanted to buy ice cream from Dollar General, up the road. The woman gave the boys what cash she could find in her purse—six dollars. The story was shared with the caption “Not All Young Boys Are Bad Criminals.” The caption caused me to reflect on the underlying assumptions and stereotypes that pervade minds today. “Why that title?” I thought out loud. There was just something about combining those four words—young boys, bad criminals—that seemed almost antagonistic. This triggered thoughts about the connection between youth, crime, and the labels we attach to specific communities.

The Story of the Kids and the Need to Relinquish Harmful Stereotypes

In the current political climate, people who make a connection between youth and crime have disproportionately targeted young boys, particularly those who are African American. This has perpetuated harmful stereotypes, and it leads to narratives that have the potential to shape public opinion—thus producing titles like the one above.

The story of those young boys wanting to earn money to buy ice cream serves as a powerful reminder that no child is born bad. It underscores the significance of environments and the impact of healthy communities. Their aspirations, at that moment, were simple and innocent—to enjoy a treat from a nearby store. The woman’s act of kindness, providing them with what they needed, is a small-scale demonstration of compassion and empathy; this type of response has the potential to transform lives.

Just as these boys were seeking a chance to enjoy a simple pleasure, countless other children across various communities harbor dreams and hopes that deserve nurturing and support. We must forget harmful stereotypes and resist the temptation to label any child as inherently bad. Every young person carries within them the capacity for greatness, but it is the environment they grow up in and the opportunities available that shape their trajectory.

Exploring Influences of Environment and Tradition

Our cultural practices, our traditions, and the values instilled in us during our formative years have far-reaching consequences for our behaviors, personalities, and even thought patterns. Through my own experience growing up in South Memphis, I hope to illustrate how nurturing supportive and empowering environments can challenge and overcome negative stereotypes. By reflecting on my own childhood and how it affected me, I hope that we can work to rebuild communities that are intentionally connected in these ways.

Personal Reflection: Growing Up in South Memphis

My experience growing up in South Memphis can be best described with words like poverty, scarcity, warmth, and security. We did encounter things that, looking back, were quite chaotic, but most of what I’ll bring up are the memories that helped to positively shape me into the person I am today. We had sanctuary. The elders in the community, including my dad, vigilantly watched over and checked in on us. Their reassuring gazes helped us feel safe; they invited us onto their porches when we needed breaks. Even though there was a lot of chaos in that neighborhood, our small corner of South Memphis remained a haven where kids played basketball together, laughter echoed through the streets, and a contagious excitement filled the air. We enjoyed the freedom not every kid growing up in poverty had—the freedom to run around and be kids. Despite lacking material wealth, we possessed an incredible amount of community spirit, which, in our hearts, proved to be everything we needed.

However, even this seemingly perfect chapter of my childhood had to come to an end. The decline of our community and the migration of its people cast shadows over our once-vibrant surroundings. As I moved on from those memorable days, I realized that my upbringing had gifted me a blueprint—a puzzle to assemble, piece by piece, to mend the fractures within our community. It was time to look toward the future, to reimagine a better community—one that upheld the basic values of my childhood but embraced growth and progress.

As I glance back at my memories, I acknowledge that my portrayal may be tinted with the rosy hues of nostalgia. My perspective reflects how I once viewed the world—an outlook fueled by innocence and optimism. However, should I revisit my old neighborhood by way of a time machine, I might witness some of the harsher realities lurking in a poverty-riddled environment. If I had not been given the opportunity to grow up in this way, I’m not sure who I would be today. Perhaps I’d resemble some of my peers who grew up hanging out with different crowds.

The Black Southern Tradition of Community and Bonding at Cookouts

Growing up in South Memphis, I learned to observe my surroundings and embrace the true spirit of community. We were all we had, literally. Among the many traditions, cookouts stood out as a significant part of Black gatherings, fostering unity and passing down wisdom.

During summer, my family fired up the grill, sharing food with anyone in need and filling the air with music and laughter. As adults, we’re coming to realize that even though we don’t carry these traditions in the same way anymore, we can all trace back memories of the elders of the family guiding and protecting the community’s children. Our ancestors have long gathered on porches and in kitchens, where stories of spirituality, ancestry, and history were told. Because of this, I’ve noticed a growing acceptance of ancestral practices in Memphis.

Through music, hairstyles, food, art, and culture, we express our shared experiences and honor our ancestors’ contributions. Preserving and celebrating our cultural practices lets us speak to the future and shape a brighter collective journey. My upbringing instilled a sense of community, creativity, and self-awareness, guiding me to build a better future.

True Freedom: Reconnecting with Ancestral Practices

In the face of harmful stereotypes and misconceptions, reconnecting with these ancestral practices becomes a powerful tool to combat any deeply ingrained prejudices. These practices hold within them the wisdom and resilience of our ancestors, offering us a chance to redefine our narrative and challenge the negative perceptions imposed on us.

Through storytelling, oral traditions, and the preservation of our cultural expressions, we bridge the gap between generations and create a powerful lineage of resistance against negative stereotypes.

Ancestral practices offer a pathway to healing and self-discovery. Reconnecting with these practices not only nourishes our souls but also helps us foster a sense of belonging and interconnectedness within our communities. In a world that often seeks to marginalize us, rediscovering and rekindling our ancestral practices is an act of resistance—a powerful declaration that we will not allow negative stereotypes to define us. As we reclaim our narratives, we empower ourselves and future generations to rise above adversity and pave the way for a more inclusive and compassionate society.

Finding Identity, Connection, and Solace

Reflecting on what I can remember of my upbringing, I’ve come to realize the value of preserving traditions and its connection to honoring our ancestors. I’ve been able to find my sense of purpose through remembering the ways my elders did community. My experiences have ignited a sense of responsibility, propelling me to contribute to the revitalization of communities, to be a beacon of support for young minds seeking their place in the world.

As I continue this journey, I am driven by the vision of building communities that hold not only the memories of our ancestors but also the promise of a brighter and more inclusive future. The cherished traditions that have withstood the test of time can guide us toward a community where every child has the opportunity to grow, play, and flourish without the burdens of poverty and its many manifestations.

Debra Brandon

Memphis, TN

Debra Brandon is a driven marketing project manager and founder of Brandneu.me, a marketing agency specializing in creative campaigns for clients. With seven years of experience, Debra has a proven track record in organizing and planning projects for clients.

Debra’s love of the arts has led her to focus on working with and connecting artists to the resources they need to succeed, and she has become known for her talent in event planning and creative direction. In addition to her work in marketing and project management, Debra is also an accomplished photographer, capturing stunning images of people and places alike.

Originally from Vallejo, California, Debra currently resides in Memphis, TN, where she is inspired by the abundance of talented individuals in the community. She is an engaging speaker and event host, frequently bringing her unique blend of creativity and professionalism to a variety of gatherings. Debra is also the host of a popular podcast, where she shares her insights and interviews inspiring individuals from various industries.