Ayesha Williams

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Ev’ry time I feel de spirit movin’ in my heart, I will pray

Ev’ry time I feel de spirit, movin’ in my heart, I will pray

Upon de mountain my Lord spoke

Out o’ his mouth came fire and smoke

In the valley, on my knees

Ask my Lord mercy please

Jerd’n River chilly an’ col’

Chilla debody but not de soul

All around me look so shine

Ask my Lord if all was mine

Ain’t but one train runs dis track

It runs to Heaven an’ runs right back

Saint Peter waitin’ at de gate

Says, “Come on sinner, don’t be late.”

-      Negro Spiritual (c. 1861)


As a child, my grandmother kneeled on the mourner’s bench each day during the seven-day revival. She had observed many times before as her mother, and her grandmother received their call to serve Christ. She knew that until she received the calling herself, she would not be equipped for service to God and humanity. It is said that the true heart filled with revival is not asking for riches but recognizes that God’s blessings are not even deserved. The spirit of revival will call for an experience with the Most High so that service will result.

Her little body and deep soul, an impressionable vessel directed by the examples around her, was at the bench each day into the dead of night, waiting to feel enraptured. Her grandmother came to collect her many times during the week-long convocation, impressing upon her the exceptionalism of revival.

“Girl if you haven’t received it yet, it ain’t for you.”

We gathered together around my grandmother’s kitchen table. It’s something we tend to do regularly. But it’s usually a more casual occurrence. The time of year dictates the number of folks present at the table. Holidays are standing room only. At other times, there are more intimate pairings. I can’t remember a time, ever, where the kitchen table would not find us connecting over something––a reenactment of a moment you’ve been dying to share; an intervention with who knows who, about who did what; the planning of a major life event that would not be complete if “the whole family didn’t show up.” The kitchen table is our altar.

This time there are four of us around the table,joined by one additional family member later in the evening. Three generations of women plus a fourth-generation, newly born, rests in her mother’s arms. Her coos pepper our conversation as though she is eager to contribute.

Irene: I said I am more blessed than Oprah. Oprah just got them puppies. [Laughter from the group.] But I've got all these children and grandchildren. I don't know what seed...what was planted in them was was all planted in the spirit world. We’re talking spirit. This is what I believe. What is in this room was planted in the spirit world before you all came here, and my job, our job is to help to cultivate the seeds so they can be brought up. I don't know what's there, the little geniuses, the little scientists, whatever.I don't know. But my babies, my seeds have an opportunity to impact humanity. They have that possibility.

I brought them together, selfishly, because I wanted them to help me contemplate the concept of spirit. I turn to them because each of their individual energies unlocks life’s mysteries for me. They help me understand who I am, find my way through discomfort, dispel the chaos around me, and ground me in my purpose. I believe that we do that for each other. I trust them. They help guide my spirit.


–– A Conversation ––


Ayesha: So, um, I'll start with you, Grandma. What is your name and say one word that describes how you're feeling this evening.

Irene: Um, Irene Salahuddin and I would describe my feeling is serene….grateful. Oh, you said one word.

Ayesha: That's okay. Now we've got a couple to pick from. All right, Auntie Dwan.

Dwan: My name is Dwan Alexander Salahuddin Stevenson. And I would describe myself as feeling blessed and grateful. Oh, one word, blessed.

Ayesha: And Rayya.

Rayya: My name is Rayya Stevenson and, and I would describe my feeling as balanced or attempting to be balanced.

Ayesha: Oh I like balance. So, um, we'll go in reverse order now and we'll say, Rayya—what does spirit mean to you?

Rayya: Spirit to me means, uh, something that's unified within all of us. I think it's the, like the one or the God in all of us. Like this thing that everybody possesses, no matter how bad or evil or whatever that it might seem. I think that it’s the common denominator with everybody and everything.

Ayesha: And now, what does spirit feel like?

Rayya: Uh, I guess, maybe like euphoric. I don't know if that's the proper word I'm looking for or whatever. But, um, like joy. Yeah.

Ayesha: And then Auntie Dwan what does spirit mean to you?

Dwan: Spirit to me means a God force, and I know spirit can be negative also. But for me, when I think about spirit, I'm always thinking about a God force, an energy that gives us strength, gives us our essence. And so then when I think about the spirit, I'm always thinking about it in a, you know, a positive light.

Ayesha: And what color is spirit?

Dwan:  When I think of spirit, I think of white, pure, beautiful, heavenly.

Ayesha: And then Grandma, what is spirit? What does it mean to you.

Irene: Spirit to me is a power force, it connects all human beings.

Ayesha:  And what temperature is spirit.

Irene:  I would say 98.5 for sure? [Laughter from the group.] If your spirits gets below that or above that, you can get out of sync with your whole universal self.

My cousin Rayya’s six-month-old baby continues to coo in the background as we talk. Her father comes to take her away and prepare her for sleep.

Ayesha: So Grandma, how do you think spirit is handed down through generations? Or how do you, or did you envision that it might be handed down through generations?

Irene: I think, say, early looking at my parents and grandparents, for me, I think spirit, religion, was just observed. Basically there wasn't a kind of teaching or structure for me. Yes. Sunday school, instruction from my grandparents, you know. Go to church and be good. If you don't, God's gonna punish you. Mostly passed through that way. And scripture was not really understood.That's really how it should be passed down, through the teachings. If it’s the Torah, the gospel, or the Quran. It should be passed down to you through revealed revelation. Because if you don't truly understand it, you can't pass that knowledge down. For me it was very difficult. The thing that was passed down to me was fear. Fear of God because you were gonna get punished and you would go to hell, as opposed to being taught why you want to please your Creator so that you are able to, say, live in a society with other people. In harmony.

Ayesha: And Rayya for you, how did you receive a sense of spirituality?

Rayya: Okay. Um, honestly, like my parents, they weren't like, oh, you need to go to church and do this and this, you know. They weren't strict about it. I know some families are like that. Ironically, I got it more from outside people who had no relationship to me. It was actually, I remember in high school, I used to hate to tell people that I didn't go to church because I would automatically be judged as like a heathen or whatever. Just because I didn't go to church. I was thinking––you, I know you’re doing x, y, and z right now. But I think it's like grandma said, it all came out of fear, you know, not based upon how you treat people but based upon, oh, if you don't go to church, you, you’re automatically bad. But I was allowed freedom.

I feel like a lot of stuff is pushed down our throats from when we’re a kid that might not align with what you believe. So I'm in a position right now where I want to teach [my daughters] to have a free mind and an open spirit, and point them in the right direction...but I don't always know which direction that is to be honest. I'm trying to learn, uh, as I go. And I guess the one thing if I have to teach them anything as of right now besides treat people kindly and don't mistreat people, it would be to have your own mind. Even if I completely disagree with the decisions you made, if I know that you made it rather than you were following somebody else, I could deal with that. Because that's a big issue. We've been taught just to follow the leader, we just do. So I think we need more free thinkers in the world and, and more kindness.

Ayesha: And Auntie Dwan?

Dwan:  I didn't want to force any religion upon my children because in a sense, yes, I felt like our religion growing up had been forced upon me. I wanted them to be free thinkers to be able to decide what it was that they wanted to do. And as she said, no religion was forced upon them. I handed down freedom and they were exposed to Islam, Catholicism, Baptist, whatever you want. In a sense, I sometimes feel guilty about that. I think I could have, you know, directed them a little bit more. I mean, they went to Jumu’ah, they may have gone to some baptist stuff, some Catholic stuff. But they had free reign. And ultimately my hope was that they would decide if it was something they wanted to embrace and believe in. Does it work? I don't know. But for me and where I was and what I experienced, that was the best thing that I could do in order to not feel like I forced whatever it was I believed down on them.

Irene:  I'd just like to add something that I've sort of observed sitting here being the matriarch of the family. And Dwan is the only one who is of the second generation that's here. The rest of you are third generation. So when you look at what we put your parents through and where you are today, I really think, in the end, all things considered, we did a beautiful job. I mean we have some beautiful independent girls. Physically you're beautiful, I'm not talking about that. But your spirits are beautiful. Even coming out of a situation that may have not been pleasant.

Dwan:  Yeah. And, and I know that we're all doing the best we can, where we’re at. And I mean, I had to look at it that way, that, you know, [my parents] were doing what they thought was best in order to bring about connection of, you know, uh, black people. So in my heart I had to forgive. Like I said, do I feel guilty sometimes about not giving my kids that spiritual base? Sometimes. But for myself, I just couldn't because it, um, it destroyed my soul some, you know. So I didn't want to feel that I was burdening them with that same possibility.

In the late 1960s, my grandparents converted themselves and their family from Christianity to follow the practice and teaching of the Nation of Islam. They would later transition to a more orthodox interpretation of the religion. They continue to embrace Islam today, and the beauty and sense of peace that it infuses into their lives.

However,the in-between period would be the source of both trauma and transformation for their children (including my mother). Even though the direct experience is not my own, it’s a story I know viscerally. Religion and spirit have played such a significant role in their life story and what was handed down to us. I, we, inherited that essence. It has imprinted itself on our conscious. It informs our being and sense of self. It has become part of our life experience and identity.

My cousin Zahri arrives and joins the conversation.

Ayesha:  So say your name and say one word that describes how you feel in this evening.

Zahri: Um, my name is Zahri and I am, I'm thrilled.

Ayesha: And what does spirit mean to you?

Zahri: I think of like, kind of like my soul when I leave this earth. I think of spirit, you know, and like what's left behind.

Ayesha: What color is spirit?

Zahri: Oh, what color is spirit? It's like metallic silver.

Ayesha:  And how much does a spiritual or religious practice guide your actions or your decisions?

Zahri: Um, not much. I mean, I would consider myself to be a good person. And so I'm really just following my morals, which are similar to most people's morals. I don't criticize people based off of certain actions and I just feel like I do what I think is right.

Ayesha: I wonder how much of our spirit is willed or transferred? Is it predetermined or a learned experience? With spirit so deeply intertwined with our understanding of religion, what does it mean to transcend spirit?

We continue to share, listen, and learn from one another—1 hour, 29 minutes, 57 seconds in total. I play the recording of our conversation on repeat, as though it were my favorite song. Their sugary sweet voices instantly soothe me. Everyone knows that unmistakable New Orleans accent. Nothing else compares.

Rayya: I've really liked this whole little interview. I found it really interesting, like seeing everybody, and their thoughts and stuff. Because it's not often you get into an in depth conversation like this with people to really, um, kind of learn about them outside of surface level type of conversations.

Irene: And I just want to say, like you all are sitting right here, I never had a conversation with my grandmother. You know, she might have said somethings, but I don't know what she thought, how she felt - her consciousness. I feel blessed to be living in this day and time, and to be so subconscious. [Laughter from the group.]

My name is Ayesha Williams. Spirit, to me, is an energy and vibration that surrounds us. It protects and guides us. It drives us to seek out moments with others where we feel connected, charged, and steadied. It leads us to serenity. Spirit, to me,is clarifying. It has no color because it is all colors––unifying, harmonious.Like my cousin Rayya, a sense of spirit was not forced upon me. Instead, I was guided to seek out the good in everyone, be kind to others, practice gratitude,practice love, and practice forgiveness.

There is a spiritual force that flows through our family. We are deeply connected––through trauma, love, and faith––bound together in a space beyond comprehension. I say, bound together by the determined prayers of the little girl kneeling on that church bench. And that little girl would grow up to say that who we are was already determined in the spirit world. Meaning we’ve always been connected. To learn and grow with one another. That thought brings me a sense of peace. It fills my spirit.

Ayesha Williams is a New Orleans native by way of California (and a few places in between). She now calls Harlem home. She is an art professional with over a decade of experience working with visual artists, presenting programs, and generating funding for both commercial galleries and nonprofit institutions. Currently serving as Deputy Director of The Laundromat Project, Ayesha is also on the board of The Possibility Project and Marcus Garvey Park Alliance (Harlem).