Honoring ancestors and past loved ones at Manassas National Battlefield Park

Devinn's Story

The 2018 Black Panther movie was a long-awaited masterpiece. It centers around an African superhero and his journey to becoming king of his hidden but highly-advanced hometown of Wakanda. Recently, the actor who played Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, passed away from a secret battle with cancer.

For Devinn, this news and film spoke to him on different levels. Black Panther served more than just representation for him. Devinn’s father unexpectedly left a family of five behind in 2016. He too didn’t reveal everything that was going on with him health-wise. Since then, Devinn has been on a journey of learning about himself, healing from shame and guilt, and remembering his roots.

On what would have been his father’s 68th birthday, Devinn recalled one of his hardest moments in life like it was yesterday. His dad was always there for him and as Devinn got older, they got closer. However, in the last few months of his father’s life, they were not getting along or on speaking terms. Just a few days before his passing, Devinn’s father had called and left a tearful voicemail to Devinn asking to speak but this went on to be ignored. Soon after, the family found themselves in a hospital beyond shocked and sad. Like Chadwick Boseman, Devinn’s father didn’t want them to know how serious his health conditions were which led to Devinn believing that like all other times, he would make it out okay. But, he passed away from a heart attack leaving Devinn to feel many emotions for years to come.

“I wrestled with this for so long. I was angry at him, at myself, [and] at God. I used to tell myself that if I would have just picked up that call maybe his heart wouldn’t have [been] broken and he wouldn’t have given up. I wondered why he didn’t tell how serious his condition was. We could have been there more for him and understood the severity of the situation. I asked God why he let this happen and ‘why now?’ when I was just about to go off to university and [when] I had three little sisters still in grade school. So, I struggled with this for awhile.”

Death and grief can vary from culture to culture. In America, it is so often considered taboo and can be uncomfortable despite being a very human experience. With Devinn openly sharing this piece and the link in the passing of Chadwick Boseman, there comes strength in vulnerability.

There is a scene in the Black Panther movie in which it brought tears to Devinn’s eyes when he first saw it in theaters. It reminded him of a vivid dream he had in 2017, just one year after his father’s passing:

“I was walking in the middle of a sunny field with green grass on every side, a few trees scattered here and there. It reminded me of an African savannah or sahel. In the distance, I could see a small group of people walking up to me. It was strange, because I felt like I somehow knew these people, but I could not recognize or make out any of their faces.
As we got closer to each other, the group of people stopped and spoke among themselves, and one person walked ahead of them towards me. As we got closer to each other, I saw a grin and I realized this person was my dad. We hugged each other and cried.
We spoke for a bit [although] I don't remember all of what we said. But, I do remember I [had] asked him to forgive me [and] I was so sorry that I wasn’t there when he needed me and that I love him.
He smiled and said, ‘I have already forgiven you and you should know I always have and always will love you and the family.’
‘I am at peace with the situation and I am happy now,” he said while looking back to the group of people. ‘Will you forgive me?’
I told him I did [but] as if he could read my mind he said ‘You, your mom, and your sisters are going to be okay. I am watching over you all.’
We hugged one more time. He walked back towards the other people as the sun amplified disappearing into the field.”

Hearing all of this, I knew we could bring to life a session to honor Devinn’s father, highlight his African heritage, and showcase the power of vulnerability. After some research to find tall grass, Devinn and I ended up at Manassas National Battlefield Park during the golden hour.

We wanted to demonstrate that men can fully experience and should be allowed to openly express both joy and sadness regardless of stereotypes and toxic masculinity. With what may be deemed “feminine” whether, in flowers or frolicking in a field, we incorporated sunflowers and a lot of nature. As it turns out for Devinn, this was his father’s favorite flower.

There is a duality in African belief systems as Devinn highlights and that both feminine and masculine traits should be regarded with value. Through his hardship, Devinn came to understand processing difficult emotions and how lonely the experience was.

“When my dad passed, I definitely cried but I [said] ‘Yeah, I'm good. It is what it is’ when people asked if I was fine. I wasn't fine. I really was not fine. I was wrestling with things. I was waking up at night crying feeling guilty and angry. I just felt like I didn't have anyone to talk to.”

In opening up to others, Devinn now emphasizes to give yourself those moments of fragility. He has found that by speaking about his late father’s passing and those struggles, people were receptive and even positively influenced. Through self-realization, mindset changes, and connecting with others it allows us as humans to fully process our emotional experiences in order to make peace and grow.

For Devinn’s journey of growth, his background as an African-American plays a huge part. His joy for learning about his African ancestors stems from the importance of recognizing your own roots. For him, it has been an enlightening experience to discover his lineage which traces back to Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin and Togo, the Gold Coast, and more. This rich African history is demonstrated through the many symbols and artifacts.

Devinn hopes by sharing his story that inspires others to not take those they love for granted and to appreciate people while they’re here.

“Recognize you literally are made up of your parents and your ancestors whether spiritually, physically, or emotionally. Without them, there would be no you. There’s a quote ‘You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.' You have to sometimes look back in order to move forward.’”

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