The Power of African-American Wisdom

By Etoy Ridgnal

The African-American experience is such a diverse one that it is almost impossible to articulate all that is “African-American” Wisdom. However for me, when I hear that phrase, I can’t help but think about the amazing women in my life who have shaped and molded me.

My Grandmother, Tinell Ridgnal, my aunts, Alnida Broughton and Alfreda Hart – have been the 3 most powerful forces in my life since I was 9 years old.

From my grandmother I learned fearlessness. That you have the power to fully be your own person, that your life is yours to live, shape and design as you wish. She was (and still is :>) this amazing blend of power, grace, strength, compassion, generosity and brutal honesty. While other children couldn’t wait to be teenagers or adults, I wanted to be 55, with a head full of beautiful silver hair, standing in full power and grace - not caring what others thought of me, just like her. Though she would never describe herself as such, she was a spiritual guide to many - from friends, to family members, to even her employers - she was this rich, vast wealth of knowledge, the person you could trust to always tell you the truth and to push you to do what felt most right for you. She was the embodiment of a self-actualized human being. She was in no way religious, but lived the values most “religious” people espoused without an ounce of religiosity. She was my first example of what it meant to have your own personal distinct relationship to spirit. Her generosity was boundless, even when she didn’t have much to give materially; she taught me that money was the one thing I could always have, if I was willing to work for it; that everything was subject to negotiation and that the worst thing anyone could say was no, so why not ask the question. She taught me to think critically about the information I received, to test it against my own judgment; to take care of the people you love, but never be afraid to let go of toxic people or circumstances, to listen first and foremost to my own heart and instinct when making choices and then be accountable to those choices once made.

My aunt Nida, was this sassy, cool, beautiful, independent, educated, intelligent, woman of the world. I loved nothing more than when she’d come to town to visit. With her I could share anything, she was in so many ways the mother I wished I’d had. There are so many lessons my Aunt has brought to my life, from being a provider for her family, to being so passionately in love with her work as a teacher (now 30 years), her students and the gift of knowledge she brought to them daily. I’ve never seen anyone so genuinely in love with literature, history and art who shares that love so boldly and creatively with others. She taught me that you must first love what you do and money should be an afterthought. The most pivotal advice she ever shared with me was how education could be a path out of poverty. While my grandmother provided me with an internal foundation that made me believe I could do anything - that there were no limits on my potential. My aunt gave me the practical direction to apply that foundation of confidence, resilience and perseverance to my daily life throughout high school and college.

My aunt Freda was the embodiment of the heart and never settling for less than you’re worth in love. Never losing that vital connection to art, beauty and those things that bring so much roundness to life. Where my Grandmother and Aunt Nida added the elements of practical application, service, and character, she was my fairy dust. In everything she did from the way she loved her mate to the way in which she raised her children with such love, attentiveness, patience, affection, adventure, openness, creativity and exploration - she taught me that we live to love and to experience life fully.

These three women are the combined force of all that I am. Because of them I grew up feeling inferior to no one - based on race, gender or class. They made me feel like Black women were the strongest, most beautiful, powerful force on earth. They taught me unconditional love, acceptance, independence, the importance of beauty, imagination, compassion, service and most importantly truthfully living one's life.

Many years after I would begin to read the works of great spiritual teachers, thinkers and leaders only to find their words and examples being reiterated in new language. I would walk my own path, create my own style, beliefs, practices but the core lessons passed down to me by the wise women in my own life and the many others I’ve met since are the very ground upon which I stand. My family history has been one of turning pain into power, sadness into laughter, knowing that no door is closed to you, no path is blocked if you are willing to do the work to walk through.

That’s just a small piece of the power and possibility of African-American Wisdom.

Etoy Ridgnal is a lover of life, a mother, a child of the world and a firm believer in the power of humanity to tap into its’ full power and manifest the world it wants to live in. She is also the President of Community Advocacy Partners, a social impact agency that creates social action campaigns that enlighten, engage and uplift communities; and the Co-Founder of the Dream Makers Fund, a non-profit organization that envisions a world where everyone is fully living into their purpose and operating at their highest and best potential – a world of conscious creators who inspire a fundamental shift in our collective consciousness. We center this work on youth and families from our most vulnerable populations, assisting them in developing a life path that is the fulfillment of their highest possibility.


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This article appears in: 2016 Catalyst, Issue 2: African American Wisdom