Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who are Your People?

In the South, this question is sometimes asked as a way of getting to know someone. Who are your people means who is your family? Where are your roots? How are you connected to me, in that six degrees of separation kind of way?

I was raised in Memphis, Tennessee. My people of origin come from the Ozarks of Missouri. I have now lived in the Pacific Northwest for twenty years and call it home. When she was five, I took my daughter to a family reunion in the little Ozark town where our family comes from. We checked into the tiny motel, the only one in town. We walked into our room, which was hot as Hades and had a faint odor of mildew rising from the stained shag carpet. I was trying to figure out how to crank up the window unit air conditioner, when Mia asked, “Mommy, what is this?” I turned and saw what she was holding. “Sugar, that’s how you know you are in a first class deluxe establishment. That is a fly swatter.”

While we waited for other kinfolk to show up, we moseyed across the road to the Wal-Mart. As soon as we walked in the store, I saw my cousin Jayma Sue. And there was Monty Max and Bonnie Jo and Wanda Fern. And more. Soon we were having a family reunion in the aisles of Wal-Mart. My heart was filled with the warm embrace of my heritage, and I thought with grateful affection “These are my people.”

I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “All people are my people.” I was reminded of my Southern roots and the importance of knowing who your people are. I remembered that day in Wal-Mart. Can I look at all people with that same depth of recognition and affection? After all, at some level, we all share common ancestry, don’t we? We are our people.

Our usual concept of “us” and “them” is outdated. In its place, we need an attitude that sees all human beings as our brothers and sisters, that considers others to be part of “us.” –The Dalai Lama

Related post: There is No Them
revised from archives


  1. A perfect message for this holiday weekend, when we celebrate what is good about America. Behaving like all of us are related would go a tremendous way toward healing our wounds.

    Have a great 4th!

  2. When I first moved to my husband's town 3 years ago and he introduced me to people, the first question I got was "who's your mama & daddy". It grew quite wearisome to try to explain I'm not from THIS town. But you are right, "who are your people" is definitely a Southern thing.

  3. I have no "thems" in my life ...I agree we are all a part of the same "people" we just have not met all of our relatives yet...some talk "funny" some look "way" different, some have 2 left feet with a heart of gold, some are stern but melts at the sight of a little girl or boys smile, what an awesome family we have:

  4. Nice post and the words on that bumper sticker are so true. I think reunions are a perfect way to connect with family. The quote by The Dalai Lama is right on!

  5. The chasm between ourselves and others is very minimal.

  6. My people are very small, yes in height, but in the amount too, but its all about the quality not the quantity.. right?

  7. Bob--Thanks! I hope you have a good weekend, too.

    Mitzi--Yes, it is a Southern thing, usually asked with good intentions to get to know someone, but it can also be used as a way of judging someone. In the part of the Ozarks where my mom grew up, all I have to do is give her maiden name to find out that I'm probably cousins with the person I'm speaking with!

    Rhon--That is a great way of looking at it. If we can touch that basic humanity in ourselves, we can see that we are indeed all family.

    Cynthia--My cousins still own the old homeplace where my mom and her siblings grew up. We have a reunion every few years.

    JJ--So true until fear makes it look so wide.

    Tracy--I'm sure everyone would agree with you on that!

  8. Interesting! I don't connect with this idea of "who are your people" at all. But I do aspire to try to see everyone as my extended family. Great food for thought!

  9. In the Native community when meeting after the greeting comes "Where are you from?", this tells the other where your roots are.

    I agree that we should treat all people as if they were family, our people. In Native communities everyone is related, not by blood, but through community. Elders are grandparents in the community to all the children, adults are auntie and uncle and all children are cousins. I was never raised fully immersed in a part of my culture, I am learning about it and I love the spirituality!

    Enjoy your weekend Galen!

  10. In Portugal I am often asked by total strangers stuff like: 'Aren't you so an so's niece?' And I'm like 'How Do you know that?!' It's funny in a way and it used to annoy me sometimes.
    I hadn't thought of it in the light you describe here. It's nicer to think that way.

  11. Unless Phoenix is southern....
    I go home and to my old church and people are stopping me and chatting. My aunts and uncles live nearby and my grandparents are in the cemetery.

    Your post makes me homesick.

  12. Good words - we are all connected
    I tried to go home to find my family for my 60th Birthday 15 days in UK and still no one knew me...even going to parts of Canada no one would know me...

    None of my cousins know me...I only have 2 Uncles and 1 Aunt left...

    I have to look to the future to find family. I do not think any of my daughters will have then I work to create a family here...
    other immigrants
    When I feel alone - I am truly alone
    So I need to create and that has proven to be good.
    I do have some nieces and a nephew but they are very distant because my sister hated me so much...
    I felt sad for awhile, now I feel abundantly wealthy with connections and relationships - especially from my blogging community

  13. Sandra--Yeah, it's a Southern thing, but not limited to the South, since it appears in other cultures as well. It can be used to connect wither others, but unfortunately it can also be used to exclude others. The bumper sticker, I think, expresses the concept in its best way! Thanks for your comment.

    darlin--Thanks for sharing this information. Interesting that in this context "your people" means your community, not just your kin. In many cultures, people who are not actual relatives are called by kinship names, like aunt or uncle or brother or sister.

    Beliza--Such questions can be seen as intrusive. Where I live now, people are more individualistic and often come from other places, so the question would rarely be asked and the answer would be unimportant. I can understand your reaction, but perhaps it is being asked in a well meaning way. Thanks for commenting.

    JBO--No, Phoenix would definitely not be claimed by the South--ha! But that's not to say it doesn't have similar notions of connection. Thanks for your comment.

    Patricia--I, too, have chosen to live far away from "my people." Like you, I have created a new community for myself and for my children. The connection is what matters to us, I think, more than the actual kinship ties. Thanks for commenting.

  14. I grew up overseas and visited relatives once every 2 years. There is a lack in my life because of that. I have one cousin who I am close to.

    What happened though, is the friends I grew up with, became 'my family'... some of whom I still communicate with. Yes, our roots matter.

    My present hometown is a mini melting pot, the students in my class are so diversified. I am forever asking questions about names, words, customs. The world is indeed 'our family.'

  15. I love when I can return to my roots. I have relatives and friends in the small town I was born it. I met a few friends that I was close to when I was in elementary school and it is so fun to find out about them.
    Right now i have been enjoying genealogy work and have connect some of our ancestor lines back to 5 to 6 generations; but the thing I love the most is when I find histories of some of my ancestors.
    We are all connect and part of the great family of our Heavenly Father.
    I enjoyed your post today and it is fun to go to other places you have lived and also to have family reunions.
    Blessings to you!

  16. Hi Galen
    I grew in the deep south but no deep roots. In college many of my friends were from New York city and northern New Jersey. I remember after calling home (South Carolina)thinking that I would have to be the translator if any of my new friends met my relatives.

  17. restoring--I lived overseas as an adult, but knew lots of kids growing up overseas. Their experiences were so varied, even within a single family. Some grew up to embrace the expatriate life; others sought to put down roots. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    LeAnn--Geneology is a fascinating pursuit. You never know who you'll turn up! Thanks for your comment.

    Riley--I know what you mean! Thanks for your comment.

  18. The Australian aboriginies refer to their people as their "mob" I kind of relate to this as well... we all have a mob we belong to... but I also feel a connecting kinship to people everywhere. Which probably explains why I'm comfortable speaking up on other people's blogs [people who don't necessarily know me nor I them] but we share a common existence and sometimes a common experience and I think that creates a sense of having things in common. I come from a large family and so get the reference to being someone's somebody. We are all someone's daughter mother cousin friend. Our connectedness makes our world go round.

  19. hi , I"m new here. I'm also from Tennessee, Knoxville and live here in Portland. Really like this blog. I think it's great if you have family and relatives. I haven't seen my mom or aunt in 30 years. I talk to them on the phone. I don't have children, can't have them, so I have cats and I take care of little baby opossums when they come out at night . I like the topics on this blog and I really need to work on things like forgiveness and being happy . Just wanted to say hi .

  20. Hi, Maria--So glad you stopped by! Sweet story about the baby possums. I hope you will stop by again.

  21. A great Post... yes, all of Humanity are connected and once we stop seeing folks as an "us" and "them" mentality perhaps many biases and stereotypes will fade away... My Dear Old Dad used to say that Variety was the Spice of Life and the Good Lord made Life interesting and rich with the "differences" in His Creations... I totally agree with that sentiment. What a boring World it would be if everyone looked like, thought like, acted like and had identical roots as me! *LOL* Viva la difference!

    Dawn... The Bohemian

    1. Dawn, You dad sounds like a great guy. Thanks for your comment.

  22. Galen,what a sweet reminder that we are all connected. In February I reclaimed a 60 year old church pew from my childhood church that is scheduled for demolition. I posted pictures on my blog as my husband lovingly restored it for me, but I did not tell the story of WHY it is so important. You just did that for me. Home is where your people are. I enjoy reading your simple truths -

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words and for sharing your sweet story about the church pew.


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