Harriet Tubman Monuments

Harriet Tubman was America’s most fierce freedom fighter. She is our ultimate ‘Auntie’! “Aunt Harriet taught us courage and endurance,” said her own descendants who live today. She rose from brutal slavery to emancipate herself and countless others. That’s why we give tribute to Harriet Tubman.

Did you know that in Auburn, New York there is a 47-year-old tradition called the Harriet Tubman Pilgrimage? Visitors from across the globe visit Harriet’s gravesite in Fort Hill Cemetery in honor of her life and commitment to the freedom of African Americans.

This is just one among the many monuments to Harriet that can be found throughout the United States and Canada, almost mimicking her Underground Railroad routes. The monuments, which range from visitor centers to statues, where she is often depicted with a pistol at her waist or with a book in hand, are found mostly in the Northeast and Midwest but can be found in cities and communities throughout the U.S and Canada.

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Haitian pride and respect

Auntie Carmen Michel, in pink, with her sisters Viana & Martina.
By Yansi Murga

Carmen Michel is a Haitian auntie living in Queens, NY who loves cooking, traveling, and listening to Haitian folk and jazz music. She was the third of five children: two brothers, and three sisters, all of whom grew up in Jacmel, Haiti. Despite growing up there, she was the only one of the five who was not born in Jacmel. While her mother was pregnant with her, she went to visit her sickly mother (Michel’s grandmother) in a village called Decouze when suddenly she went into labor and gave birth to Michel. Although Michel is proud of her training as a teacher and nurse, she believes there is more respect to the roles that ‘aunties’ play in Haitian communities.

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Towards Black Excellence

Dr. Marta Effinger-Crichlow is a theater scholar, filmaker, and author of Staging Migrations Toward an American West: From Ida B. Wells to Rhodessa Jones. To hear Dr. Effinger-Crichlow on a CUNY Podcast discuss her Staging Migrations book, click here.  In that podcast interview Dr. Effinger-Crichlow described migrations as physical and symbolic and mentioned that she sometimes sees the world as a theater set.  How people speak, perform, and gesture are of great interest to her. The Chair and Professor in the African American Studies Department at New York City College of Technology-CUNY reflected on her family’s participation in the Great Migration from a small town in Virginia to Washington DC in the early 1900s. Growing up in DC, she recalled as a child listening to her mother and aunts tell stories. She believes that the roots of her creative work have roots in her mother’s and aunts stories. She heard them talk about many things, from the Civil Rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the riots that took place in DC following his assassination. She also heard about the migration– what it was like for her aunts and mother to leave their ancestral community Down South and adjust to a new city up North.

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Filipino Aunt traditions

Stella Canlas, husband Gerry with their daughter/bride Jen.

By Yansi Murga

Stella Canlas grew up in Quezon City, the Philippines as the eldest of seven children now scattered across the globe. Three siblings are in North America, three in Australia, and one in the Philippines. Growing up, Stella had three aunts on her Dad’s side. However, they lived in the province and she very rarely saw or talked to them, especially because she did not speak their local dialect. On her mother’s side, she had only one uncle, her Tito Baby. But she grew up close to his wife, her Tita Lety, who was also her baptismal ninang or godmother.

Tita Lety

Stella will always hold her Tita Lety close to her heart because, despite having ten children of her own and experiencing financial struggles, she was always kind, welcoming, and generous. Stella explains: “More than the food she would feed me, or the dresses she made for me, she was always a source of strength,” noting the many sacrifices she offered for her children. “Today, 9 of her 10 children are in the USA, a dream that she knew would be fulfilled, a result of sheer tenacity and unwavering faith in God.” Overall, Stella believes her Tita Lety “was quite an inspiration, a reflection of a strong, motivated and kind-hearted woman.”

Stella says that “in a close-knit family, the Filipino aunt is considered the second mother of one’s children” and adds that, “in most cases, parents, in their wills, bequeath their children to their sisters.” Additionally, as roughly 80% of the Philippine population practices Roman Catholicism, the Filipino aunt “is also, more often than not, the baptismal or confirmation godmother of the child.”  In this way, the role of the Filipino aunt is often intertwined with the Catholic faith and traditions derived from Catholicism.

Sister-in-law aunts

In her children’s own lives, there is one blood-related aunt, Stella’s sister Rose, but there are also four sister-in-laws, Cecile, Malu, Margarita, and Milagros, who are married to the brothers of Gerry, Stella’s husband. Rose, she says, was and is her children’s favorite tita and was a ninang at her daughter Jen’s wedding. Stella notes: “my children love her unconditionally. She is the epitome of an all-giving, complete aunt.” Her children are also very close to their uncles and aunt-in-law and least one or both of them were principal sponsors for the children’s weddings.

In Filipino weddings, ninangs and ninongs are principal sponsors, or godmothers and godfathers, respectively, who have close relationships to the wedding couple and are chosen by them to be a part of the wedding entourage. They are, of course, chosen to be official witnesses to the wedding, but their participation in the wedding is also symbolic of the support they have given, and will continue to give, to the couple in their marriage.

Ninangs & Ninongs, Wedding Sponsors

Stella’s own children followed the traditional Filipino wedding customs, with, for example, the groom’s family formally asking for the bride’s hand in marriage (the “pamanhikan”). Three out of her four children had traditional Filipino church weddings with both principal and secondary sponsors. The principal sponsors are chosen by the bride and groom and, as Stella’s daughter-in-law, Maia, says, they “tend to be the older AND wiser relatives who helped raise us or played a key role in our childhood formation.” For Stella’s children, the principal sponsors, or ninangs and ninongs, were aunts, uncles, and older friends in the Catholic community that they are all members of. For example, Maia and Geoff chose an aunt who played witness to the beginning of their courtship and an uncle who knew them both from a very young age. They, she says, “continue to be the pillars of guidance, even after 12 years of marriage.”

Jen, Stella’s daughter with her wedding sponsors.

In these weddings there are also secondary sponsors, usually close friends of the bride and groom. For their own secondary sponsors, Maia and Geoff chose close friends who played a key role in the development of their relationship– “like the friend who knew that romance brewing before we even knew it!” she says. The secondary sponsors participate in the veil, cord, candle, and coin ceremonies and present these tokens to the marrying couple during the nuptial mass.

Deeply symbolic

Each of these tokens is deeply symbolic with, for example, as Maia explains: “the laying of the veil and cord (“yugal“) to symbolize unity and strength, and presenting 13 coins “arrhae” as a symbol of future prosperity throughout the marriage.” Reflecting further on the importance of these objects in the ceremony, Maia says: “though some relatives were unable to physically be present at our wedding, their presence was felt by way of loaning these wedding tokens on our wedding day…and we hope they continue to be handed down in the family for generations to come and keep these traditions alive.”

Aunts are central

Upon being asked what the pivotal role that aunts played in her wedding was, Natasha, Stella’s other daughter-in-law, says: “I think praying for us really. That was and is what our sponsors are to us. Besides being a guide, they would send us anniversary greetings with scriptures/prayers.” Natasha adds: “they’re also of course great role models. Having been a flower[girl] at their own wedding 30+ years ago also serves as an inspiration/encouragement on lasting marriages.” In this way, it is clear that Filipino aunts play an integral role in the upbringing of their nieces and nephews and often continue to do so well into adulthood, as ninangs to them and their spouses. If anyone is interested in learning more about Filipino aunts and family traditions, below are some sources Stella suggests for doing so.




Sleeping, Dreamy World

Once upon a time, long ago when milk was delivered in glass bottles and cars had fins, I spent my summers at Aunt Josy’s house in Wyandanch, Long Island. The island was full of farms back then. On the long drive from Brooklyn, riding in my father’s Buick, the mean streets became nice country roads. I saw horse ranches, grazing cows, and family fruit stands along the way. Teams of white, black, and brown day laborers worked together in the fields and loaded up trucks with produce.

Aunt Josy’s house

Aunt Josy and her husband, Henry, whom we called Ah Boppa,  owned a small truck farm on three acres. They were my honorary country grandparents. It was tradition for urban children like ‘Brooklyn – Harlem’ me to be sent away to elders in the country. She had a yard and a field with ducks, chickens, a cow, dogs, cats, rabbits, frogs, and butterflies. Some of her animals were given names. Among her beautiful house plants sat a Venus Fly Trap that ate dead flies. There was also a giant floor model radio. Outside I recall peach and apple orchards, rows of berries, greens, beans, and a field of tall grass and corn swaying in the wind.

Grandma’s half-sister

I recently learned that Auntie was my maternal grandmother’s half-sister, or possibly not related at all. They were both Chinese Trinidadians noted for their delicious cooking, musical chatter, and weekly family reunions. The two sisters grew up together in Port-of-Spain and Cedros, Trinidad. They immigrated together to Harlem as young women. They spoke several languages including various Chinese dialects, including Hakka, Spanish-French-Afro patois, and hardcore West Indian-accented English.

One-level house

Auntie had a long, narrow country house that was all on one level. You walked up a few steps and once inside a linoleum-covered floor took you past several small rooms on the right and left until you eventually ended up in a large kitchen. From there you could go outside to a screened back porch. The backyard had a large patio deck that was an outdoor living space that was also a staging area for the garden, farm tools, toys, crafts, clutter, and real people drama. I remember fireflies and mosquitos, and a radio station that played quiet Chinese music in the background. Further, outback there was another small one-room house, a children’s playhouse, and a barn.

Dogs go to heaven

Aunty believed that all animals had souls and that dogs went to heaven. One day, I repeated her story to a nun at St. Matthews and she said that was nonsense. I told Aunty what the nun said and she called them out. ‘Your teachers, especially those Catholic nuns, are ignorant liars!

Life lessons

Aunty was a sweet soul made of equal parts of kindness and wisdom. She rarely got riled up except that one time about the nuns. She was the aunt who taught me life lessons. She taught me how to ‘read people’ with a ‘third eye,’ and to ‘see beyond appearances.’ She believed that there’s good in everyone no matter how scary they may seem.

Scary uncle

For instance, her brother, Uncle Louie was very scary, intense, and serious. He was nicknamed ‘West Indian Einstein’ because he was a genius at math, languages, and inventing and fixing things. He was the family tutor for many subjects. But as kids, we would hide from him because he would scream: ”Hey you, What are you? Are you Non compos mentis or something?  Why do you ask dumb questions? And what were dumb questions? “Why is the sky blue?” or “Where was I before I was born?’ But Auntie would assure me that underneath all of that ‘bluster’ was a kind and gentle uncle.

Mixed up

Growing up mixed up in a Chinese, Colored, White, part Buddhist-Catholic-Baptist-Pentecostal, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-spiritual family, I always had questions. Aunt Josy was so patient and answered any queries I had. I’m not sure how much education she had. But she often had insightful yet fanciful answers that were flavored with sayings and superstitions.


Being left-handed, aunty considered me her lucky charm. She believed lefties possessed superpowers, especially for magic, healing, and spirituality. Numbers and colors were her special superstitions. “Eight is the luckiest number. So, always find ways to use the number eight and do things in groups of eight. Red is the luckiest color. It brings money, wellness and happiness, So, always add red to your drawings, paintings, and coloring books.”


Besides superstitions, Aunty believed in the occult and considered palmistry a high art form. She said that lines were written into the human hand for many reasons.  She could predict the future and interpret personality characteristics. Just as she would gaze at the sky and see powerful connections between the movements of the moon and stars, she could look at your hand and connect to your future life.


Palmistry was a microcosm of the universe. Hand shapes were classified with elements of earth, fire, air, or water. The hand mounds and plains corresponded with major areas of life. The lines and creases told a story about the future. Aunty always read my palm as we sat listening to old 1940’s records on her Victrola. I loved her old-timey music and world.

My palm

About those palm readings – she read mine a lot. She gently held my left hand closely examining my lifelines. Sometimes she acted as if she were reading some strange book that foretold my life. She’d look at my palm, then look at me, look at my palm again, and take a breath. Sometimes she would do double takes!

Her predictions

One time she predicted that I would live three lives and showed me three intersecting lines in my palm. I recall thinking: ‘Just three lives?”  I had already lived ten lives by the time I was an adult! Most times she would say: “You will have a very meaningful life!”  or “Hmmm, that’s unique!  And my favorite:  “Boy, You’ve been here before!” Fortunately, I was still an innocent child and full of grace. My cynical side was still in development. So, all I did was giggle as her fingers traced the lines of my future.

Tea leaves

She read tea leaves too. Aunty would drop a pinch of Ginseng tea into a cup and pour boiled water over it. After the tea brewed and cooled she drank it. Leaving only a few drops at the bottom of the cup she would turn it over on a saucer. The tea leaves stayed in the cup. Then, she would swirl, roll the cup around and look inside the cup. This was drama. Tea leaves formed letters, numbers, and some clung to the sides of the cup to form shapes. Every detail mattered and symbolized something about the future.

Other realities

Aunty came from a background where she easily mingled with diverse Indigenous and traditional cultures. She acknowledged and took for granted people’s differences, similarities, realities, other realms of being, and beliefs. She was way ahead of Oprah. After we put the music records away Aunty took me by the hand and led me through the kitchen, and out to the backyard.

Staying up late

As a child, my favorite thing was staying up late with Aunty after everyone went to sleep and the world was quiet. The night air was warm and sweet, smelling of blossoms and Christmas trees. I recall gentle breezes and skies full of stars! Fireflies hovered, bobbed, and blinked above the grass. There was a stillness, a quiet that covered everything. So different from urban night sounds. I imagined soft summer snow. We sat together on that old back porch and enjoyed magical nights so many years ago. As an elder now, I am grateful for those times. She knew and understood that I was a night owl. She even showed me an actual night owl!

‘They’re all asleep’

After a while, she looked at me, and said: “Sidney, everyone in the world is asleep except for you and me.” I looked up at her, she smiled. “Yes,” she said. “They’re all asleep. We’re the only ones in the whole wide world looking at the stars, feeling the wind, witnessing the night world, and talking to each other. All of the animals, all the birds, all the fish underneath the sea, and all the people, even your Mommy, and Daddy are asleep and dreaming now.”

Smiling moon

Holding me close, she said: “We’re the last ones. The last ones in the whole wide world that are still awake.” The Moon, the bright orange summer Moon was large in the sky. “You see? The Moon has come close to kiss the world good night. The whole sleeping world. It’s come to kiss us good night too. The Moon, the smiling ‘Man on the Moon’ filled our sky, and told us it was finally time to sleep.”  Aunt Josy picked me up and took me to my room. She tucked me into bed and helped me say my prayers. She kissed me good night on my forehead and went off to her own room. In a little while, in a very little while both she and I joined the Sleeping, Dreaming World.

Sidney Smith, a retired WBAI radio engineer, and Carrier Wave program host said he shared variations of this ‘Aunty’ story with his late-night audience during his 40 years on the air.