Jennifer Cumberbatch can vividly recall the Sunday dinners her grandmothers used to host at their respective homes in Cincinnati when she was a little girl.
Her grandmothers, both originally from Georgia, had strikingly different upbringings, but they both ended up in Ohio, the matriarchs of families whose members would go on to break color barriers at universities, earn Ph.D.s, win elections, transform schools and even coach college basketball teams.
The Austin-based counselor, actor, writer, singer and pastor grew up with four siblings in a home that revolved around faith, family and food.
Amid a global pandemic, those descendants now gather every Sunday on a Zoom call. Each week, a different household leads the unmuted service filled with laughter, music and poignant stories about how they are not just surviving these trying times but thriving within them.
It’s a new technology for a new pandemic, but finding joy amid uncertainty and pain is something that every generation knows.
Cumberbatch has started calling it a jubilee.
A time of rest
According to biblical texts, a year of jubilee comes every 50 years, and it’s a time when the land rests and the people and their relationships are restored, says Cumberbatch, a mother of four who has been married for 40 years to husband Ashton.
Anything that was sold before jubilee now returns back to the rightful owners, and anyone who was a slave or a servant is released with a generous gift in addition to the priceless gift of freedom.
Like almost all of us, Cumberbatch had been caught up in the business of everyday life up until March, when cities started asking residents to shelter in place.
In February, she had started performing a new show she’d written called "If These Walls Could Talk" at the Neill-Cochran House Museum, a historical home built in 1855 by noted builder Abner Cook that the owners paid for by selling five slaves. The Greek Revival home, now a museum, includes one of the only remaining slave quarters in Austin.
Cumberbatch, who worked under late Austin director Boyd Vance, performed the show a few times before the rest of the run was canceled because of the coronavirus. "I was ferociously trying to absorb the research and give all the energy it takes to perform," she says.
She was disappointed that the remaining shows were called off, but the hard stop made her realize how exhausted she had been. The unexpected free time, however, allowed her to reflect even more deeply about the stories she had been taking to the stage about the enslaved artisans who built the house and the enslaved workers who made it a home and took care of it like it was their own.
"When in the last century have we had this kind of rest?" she asks. "It feels like the air is clearing."
Cumberbatch now spends her days taking counseling appointments and spending many hours writing, reading and deepening her spiritual practice.
She’s been at home with two of her adult children, Graham, a writer and fashion stylist, and Elizabeth, a baker who has been making cakes for her cake business, Sweetniz Cake Shop, and cooking "the most fabulous meals," her mother says. "Saag, chicken masala, homemade naan. She made these homemade doughnuts the other night.
"We just never spend this much time together."
Graham brings a quiet sense of calm to the house. "His spirit is so — I can’t describe it," she says. "Before all this happened, he was cooking dinner for friends, writing, styling, and I said, ‘Graham, you’re so satisfied with clothes and good food.’ He said, ‘Mom, what else are we striving for?’"
That stopped her in her tracks. "We get so wrapped up in pursuing what we can clearly see or understand, but this time distills us down to the essentials: food, shelter and relationships."
She says she’s humbled when, in her quiet time, she thinks about the men and women at the Neill-Cochran House whose names and stories fade with every generation. They worked, raised families and built relationships with those around them so that their kids could continue to do the same. It’s a cycle that Cumberbatch is very much aware that she’s in herself more than 150 years later.
The women in Cumberbatch’s family knew what they were striving for.
Ruby Cumberbatch, her paternal grandmother, worked as a maid and a nanny, and she got up before dawn every day to make eggs, bacon and strong coffee for her husband, who worked in a glue factory.
She never ate dinner with the family, but Jennifer’s dad, the eldest of six children, remembered Ruby sneaking scraps off the plate that he and his siblings didn’t eat. Cumberbatch remembers Ruby, who had a sixth grade education, reading her Bible out loud every morning. "That put something in me," she says. "That is what kind of woman she was."
When Ruby’s children were young, the family lived in public housing, but Ruby was quietly saving money from her day’s work salary. According to family lore, one day, she called up her husband at work and said, "Meet me at the savings and loan." She showed up with enough money to buy a house that day, a home in Madisonville, just outside Cincinnati, that is still in the family.
Virginia Rosseau, Jennifer’s maternal grandmother and the namesake for her oldest daughter, grew up in a more well-to-do family in Athens, Georgia, "but they both had the experience of being black in the South." They were both likely fathered by white men, a fact that they didn’t talk about often but that Cumberbatch knows was something that connected them later in life.
Cumberbatch’s parents married young, with the promise that they’d wait to have children. Her dad pursued a career in teaching and pastoral work, and her mother worked as a medical technologist. She had a few hours of college credit, Cumberbatch says, but soon she found herself raising five children without a college degree.
Her family kept pushing her to go back to school, so eventually she did, enrolling in Wake Forest, where she was one of the first female African American students. The school wouldn’t accept any of her previous credits, but after years of juggling school and home (and sometimes using an iron to smooth out crumpled papers), her mother finally finished an undergraduate degree in English with a minor in French when Cumberbatch was in middle school.
Her mother’s experience as a student inspired her to become a teacher, and then a principal and superintendent in Southern California, leaving perhaps her greatest professional legacy at Santa Monica High School, where she started a tutoring program to connect high-achieving students with peers who were struggling.
Even though Sylvia Rousseau has retired "five or six times," Cumberbatch says, she is still on staff at the University of Southern California.
"She became and is a tremendous educator and advocate and adviser about how to mitigate the impact of racism for brown and black kids in the educational system," Cumberbatch says. "I don’t know that I have that kind of tenacity."
A guiding faith
With all these strong women and men in her family tree, Cumberbatch grew up knowing the importance of both education and faith, but when she was a new mom, she was so focused on teaching her kids scripture — "like, obsessed with it" — she realized she was teaching them about the rules of following a higher power rather than how to have a relationship with one.
Her father’s death 10 years ago made this realization even more clear. Up until then, Cumberbatch’s mom was also her dad’s right-hand woman, helping the longtime pastor with whatever guidance and support he needed.
"She had known my dad since she was in eighth grade," Cumberbatch says. "She had to work through that identity of, ‘Who am I without my husband?’"
But that’s where her faith stepped in. "I’ve seen how my mother’s relationship with God has sustained her and given her purpose in the 10 years since my dad died. That’s what I want to pass onto my children now. Not a knowledge of scripture, but a love for learning, a sacrificial love for community and a deep, deep relationship with God. That is the relationship that will take you through life."
Cumberbatch says that since her dad’s death, she connects during her morning quiet time with him and other late family members as if they were in the room. "They are as real as the terra firma I’m standing on."
Sometimes, all it takes is a YouTube clip for the memories of those ancestors to come flooding back. A few weeks ago, a video of Aretha Franklin’s 2015 performance at the White House popped up on her phone.
One of the songs Franklin performed was "Precious Memories," which was on the 1972 album "Amazing Grace" that her mom gave her grandmother decades ago. "She completely wore out that album," Cumberbatch says. "We would drive up on a Sunday, and you could hear ‘Precious Memories’ blasting from her living room. You could hear it from the driveway."
When she saw the video of Franklin in a white sleeveless gown with a mink coat draped over her shoulders, she was overwhelmed with emotion. "Here she was, completely of another era, opening her mouth and spilling the souls of black folks. I lost it. It so grounded me in the music and the songs of my people. It’s like God entered the room and, without words, said to me, ‘You know what? They made it, and you’re gonna make it. This too shall pass.’"
Hearing that song was an immediate link to her grandmothers, who had suffered through untold struggles in their lives but survived with their faith and families stronger for it.
She thinks about those family members who lived through tough times without the kind of technology we have now to stay connected, but they used many of the same tools — food, family and faith, especially — to foster those relationships. She thinks about her grown daughter taking so much joy in preparing dinner for her parents and brother, even though they long ago "left the nest."
And suddenly, Cumberbatch thinks back to when she wasn’t a mom, but a daughter and a granddaughter, watching her foremothers make collards, cornbread and Brunswick stew for one of those Sunday dinners. It’s God’s love, incarnate, she can see now.
"In the Bible, they say we can recognize Christ when he breaks bread, but I can also see breaking bread together as a way for us to recognize one another and see each other for who we really are," she says. "When I think back to those dinners, I see that recognition, that special kind of love, before the food even hit the table."