Due to the increase in incidents where African Americans are targeted by our white counterparts, heightened racial tension in the United States has resulted in the use of the phrase “We are not our ancestors.” Used as a way to combat new-age racism in our “post-racial” society, the slogan seems to be used in any instance where a black person retaliates violently towards a person who is being racist. From t-shirts saying, “Don’t let your president get your a** whooped” and “Dear racism, I am not my grandparents… Sincerely, these hands,” the last five years have inspired a new generation of activists. Unfortunately, the foundation of this new age activism is rooted in this idea that our ancestors were weak and were not willing to fight back. Despite being wrong, this idea also discredits the sacrifices of our ancestors who lost their lives fighting for our civil rights.
Beginning with the education system, most K-12 curriculums only scratch the surface of black history. Usually starting with a drawn-out lesson about slavery and ending with two sentences about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From my recollection, most professors focus on the suffering of slaves and their role in establishing the South as an economic powerhouse.
Later in the semester, we would usually discuss the Civil Rights Movement, in a lecture limited to contributions of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For Rosa Parks, the lecture was usually centered around her refusal to give up her seat on the bus and the bravery it took to blatantly break the laws of the time. In regard to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in spite of his extensive history as a civil rights leader, most public school system curriculums only focus on two things: the “I Have a Dream” speech and his belief in nonviolent protesting.
This is where I believe the miseducation on the temperament of our ancestors begins. Because professors make his belief in nonviolent protesting a focal point in their lesson plans, it has become the first thing people think about when they hear civil rights activists. That, along with movies such as Selma, which depicts the Selma to Montgomery march where hundreds of African Americans marched while being beaten and harassed by their white counterparts, fosters the belief that our grandparents did not fight back which seems to be etched into the brains of my generation.
Due to the lack of education on activists who align with the views of leaders like Malcolm X (pre-Mecca pilgrimage) and organizations such as the Black Panther Party, many students of these neo-activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter, seem to be completely unaware that they are not the first, nor will they be the last, to retaliate violently against racism. Our ancestors, the ones whom they claim to not be, already did that. Furthermore, the giants, whose shoulders we stand on, created platforms to teach each generation after them how to combat and destroy the institutions that disenfranchise us. With that being said, I am sure they would not take kindly to a generation of people that does the most while simultaneously doing nothing at all.
One cannot simply retweet a protest flyer or wear a t-shirt and call themselves an activist. In the same way, beating up a racist does not make you any braver than our ancestors who chose to protest without using violence.
In a society where immediate satisfaction is prioritized above quality and sustainability, most of us could not fathom the idea of sacrificing our lives for the progression of generations after us when our ancestors did so without a second thought. Their willingness to not only die but to dedicate their lives to a cause that was bigger than themselves is something this generation of t-shirt wearers and online activists do not have.
More importantly, our ancestors have done more than enough in terms of creating a foundation for us to move forward with the agenda of Black liberation. In the words of Nyla Sampson, “The ancestors you claim that you are not, gave birth to the revolutionaries you claim to be.” Meaning, when one says “we are not our ancestors” they are essentially stripping away the foundation of the ideology they claim to be building on. Without that, we are left as empty as the threats on your t-shirt.