Saying “I am not my ancestors” blatantly disrespects how they lived and died for us
Many of us only know the portrait of docile negroes.
Ja’Loni Amor Owens
In 2016, arguably the peak of activist apparel’s popularity, a number of businesses began to sell t-shirts, crewnecks, tote bags, buttons, pins and stickers with variations of the following: “I am not my ancestors; you can catch these hands”.
It is understandable why variations of this phrase caught on so quickly. The last five years have inspired a new generation of activists and organizers, a lot of us unfamiliar with the history of the movement for racial justice and with the philosophies of the Black nationalists who came before us.
Many of us only know the movement as depicted in history textbooks and as articulated by white history teachers in our high schools. Many of us only know the portrait of docile negroes, of “turning the other cheek” and of the “Black victim complex”.
Many of us are just now reading Black Feminist Thought, Black Skin White Masks, and related texts. Many of us are just now learning about Nat Turner, The Haitian Revolution, the Black Panther Party, and of Black radical resistance throughout history.
And so, I put the blame on the merchants who are pimping out the struggle rather than on the young, Black organizers consuming these products. A lot of these merchants know this history and are actively choosing to sell this ahistorical, disrespectful apparel.
I blame every single self-proclaimed activist, organizer, and radical doing similar things and refusing to coalition build or to support and to mentor young leaders.
The same activists who have been calling for all hands on deck since the inauguration of Donald J. Trump are the same activists who don’t see Generation Z as capable of being organizers and leaders, who refuse to retweet the fundraisers and protest flyers without being paid, who do not care about what high school students are living through and resisting until DeRay tweets about it, who were quick to participate in the March for Our Lives but ignore the efforts of Black kids organizing against gun violence in the hood.
One of the biggest problems I have with the “I am not my ancestors” mantra is that the movement for Black liberation today would be so much better off if we were our ancestors, like Frances Thompson, Ida B. Wells, and Marsha P. Johnson.
Arturo A. Schomburg and all the Afro-Latinxs resisting anti-Blackness throughout Latin America. Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur, Marcus Garvey and Barbara Smith. Our ancestors who refused to allow Europeans to scramble for Africa, who led and participated in slave rebellions, who ran to freedom.
Our ancestors who created the art and wrote the texts that would teach their children and their children’s children who we are. I am talking about our ancestors who ended up on FBI watch lists, who led the civil rights movement. I am referring to the anti-capitalist, unapologetically queer, trans-affirming, abolitionist, womanist, radical roots of this movement.
I am not referring to the folx looking to cash in on post traumatic slave syndrome. The folx who are charging low-income communities of color to access their own history, and who do not make their work accessible and shame disabled activists for only being able to use social media to resist.
I am not referring to the folx who claim to be educators yet scream “don’t ask for my emotional labor” when people are looking to be educated. The folx who perpetuate the white supremacist lie that their ancestors were a group of docile fools who were passive in their own kidnappings, enslavement, rapes, and murders.
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To quote activist and entertainer Nyla Sampson, “The ancestors you claim that you’re not gave birth to the revolutionaries you claim to be”. The ancestors you claim that you are not, birthed the same ideology we’re missing today. We must adopt the class conscious ideology of Black communist organizations. We must organize with all forms of (in)accessibility in mind, including the necessity of translating work and acknowledging that protesting is not a viable option for all activists.
Misogynoir, transmisogyny, and colorism should be at the forefront of our dialogue about liberating Black women. We should align ourselves with the interests of indigenous peoples, with the other racialized peoples suffering within the United States and with the interests of Black people in Latin America, in Asia and in Africa.
We need to acknowledge that we are the descendants of our ancestors and we should start acting and thinking like them.
Ja’Loni Owens is a New York based community organizer and freelance writer as well as a rising senior at Hofstra University. Driven by her passion for social justice and politics, she is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree with Public Policy and Public Service as her primary focus of study and Journalism as her secondary focus of study.