Around middle school, I began to grasp the civil rights movement. In a real way; not the way we teach it in school. I understood, on visceral level, the terrorism my family endured in Arkansas and Illinois. I could conceptualize the historical structural and institutional reality of American racism that was: Slavery, The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement. I begin the cognitive dissonance between what I was taught in school about America, “The land of the Free” and the reality that the idea of “Freedom” never intended to include me, or any Black people. It clicked; absolutely none of the majority of American history was about the “freedom” of Black folks.
Instead of being distraught, I became inspired by the stories of all the brave Black folks throughout time who had manage to not only survive the genocide, but they were able fight against their oppressors!
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X (only a handful of the Black revolutionaries) became real and the counter narrative to the “American story” I learned at school in Social Studies. When I was in school, we started each day with Pledge of Allegiance and The National Anthem. I remember the day when I realized none of those words in that song was about my people or me. In fact, it was the anthem, the battle cry, of my oppressors.
I guess it was the moment when I became, “woke.”
Of course, I was horrified about the truth of America and its treatment of Black folks, I was also super inspired by how my people fought back and truly won some major structural, institutional battles against America’s racist laws. I was so proud to be a member of such a strong, resourceful, clever, and brave people. Sure, I didn’t know where my family was from in Africa, but I knew my tribe now: Black Americans.
So I went on a hunt to find the members of my family that were part of any of social justice movements for Black Americans: Black Nationalism or Black Integrationist. I asked as many elders in my family as I could, “What role did you play in the movement.” My maternal and paternal family are both from Arkansas, Brown vs the Board of Education and the integration of Central High School was in their lifetime and I wanted to hear all about the meetings, strategies, and ways they participated. I couldn’t wait to connect my family to the greater social justice movements I have read, studied and admired.
I was disappointed, and truthfully, had another cognitive dissonancemoment, when I realized that I could not find one member of my family that had been a part of the movement.
My family, like most Black families in America, was against so many barriers in their every day life. So I understood, even though I was disappointed, that they weren’t active participants in social justice movements; they were fighting to survive. Literally, trying to stay alive, get food; picking cotton to make a little money, and actively dodging the attacks of White terrorism.
There is an infamous story in my family about White terrorism. One of my uncles did something that upset a local White man, I can’t remember what he did/said specifically, but it had something to do with my uncle telling the White man about his rights as an America. Maybe my uncle pointed out they hadn’t paid them the correct wages when they picked cotton or he quoted American law giving him, a Black man, the right to do something, that White Americans in their town had said he couldn’t do, like go to school or organize labor. Basically, my uncle was trying to stand up to his White oppressors in Arkansas.
As the story goes, the White man gathered his friends, and picked up my uncle and his 5 siblings, at gunpoint, walking home from high school and tied them up and put them in the back of their truck. They then took them a pit they had dug, and made them strip naked and get into the pit. For hours they taunted them, threw rocks at them, they poured bleach on them (saying that they wanted to be White, so maybe the bleach would help them) and shot their rifles around the pit. After hours of this torture, the White men decided they were done and left after telling my relatives, “to remember to stay in their place, niggers.” The lesson passed down in our family, avoid White people and standing up to them could kill you.
My most vocal, blunt, and outspoken Aunt Alberteen, told me, “I didn’t have time to march. I had to work and I was trying to get out of Arkansas and I didn’t have time to stay and fight those crackers.” Although, no one else said it quite as eloquently, I pretty much heard the same story from members in my family. My family members were surviving, trying to escape the south, and secure money to help the family members who couldn’t leave the South.
To say that I was disappointed is an understatement. I wanted to hear that my family was marching, protesting, doing something worthwhile to the liberation of Black folks. My equally blunt, vocal, and outspoken as Alberteen, Mother, broke my heart when she told me MOST BLACK PEOPLE WERE NOT INVOLVED IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, BUT THEY ALL PRETEND LIKE THEY WERE. In an equally blunt manner, she said, “Just like you can’t find a White person now who will say they voted for Nixon, you won’t find a Black person who will admit they weren’t in the Black liberation movement. Most Black folks were terrified and didn’t want to be trouble makers because they had enough problems with White folks, they didn’t want to add to the list of things that would upset White folks enough to murder us.”
I wish I could say I understood; but that’s not the truth. The truth I was disappointed and honestly a little ashamed. For me, it seemed so clear what my family members “should have been doing” and instead of being revolutionaries, they were sheep. As I read more about the Black folks who actually doing stuff in the revolution, I easily identified with them and was certain that is what I would be doing during “those times” and not what the majority of my family was doing. I copiously studied the movements, leaders, and revolutionaries that were the leaders of my tribe, Black Americans. I studied all I could about as many of them as I could, and was able to create “the Black American” story that I would teach my children, instead of crap they taught in school.
I love my Black folks so much. I know our true American story. I am fairly confident in my ability to know the truth about Black Americans: what has been done, what hasn’t, and what needs to happen for our true liberation. And, I identify myself, not with my family members, but rather the few Black revolutionaries. After much contemplation about the history of Black folks in America, I believe that during slavery, I definitely would have been a member of the Underground Railroad like Harriet Tubman. During reconstruction, I would have been like Ida B. Wells, calling truth to power and fighting for Black folks through her writing openly, honestly, and unapologetically about the acts of terrorism that White folks were committing on my people. During the Civil Rights movement, I could never fully identify for Black Nationalist (Nation of Islam, Black Panthers) or Black Intergrationalist (Dr. King, Rosa Parks, SNCC.) If I had to choose, I would probably be a Black Panther who went to church, like Maya Angelou, I would have been in both camps. Or, as I got older, I began to realize I would probably identify with Black artist who fled America and went to Paris. The idea of leaving America and going to “safe haven” in Paris, seems entirely logical. Plus, eating French food, drinking wine, and writing, commiserating, with other Black intellectuals about the “White America” seems like my idea of heaven.
Fast forward to August 13th, 2017, I have another “awakening.” My tribes, Black Americans, are under attack much like they were through most of American history. In fact, the White people are fighting for legacy of their ancestors/my oppressors. And White people, like most of American History, aren’t fighting for the liberation of Black folks. Rather, they are supporting the legacy of the Confederacy or doing nothing.
Personally, I had to admit that, damn it, I am not behaving like any of the Black revolutionaries, that had fought throughout American history against the White Supremacy and genocide, during in of our social movements. I honestly believed if I had been present during that time, I would have been a fighter. However, I had to be honest: I am no fighter for my the liberation of my people.
I am no Harriet Tubman, leading our people to freedom, even though my people today are in desperate need of escaping modern slavery to freedom. I do nothing when boatloads of Africans drown while trying to escape to Freedom or the Promise Land. I’m sure there is an Underground Railroad for refugees, immigrants, and other people who are held in bondage, yet, I am a not a part of that movement.
My health is crappy so I haven’t been able to march or protest like Dr. King and the members of SNCC.
I have anxiety so I haven’t been able to organize community-based programs and create a 10 point agenda, like The Black Panthers.
Unlike the Black Panthers, I have yet to publically denounce the police departments that serve as gateways to the oppression of Black folks. I have children and I don’t want to put their lives in danger, so instead of being brave like the Black Panthers, I keep my “Black lives Matter” bumper sticker on our refrigerator at home.
And although I have a pretty good list of international places to live, like Baldwin, Wright, and Maya Angelou, (Ghana, Belize, Guyana, or Kenya), I haven’t even gotten passports yet for my family. Planning to move is hard! International planning is even more difficult, with paperwork and possibly learning a new language and culture.
I’m struggling to make sense of why haven’t I done any of things now, that I was so sure I would have done for the Black American liberation movements of the past. So my list of reasons/excuses are as follow; like my ancestors, I am not fighting because I am too busy trying to survive. My health is shitty. Money is tight. My family already has so much to deal with because of health and regular life things, that the idea of adding the fighting for plight of Black American’s liberation to my immediate family’s already chaotic life, seems irresponsible, selfish, and unfair to my children. I want my children to be just be regular children. Why would I intentionally put their lives in danger, if I could avoid it? I want my children to be worried about finding worms in the backyard and playing with their toys; not worrying about police brutality and whether we have KKK or racist White people in our community.
I am doing exactly what the members of my family did, and most Black Americans, during the time when Black people were under attack: nothing. However, the distinction must be made, unlike my ancestors, neither my life or my children’s lives are in danger if we fight. No, I am choosing #teamdonothing because I don’t want to be inconvenienced or my children’s lives uncomfortable. I know the lens of history is cruel. The Black people who did nothing to stop the attacks on Black folks didn’t make social studies books. There is nothing brave or worth studying in history about the people who didn’t fight but were just surviving.
If I am completely honest, I am less like my ancestors who were on #teamsurvival, rather, I am like the people in American history that I detested the most: the people who could do something but choose to do nothing and passively participating in the genocide and attacks on Black Americans. My behavior is like the White Americans who knew of the lynchings, the segregation, the harassment, the lies, the oppressions, and instead of fighting for justice, stayed in their white bubbles and ignored the need for fighting. Or they said outloud that the treatment of Black Americans were wrong, but they did nothting to stop the treatment. And even actively created more obstacles by self-segregation and participating in a corrupt system. They were not only #teamdonothing, they were also #teamcompliant.
I have to reckon with myself; like so many Black people in my family, as of today, August 13, 2017, I am not a Black revolutionary. And when my grandchildren inevitably ask me what role I played during “Trump’s America and/or the Era of Mass Incarceration” I will have the same answer my elders gave to me, “I did nothing.”
So I have a choice to make: What do I want my legacy to be? There is a strong, logical, loving (for my children) argument to be made for doing nothing instead of fighting. I understand the dilemma many Black folks had during our time in America, now in a way that I couldn’t conceptionalize in middle school. I have every (great sounding) reason to do what I am doing now, which is nothing. It is the logical decision to take care of my personal health and try and prioritize and protect my children.
However, the part of me that identifies with the revolutionaries keeps nagging me, because it knows that I don’t want to be part of the nothing/surviving team; I want to be part of the fighting team. When my grandchildren ask me, “What did you do during Trump’s attack on Black Americans?” I want to be able to respond with concrete examples and specificity listing my part in the fight for the liberation of our Black people and against racism.
Today, we all have a choice to make; all Americans, not just Black folks, what will be your legacy? Will you be on team fight or team do nothing? Are you prepared to look your grandchildren in the face and/or God on Judgment Day, and explain your actions and/or inactions in the fight for justice, truth, and “liberty for all?” History is happening now and we need to all be clear, proud, and intentional about our legacy in this story.
- I finally understand my family members who choose to survive instead of fight. Surviving racism was its own fight, even if it isn’t highlighted in History books.
- I appreciate and respect that many of my family members somehow managed to have minor roles in the movement, with small actions, like giving money at church to support the revolution.
- I am proud of my relatives who managed to leave Arkansas and come north for jobs and what they believed were better opportunities for their family. Because their income from the North, was the ABSOLUTELY the difference between my relatives in the south surviving racism and them being able to eat and not eat that were unable to leave the South.
However, this a new time, and the circumstances of my ancestors aren’t the same circumstance that I have today. So I have a decision to make, what will be my legacy? As, do the rest of Americans, when the eyes of history look at this period in our country, what will be my legacy? What are my contributions? Did I fight for justice? Most White Americans have made their choice, #teamdonothing #teamcomplaint, with the election of Donald Trump and/or the subsequent lack of action to stop his terror of so many Americans. Sometimes things are complicated, our current state in America is not one of those time. Either we fight or we do nothing. The choice is ours.