We Are Not Our Ancestors, and That’s No Compliment to Us

On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, under the leadership of a man renamed “Jemmy”, 20 Angolan slaves would congregate at the bank of the Stone River, from there inciting a series of events that would later be known as the Stono Rebellion. After raiding a warehouse and propping the severed heads of its’ white shop owners at the entrance, the men marched through the small British Colony of South Carolina, beating their drums, yelling “Liberty”, killing slave owners and burning down plantations along the way. Historians estimate up to 100 slaves would ultimately join the uprising, attempting the 293 mile walk to St. Augustine, Fl. where Spanish Law declared them free. 

Not everybody willingly joined the protest. Some slaves were said to have stayed behind to help fight beside and bunker the plantation owners. Others were forced to join. Ultimately, the rebellion would reach the Edisto River, where a white civilian gang would descend onto the marchers, killing the majority, selling off the survivors to plantation owners in the West Indies. This very intentional sacrifice of life would be the catalyst for a categorical series of events, one of which would be Nat Turner‘s rebellion some century later. 

Immediately following the rebellion, the fear of retribution flooded front porches on plantations everywhere. In response, policy passed that penalized plantation owners for excessive punishments and work (as if slavery weren’t exactly that), and schools were established for the purposes of teaching enslaved Africans the Christian doctrine. The colony also imposed, as part of the 1740 Negro Act, a prohibition on the “importation of new slaves from Africa and the West Indies”, as the risks associated with this kind of human trafficking began to outweigh the rewards. 

It wasn’t just rebellion on American soil, we forget that the people being taken from West African nations were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends and family, not property, people. American history books highlight the complicity of certain West African individuals and entities in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but they don’t tell the narratives of the countless nations of people who fought and died defending their citizens from human traffickers.

Their history books don’t highlight the historic reign of Queen Nzinga Mbande, the monarch of the Mbundu people of Angola, a Warrior Queen who strategically defended her people from Portuguese capture, fighting on the front lines until well into her 60’s. Nor do they tell the story of King Abdel Kader Kane, the leader of the Futa Toro region in northern Senegal who fought fervently against slave traders, having three of his own children stolen from his home and sold into captivity. In a letter to French officials, Kane warned them of the repercussions their practices would present.

We are warning you that all those who will come to our land to trade [in slaves] will be killed and massacred if you do not send our children back. Would not somebody who was very hungry abstain from eating if he had to eat something cooked with his blood? We absolutely do not want you to buy Muslims under any circumstances. I repeat that if your intention is to always buy Muslims you should stay home and not come to our country anymore. Because all those who will come can be assured that they will lose their life. 

The notion that we were abandoned before being abducted is intentional and inaccurate, not to mention absurd. It plays into the other-ist idea that widens the gap separating black people around the globe, playing into the belief that Africans sold the Black American relatives they didn’t want, how silly of a suggestion. The fact is our fight began on the frontlines and has yet to find time to rest, or are we to believe that it was white guilt that ultimately ended these unsightly practices. Human trafficker Alvise Ca’Damosto wrote home after being attacked by 150 men on the River Gambia in 1454, detailing that when he tried to “talk to them”, they replied the following, 

“They had had news of our coming and of our trade with the negroes of Senega [Senegal River], who, if they sought our friendship could not but be bad men, for they firmly believed that we Christians ate human flesh, and that we only bought negroes to eat them; that for their part they did not want our friendship on any terms, but sought to slaughter us all, and to make a gift of our possessions to their lord.” 

Our ancestors fought from the coasts of Côte d’Ivoire to the shores of the Carolinas, these were African rebellions on American soil, or has our recent citizenship convinced us otherwise? When we say we are not our ancestors, which ones are we referring to? The ones who fought and fell for freedom they’d never feel? The ones who sat on their shores mourning loved ones they’d never again know? Or is it our more recent predecessors, perhaps, drawing such an unworthy parallel? Perhaps, so. 

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest of the segregationist policies and practices of the Montgomery Alabama public transit system, lasted a total of 381 days. On December 5th, 1955, 90% of Black Montgomery residents decided to boycott the public transit system in response to recent and recurring violent and racist encounters, leading community leaders to meet later that afternoon to discuss the possibility of extending the would-be one-day protest. Initially, the protest was ineffective, inconvenient, poorly planned, potentially dangerous, lacking leadership and lacking a formal list of demands, every thing that can contribute to the collapse of a movement of many people. And yet they persisted.

When the community came together to implement a taxi service, the city of Montgomery passed laws approving tax hikes, fines and penalties for Black taxi drivers. When members of the community opted to walk to work instead, white counter protestors harassed, attacked and stalked them along the way. When protest leaders were unsuccessful in negotiations with city officials, they encouraged protesters to persist anyway. Protesters were arrested and held on fake charges. Communities created carpools to take place of the over-penalized taxi drivers, only to have the city clamp down on that service as well. Leaders had their homes bombed. Men, women and children were attacked in counter protests, by both public servants and civilians, and still they persisted. 

Persisted past June 5, 1956, the day the federal district court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Deciding only to end on December 20th, 1956, the day the law would take effect in Alabama. No viral videos, no hashtags, no instafame, just nurses and nannies, grandfathers and grandmothers, preachers and elementary school teachers walking miles to and from work for the benefit of great grandchildren they’d never meet. When we say we are nothing like our ancestors, is this, perhaps, what we mean? 

We are a generation of profile prophets, hashtag activists and share button savages. The majority of us could never think about sacrificing our lives, let alone a good caramel frappacino, for the progression of a cause we wouldn’t directly benefit from. And even if the call didn’t call for the sacrifice of our lives, but instead of our livelihoods, would we still be clapping for the cause? Let’s ask Killer Mike and T.I.

Sure, we’ll tear some shit up, and rightfully so, but after that, how do we expel our energy in a way that even allows us to compare ourselves to those who fought before us? If our protests are primarily performative, if our cancel culture never results in any actual cancellations, should we expect any less than performative policies and politics in return, Kente cloth in congress and spray painted streets sprawled across a district where gentrification has all but dealt black progress its’ final blow. When we say we are not our ancestors, do we know how accurate that statement is?

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stood proudly behind a podium during a press conference and admonished African-American protestors for presumably looting areas of the Atlanta metro. “When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city”, she wailed. She’s wrong of course, his death led to nationwide uprisings. But the now accepted notion that we should play possum as our oppressors decide whether or not they want to treat us like territory is tired and depleted. There is no historical dignity to that idea. We have never been that people. Who told you who you were? 

Maybe we get our understanding of our ancestors from racist Harvard historians like James Schouler, who in 1882 provided the following insight into the demeanor of the African slave: ‘the innate patience, docility, and child-like simplicity of the negro’; ‘easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots’; ‘a Black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, children in imagination.’ This racist rendition could just as easily describe my generation, us mouth running millennials. A generation protesting Facebook from their Facebook accounts and living activist lives on twitter, but no where else. There hasn’t been a more patient generation, a more forgiving generation, one more willing to accept performative ally-ship in place of actual action. When we say we are not our ancestors, do we do so with a knowledge of who they were or with a fear of who we’re not?

If left to choose wrongful persecution or cowardice, imprisonment or cowardice, death or cowardice, most of us would proudly choose cowardice, checking in as safe and sharing our status with the other cowards on Facebook. And maybe our goals have shifted gears, maybe we’re not fighting for our physical freedom anymore, perhaps its’ the appearance of freedom we’re after instead. Whatever the case, what we know for certain is that we are not like our ancestors, and that’s no compliment to us. But it would do us all a great deal of good to channel even a fraction of their fearlessness, because that fearlessness has fought more physical battles than our social media feeds ever could.

We owe them better, we owe them our respect, and we owe them our honesty, far more than western history books have shown them. We have failed to carry the torch while deflecting our shortcomings onto those who came before us, we proudly proclaim we are not those “peaceful” people from the past, yet here we find ourselves armed with poster board, fighting the very same fight. So the next time any of us open our mouths to revel in the fact that we are unlike our origin, let’s make sure we fully understand why that is painstakingly true.

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