The civil rights march on Washington with a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights and integrated schools, Washington DC, August 28, 1963. (Photo by Warren K Leffler/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)[/caption]
I, like most of you, am a coward. A punk. A charlatan. A poser. I do it for the gram and I’m a Facebook activist at best. I’m as militant as my comforts permit and most of my convictions are connected to hashtags. My dedication to the cause ends right around where my visibility does. And that’s when I remember there’s a cause to be dedicated to. I mean, its just so instinctual for me to swing past Starbucks on my way to work that I don’t even think about it. I’ll do better next protest, there’s always a next protest. But until then, I will continue to enjoy the luxuries that brave, dedicated Black activists died for me to boast about. Let me be the first to admit that I, like most of you, am a coward. I am nothing like my ancestors.
On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, under the leadership of a man named Jemmy, 20 Angolan slaves would incite 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 store owners at the entrance, these men would march through the small Province of South Carolina, killing slave owners and burning down plantations. 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 joined the protest. Some slaves were said to have stayed behind to help hide their slave masters. Ultimately, all of the rebels would march to their death, knowingly I believe, holding off English opposition for a week before being overtaken and viciously killed. This very intentional sacrifice of life would be the catalyst for slave rebellions all across the diaspora, including Nat Turner’s rebellion almost 100 years later. If slavery were actually a choice, would any of us have been brave enough to choose the later, embracing death like our ancestors? I doubt it. Because like me, many of you are just cowards. We are nothing like our ancestors.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest of the segregationist policies and practices of the Montgomery Alabama public transit system, lasted a total of 380 days. On December 5th, 1955, 90% of Black Montgomery residents boycotted the public transit system, causing community leaders to meet later that afternoon to discuss the possibility of extending the would-be one-day protest. This protest was unorganized, it was immediately ineffective, it was poorly planned, it was dangerous, it was initially without a formal list of demands, it was inconvenient, and it was every other excuse we use to avoid putting our money where our mouths are when it comes to social activism. 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 the community opted to walk instead, white counter protestors would harass, attack and stalk them along the roads. When protest leaders were unsuccessful in negotiations with city officials, they encouraged protesters to endure.
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 citizens 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. Only deciding to end on December 20th, 1956 when the law would take effect in Alabama. No viral videos, no hashtags, no instafame, just nurses, maids, nannies, and grandmothers walking miles to and from work for the benefit of great grandchildren they’d never meet. We are nothing like our ancestors.
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. Yet we brag about how quick we are to let a racist “catch these hands,” as if our willingness to resort to violence makes us more “down for the cause”. Maybe we get our understanding of who our ancestors were from racist ass pseudo historians like Harvard’s own 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.’ The sad part is Schouler could’ve just as easily been describing my generation. A generation so child-like a simple meme could capture our attention for days. A generation so servile that we’d rather talk forgiveness than fault. A generation lacking dedication to the extent that our boycotts became album reviews overnight. (Y’all enjoy the Kanye album?) A generation so obedient that just the threat of punishment is enough to silence any grumbling of a revolution. We can’t even stay committed to the causes that don’t require our action but instead call for our inaction, like not buying from H&M or not watching the NFL.
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. We have failed to carry the torch while deflecting our shortcomings onto those who came before us. We owe them better, we owe them our respect, and we owe them our honesty. So the next time any of us open our mouths to revel in the fact that “we are not our ancestors,” let’s make sure we have a full understanding of why that is painstakingly true.