The Seduction of Rage: Pushing Back Against “We Are Not Our Ancestors” Rhetoric Within Black Youth Activist Culture
In thinking about the ways in which many young people frequently consume images of Black death and destruction through the vehicles of social media and television, I am struck by the misunderstandings, internalizations, and gaps in knowledge of one’s history. This is evidenced by frequently shared memes that flippantly read;
“We are not our ancestors. Sincerely, these hands.”, or “Dear Racism, I am not my grandparents. Sincerely, these hands.”
Historically, young Black folks have had involvement and/or have stood at the forefront of every historical civil war and civil rights movement since this country’s inception. Reactionary responses from young people in pain in the face of crushing oppression, death, and destruction have served as catalysts for some of the most transgressive and transformative Black liberation collectives. Young Black activists started The Black Panther Party in Oakland, California and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University in North Carolina. Ella Baker, founder of SNCC, would attest, in order to create tangible solutions in our struggle against white supremacy, we must move past pain and into power.
Black youth across our nation internalize white supremacy and conceptualize their own roles through acts of resistance or by remaining transfixed within white supremacy’s chokehold. Margaret Walker calls forth an arresting reckoning by interrogating the ways we have been rendered ineffective. Walker asks, are we dulled in defeat or are we awakened to a new awareness of man’s continual struggle to be free?, do we accept our fate as colonized people less than slaves?, or is there such a destined dream as freedom, peace and human dignity to bless us with their truth?” In other words; have you given up? There is a notion that our contemporary response to these prevailing power structures, being more direct and confrontational, are superior to the response of our ancestors. The idea that our ancestors’ response was lacking because it was “passive” or “respectable” is totally wrong. These attitudes and misconceptions are not only highly disrespectful to the legacy of Black resistance and progress, but also largely ahistorical and inaccurate.
Academia’s erasure of the history of Black activism, advocacy, and eloquent yet justifiable rage is a viable explanation for the lack of understanding within the young Black population. Not only have we failed to reach back for the tools and historical maps for liberation left for us by our ancestors, we have wholly dismissed them as ineffective. This perpetuates the cycle of outrage and disillusionment that surrounds each tragic Black killing. The cyclical nature of history recommends that we look back for answers to our present day afflictions. The nature of the game of white supremacy has not changed. The players have simply become more covert in their game. As bell hooks quotes, “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.” For young Black people who cry “We are not our ancestors!” in retaliation and anger as a response to white supremacy; who believe they are rebelling against the “passive” tactics of the past, I invoke the words of a beloved history professor: “Y’all sho ain’t.”
Utilizing the potentials of our education in the practice of freedom would demand from us a more nuanced, effective and informed response to our current set of challenges. We must return to the works and histories of our ancestors. So many stories of the most radical Black revolutionaries of the past like Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton, are seldom told and rarely critically analyzed and understood. If only we would have read and studied their works, as well as the books that they read, cultivating the mind of a revolutionary instead of simply imitating a revolutionary aesthetic, how much further we would be?
We have much work to do.
Alexander, Margaret Walker. “Reflections on May 1970”, On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker 1932-1992 . Mary Emma Graham, Ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1997,
Bambara, Toni Cade, and Thabiti Lewis. “An Interview with Toni Cade Bambara: Kay Bonetti.” In Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. 35.
Bambara, Toni Cade, and Toni Morrison. “Language and the Writer.” In Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.
Egejuru, Phanuel, and Robert Elliot Fox. “An Interview with Margaret Walker.” Callaloo, no. 6, 1979, pp. 29–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3043889. Accessed 30 May 2020.
Hooks, Bell, and Amalia Mesa-Bains. Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2006. Print.