By Liz Courquet-Lesaulnier,
Word in Black
The memes, the reenactments, the folding chair earrings!
In the aftermath of the ‘Alabama Brawl,’ Black America has had a lighthearted few days. Folks have been playing the Crime Mob classic “Knuck If You Buck,” making fun of Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” finding out that the man who invented the folding chair — Nathaniel Alexander — is Black, and celebrating 16-year-old “Aquamayne,” the teen who swam to the rescue of the Black ship co-captain.
The minute you saw those brothas SKIPPING along the dock toward the altercation, you already knew those White guys were going to be getting to the “find out” part of life with a quickness.
We definitely know how to channel our trauma into comedy like no one else. By telling jokes about what happened in Montgomery, staging reenactments, laughing about how folding chairs are going to be sold out on Amazon, we process our pain — because we know what would have happened if those Black men had not come to that brotha’s rescue. He may not even be alive today.
But at the same time that I fell out laughing over the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., being digitally altered to feature Dr. King clutching a folding chair, I found myself giving a side-eye to another byproduct of the Montgomery Mollywop: The “I am not my ancestors” t-shirts.
I want to assume the best of the creators of these t-shirts. I want to believe that what they mean is that they’re celebrating that we are no longer enslaved people subjected to the brutality of plantations. Maybe they’re grateful we no longer exist under the yoke of Jim Crow with its “Whites only” drinking fountains and lunch counters, and they’re glad it’s not a lynchable offense for us to defend ourselves. (At least, not officially, right?)
On the other hand? Not today, Satan.
Given the enduring narratives about Black folks’ “laziness, as well as characteristics of submissiveness, backwardness, lewdness, treachery, and dishonesty,” as the Blacksonian puts it, to even jokingly give credence to the idea that we didn’t resist oppression and racial violence is both foolish and irresponsible.
Make no mistake, our ancestors did fight back, from Day One, and to even hint that they didn’t plays into White supremacist-based beliefs and attitudes.
Seriously, have these t-shirt makers never heard of Nat Turner? Granted, even before Florida’s most recent “anti-woke” efforts, Black history hasn’t exactly been taught well in the nation’s public schools. But at the very least, most of us learned about the 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, that resulted in as many as 65 White people being killed.
That’s not folks sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for benevolent abolitionists to decide that they deserved to be free.
Even before that, the first recorded revolt of enslaved Black people happened in 1521 on Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic. And in the American Colonies? One of the earliest recorded was the Gloucester County, Virginia, revolt in 1663.
One of the main reasons the United States refused to diplomatically recognize Haiti after the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804, was the widespread fear that our ancestors – the folks being worked to death on plantations – would follow suit.
As National Geographic wrote about the ongoing push for freedom: “Enslaved people didn’t just engage in passive resistance against slaveholders—they planned and participated in armed revolts. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, enslaved Africans and African Americans in British North America and the United States staged hundreds of revolts.”
Need a post-Emancipation “knuck if you buck” example?
I grew up in Chicagoland, and no public school I ever attended taught me about the 1919 Race Riot, which took place from June 27 – Aug. 3. The story goes that the riot began after a White mob murdered 17-year-old Eugene Williams, a teen who floated on a raft across an invisible line in Lake Michigan to the so-called White side of the beach.
Williams’ murder was a response by White people to Black resistance. Zinn Education Project breaks down what was happening in the vicinity prior to Williams’ murder:
“When a group of Black men and women defied custom and tried to swim at the white beach on 29th Street, they were driven off by a white mob throwing rocks. They returned with larger numbers. The white mob also grew.”
Williams was unaware of what was happening. A White man on the shore began throwing rocks at him as he floated in the water. One of the rocks hit Williams on the head, and the teen drowned.
ZEP points out that “a thousand Black Chicagoans assembled” at the beach demanding the arrest of the White man for murder. When the cops refused, “A Black man named James Crawford, opened fire on a group of police officers. Crawford was immediately shot and killed, but the crowd did not disperse and other Black individuals began to attack Whites. By nightfall, rumors of ‘race war’ in white neighborhoods were running rampant, and the rioting began.”
No one wins when 23 Black folks and 15 White folks end up dead, when hundreds of people are injured, and thousands of homes are destroyed, as was the case in Chicago. But again, our ancestors were not standing around passively, letting mobs of White folks beat on them.
We can only hope to be our ancestors.
Black folks have a long history of fighting back in this country against racism, period.
We can only hope to be our ancestors, to have the courage they showed in moments of sheer racial terror and violence. We are the descendants of people who fought tooth and nail for freedom, whose blood soaked the soil of these United States.
Their bravery is why “Aquamayne” had the ability to jump in the water in Montgomery and swim to the aid of that dockworker. I certainly would hope it’s in our DNA to protect and defend each other from racial violence.
So don’t get it twisted. We are only free because of the resistance of our ancestors. That “I am not my ancestors” t-shirt? Y’all can keep that.