Mama steps out of her room on wobbly, unsteady, 72-year-old legs. On Saturdays she pretty much makes her own schedule so she’s decided to kill some time sitting with some of the other old folks, talking about old days. She’s dressed herself in a below-the-knee, black skirt, a black T-shirt and, because the weather is cool, a black leather jacket. “Hey, lady” I call to her and gesture toward her all-black-everything ensemble, “you look like you trying to go start the Revolution!”
She stops and faces me “I already did,” she says “what are y’all doing?”
That shit sat with me all day.
There’s a popular expression that goes something like: if you want to know what side of history you’d have been on been during the civil rights era, look at what are you doing now. Another phrase, more popular in younger circles is, “We are not our Grandparents.”
It’s an appropriately bold, T-shirt ready sentiment for a bold generation that likes to wear its activism on its sleeve. The none-too-subtle suggestion, that unlike the generations before us, we won’t be bowing our heads, scraping, getting beat on, spit on and called nigger; the underlying assertion, of course, that we are the Negroes who, Langston Hughes might say, “changed our minds.”
And that’d be a dope idea – if it weren’t largely bullshit.
If we take an objectively hard look at who our progenitors and forerunners actually were, and cast out the grim and shameful step-n-fetchit narrative that white supremacy would have us believe they were, we have to face a cold and damning truth: Nah – we aren’t our grandparents. We aren’t even close.
I speak on me before anybody, and I’ve already said that I hold my manhood cheap when I compare my life and sacrifice to those of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve said before to my nearest and dearest, that if I had been living the life I was called to live I’d probably be dead already. I’ve had sleepless nights plagued by visions of how the end comes, and in them I am locked deep in service to my people. And the truth is, I’m not ready to die, so in exchange, I’ve chosen to not really live the life purposed for me. So, if I step on your toes with this piece please know that I’m doing so with broken feet.
Venviola Darlthula, called “Vinnie” by her people, raised 10 kids for the most part alone. She knew how to shoot a gun and how to wring a chicken’s neck, dip it in scalding water, pluck it, clean it and fry it. Her first husband, my grandfather Willie, had a burn on his face he only told me about once; he got it in a fight with a white cop and the cop looked worse. At four years old, when a strange white man came up to me in front of his house and demanded a hug, my granddaddy sent me inside and I watched from the window as he whipped that man’s ass. Willie was an old man then; he ate with an old tin mess kit, and dug out his own coal that he then carted across the city to his home where he put it in the pot belly stove that kept his shotgun house heated. I’m not my grandparents. I wish the fuck I was.
I’ve witnessed the tears welling in my Mama’s eyes as I’ve somberly explained to her the details around what “another hashtag” means ,I’ve repeated names of the slain for her and tried to clarify the murky details of how police commit clear acts of murder and we march for hours or maybe days before the next hashtag comes. I’ve stammered vainly trying to come up with a suitable response to her weary question: “what happened? what have we done,” knowing that she is struggling to understand how, within her lifetime, the work of generations can come unraveling so quickly. Who do you think built the Black Wall Streets we so admire? Who founded all those Black cities and towns that white terrorists razed? Who do you think secured the gains we enjoyed as we grew up?
The generation that fought their way out of Jim Crow and marched through the Civil Rights era was not some weak, soft, humble-mumbling band of shuckers and jivers waitin’ on de Lawd ta hear dey cry. They were fighters, strategists, builders and leaders and soldiers. Some made speeches, others formed armies; and all understood that getting their heads cracked or faces spit on wasn’t an abuse they accepted as second-class citizens of a racist nation; it was the consequences they endured as first-class soldiers committed to a lifetime war to upend that racist nation.
Martin and Malcolm became martyrs before they made it to 40, if they were alive they’d be 89 and 92 years old. Fred Hampton would have been a grandfatherly 69 years of age had he not been murdered in his sleep by a fearful and corrupt government when he was but 21. Angela Davis (now 73) was 26 when she faced conspiracy charges for allegedly helping organize the armed takeover of a California Courtroom. Gloria Richardson (now 95) was too busy being unbothered by bayonettes in her 30’s as leader the Cambraidge Movement.
Reach further back in history; Nat Turner was 31 when he was hanged as punishment for leading a bloody and merciless slave revolt, Harriet Tubman was freeing slaves at 27 before becoming a military spy. These people were killed, prosecuted or hunted by the cowardly and terrified agents of white supremacy. These people, who in their youth then faced greater dangers than many of us face now at the same or more advanced age, represent the “grandparents” we desperately wish to distinguish ourselves from.
The idea that our forerunners were little more than mild-mannered marchers is an extension of the popular white lie that King was just a Kumbaya-singing, pacifist, preacher who only wanted us to all work together. The soldiers who occupied what could well be called our greatest generation moved tactically and with strategies appropriate for the time. Theirs was not a singular approach but a multi-pronged attack that included the very purposeful exploitation of the still new and recent ubiquity of a powerful new platform – television.
King understood that too many of the appallingly silent, so-called good people, in the northern states labored under the delusion that the suffering reported by Southern refugees could only be an exaggeration of, perhaps bad, but not horrific conditions. America had to be brought to task in front of the world for failing to live up to the moral high ground it claimed after WWII, then the fight for immediate and necessary change would find a catalyst.
At the time, this kind of thinking was revolutionary in its way. Putting on blast a system that survived in large part due to the obscurity afforded by the detached disinterest of those outside it, made the horrors of the South a national problem and an international embarrassment. The optics of agitated whites attacking seemingly passive and docile Blacks underscored the inhumanity of the attackers if not the humanity of the oppressed. But that was a short-term strategy – and it was only part of a strategy.
Seasoned racists of the Antebellum South knew that there were certain homes that you did not bring your traveling circus of terror to; those homes were the sanctuary of Black men, women and children who’d seen horror before and were committed to self-sufficiency and survival. Every member sustained life by planting, harvesting and hunting their own food and defended their lives with the same steely eyed focus. Economics sanctions and threats of violence would not work against them, so laws were put in place to strip them of weapons. Across the South, it was a felony for a Free Black to own so much as a bowie-knife; still, by the time of the modern Jim Crow era, despite the persistence of racially unequal gun laws, Black citizens consistently used firepower to stem the damages of white terrorism. In 1919, when white rioters in Chicago killed 23 blacks as police stood idly by, the riot was brought to an end when Black citizens used rifles to kill 15 white attackers. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 devastated Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, leaving 200 Black people dead, the devastation would have spread had it not been checked by armed Black protectors who killed 50 of the attackers. Short version: don’t get it twisted, even in the age of our grandparents, non-violent resistance was made possible by armed defenders.
Charles E. Cobb discusses the matter at length in his book “This Non-Violence Stuff’ll Get You Killed.”
“…the tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history cannot be disconnected from the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement. Participants in that movement always saw themselves as part of a centuries-long history of black life and struggle …. Simply put: because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement.”
The non-violent resistors of the era learned to accept and embrace the protection from those who believed in the tradition of armed self–defense. The result was a beneficial symbiosis that helped achieve goals faster and show oppressors we had the strength to resist but the force to advance. Today though, we encourage our “thugs” to trade in their guns to embrace a peace that is not being offered them, and distance ourselves from “rioters and gangsters” with political platitudes to reassure whites that we are “not like them” – because we are not our grandparents.
If you were 22 in 1955 you’d be 84 now, and if you had lived in Montgomery, Alabama at that time you’d likely have participated in one of the seminal moments of civil rights history. A population of roughly 45,000 people who relied on public transportation to get to and from their jobs and homes, organized a taxi service with public cars that even their oppressors grudgingly confessed operated with “military precision.” When whites countered by revoking the insurance policies of many of these vehicles owners, and creating laws that mandated egregiously high fares to try to break the taxi service, the people walked.
We have allowed revisionist (read: white) history to reshape events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott as simple, peaceful political actions of mild inconvenience, where the little people triumphed over a local transportation concern. In truth, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts represent a sustained economic attack unlike any before it, that dealt a crushing blow to a major city in the South, and brought with it the consequence of mortal danger as well as economic counter-attacks.
When, after 381 days, the strike ended – the political attacks and violence continued. Snipers fired shots onto the buses, targeting Black passengers. It changed nothing. The buses remained integrated. The Klan trotted out their well-trod tactics of terror to no effect. King wrote of that time: “…one cold night a small Negro boy was seen warming his hands at a burning cross.” If that boy was 10 then, he’s 72 now. Yeah. Your granddaddy warmed his hands on the Klan’s burning crosses. You are not him.
The gathering and mobilization of large numbers of Black people served to remind whites that not only did Black have significant numbers to pressure a city, but that those numbers, organized and easily mobilized around a common goal, were deeply invested and in it for the long-term. Our grandparents walked for a year just for equal rights on a bus while many of us couldn’t get through one season of football to support the idea that we will not accept state-sanctioned murder. But we are not our grandparents.
If we are to claim our current moment and stand in it powerfully, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that those who came before us lived through their moment on their knees. Our standing and marching is less than table stakes compared to what they laid down. We still must rise to match their stand. It is imperative that we reject the fallacy that the everyday white terrorism was simply the spoils reaped for dominating a population of hapless Blacks were content to accept disrespect. Do not bolster white supremacy by obfuscating the cowardice that lay beneath each attack, instead recognize this: white terrorists attacked Black people because they were afraid. They were afraid of the power both expressed and latent that surged visibly under the restlessness of a population coming to realize itself. So, they used bombs, dogs, multiple government agencies, and a system of byzantine laws to strip us of arms; they bombed little girls and mobilized special forces to kill powerful young men in their sleep. And they did this, all of this, out of fear. Because when our grandparents walked, the earth shook. No…we are not our grandparents.