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I'm No Black Revolutionary But After Charlottesville I Want to Be

This weekend, there was a terrible and very telling incident in Charlottesville, Virginia. While emotions are high and people are scared, to me, this is a moment in which we, Americans, must make key decisions about our legacy. Around middle school, I began to grasp the lies I had been taught in history and social studies books about America’s legacy. I was taught that America was and is, “The land of the free and home of the brave.” But when reflecting on my legacy, my family, I realized that that the idea of “freedom” never intended to include us, or any Black people. However, instead of being distraught, I was inspired by the stories of brave Black folks throughout time who had managed to not only survive genocide, but also fight against their oppressors! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X (only a handful of the Black revolutionaries) became real and the counter-narrative to the “American story” I learned at school in social studies. When I was in school, we started each day with the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. I remember the day when I realized none of those words in that song was about my people or me. In fact, it was the anthem, the battle cry, of my oppressors. I guess it was the moment when I became, “woke.” Of course, I was horrified about the truth of America and its treatment of Black folks, I was also inspired by how my people fought back and truly won some major structural, institutional battles against America’s racist laws. I was so proud to be a member of such a strong, resourceful, clever, and brave people. Sure, I didn’t know where my family was from in Africa, but I knew my tribe now: Black Americans.

‘What Role Did You Play in the Movement?’

So I went on a hunt to find the members of my family that were part of any of social justice movements for Black Americans: Black nationalist or Black integrationist. I asked as many elders in my family as I could, “What role did you play in the movement?” My maternal and paternal family are both from Arkansas, Brown vs. the Board of Education and the integration of Central High School was in their lifetime and I wanted to hear all about the meetings, strategies, and ways they participated. I couldn’t wait to connect my family to the greater social justice movements I had read, studied and admired. I was disappointed when I realized that I could not find one member of my family who had played a significant role in any of the important American movements for the freedom and equality of Black people. My most vocal, blunt, and outspoken family elder, Aunt Alberteen, broke down why she wasn’t marching with King or registering Black southerners to vote: “I didn’t have time to march. I had to work and I was trying to get out of Arkansas and I didn’t have time to stay and fight those crackers.” Although, no one else said it quite as eloquently, I pretty much heard the same story from other elder members in my family. My family members were surviving, trying to escape the South, and securing money to help the family members who couldn’t leave the South. I understand that my family played an important role in the movement by migrating North. Most of my family stories of activism start when my relatives arrived in the North. But their part in the Great Migration—their move from Arkansas to Chicago—is an important part of both my legacy and the historical record. The mass exodus of Black people fleeing the terror in the South and moving to Northern cities was a precursor to the larger civil rights movement. And though my ancestors who were part of the Great Migration, couldn’t name specific actions they took in the movement, their journeys led to the uprising and ultimate success of the civil rights movement. All that to say, just because we don’t have a name for what is happening now in America, it is still a movement. The riot in Virginia and the new immigration policies that ban people based on religion, are not isolated incidents; rather, they are political, economic and social events that are precursors to a revolution.

The Questions We Have to Ask

And like the Americans who came before us, we have an important decision to make: What will be our legacy? Right now, there are thousands of White southerners who are protecting what they consider the legacy of the Confederacy. The lens of history will not be kind to them, just as it has not been kind to those who supported lynchings or Nazism. You, like me, may want to be proud of your legacy and the role you played in a movement. You also want your grandchildren to be proud of the role you played in achieving a “more perfect union.” However, words without deeds are useless. So the question for all of us is: What will be your legacy in our current social movement? We all can't be Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Susan B Anthony or even George Washington or Ida B Wells. But we all have to take a side and do something, for or against, what is happening. Like Americans before us, we must answer the following questions:
  • Are you for or against the enslavement of Black Americans?
  • Are you for or against the rights of women to be treated as equal to men?
  • Are you for or against the civil rights for all Americans to be treated equally under the law?
These are the guiding questions that determine the direction of our country. And you have a decision to make: What do you believe? Which side are you on? What are you willing to do? What will be your legacy? In every movement there will be brave, courage leaders like Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks; but there were thousands of others who supported by participating in marches, supporting financially, and using the power of the written word to make social change. I am grateful to have the opportunity to use that last power to the best of my ability. I wish I were doing more. I have excellent reasons/justifications for why I am not doing more in this important movement. My health sucks. Money is tight. Because of these things, the idea of adding the fight for Black Americans’ liberation to my immediate family’s already chaotic life, seems irresponsible, selfish, and unfair to my children. I want my children to be just regular children. I want my children to be worried about finding worms in the backyard and playing with their toys. I don’t want them worrying about police brutality and whether we have Klansmen or other kinds of racist White people in our community. But then I think about my grandchildren, my legacy, and then it becomes clear: I am not doing enough to stand firmly on the side of justice.

A Choice to Make

I am not a Black revolutionary. If my life's story were to end today, when my grandchildren researched to find out what role I played during “Trump’s America” They will get the same responses my elders gave to me, “I was too busy surviving to fight in the movement.” So I have a choice to make: What will be my legacy in the fight for justice? I understand the dilemma now of my elders in a way that I couldn’t conceptualize in middle school. I have great-sounding reasons to do what I am doing now, which is not much. It is the logical decision to take care of my personal health and prioritize and protect my children. However, the part of me that identifies with the larger Black community and pioneer revolutionaries, keeps nagging me, because it knows that I don’t want to be part of the nothing/surviving team; I want to be part of the fighting team. When my grandchildren ask me, “What did you do during Trump’s attack on Black Americans?” I want to be able to respond with concrete examples and specifics listing my part in the fight for the liberation of our Black people and against racism. Today, we all have a choice to make. All Americans, not just Black folks, what will be your legacy? Will you be on #TeamFight or #TeamDoNothing? Are you prepared to look your grandchildren in the face and explain your actions or inactions in the fight for justice, truth, and “liberty for all?” History is happening now and we need to all be clear, proud, and intentional about our legacy, what side we are on, and if we are willing to fight on the side of what is right, in this chapter of our American story.
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.

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