Not Our Ancestors

It is so hot out.

Despite the 90+ degree weather that Saturday morning, I was determined to complete my bike ride. My husband and I left at 9 AM, planning to ride for two hours until the sun reached its zenith. The plan worked, and we were finished with our ride before 11:30.

However, the last leg of the ride carried us away from our cool, tree-lined bike trail along the river. I slowly pedal up an incline, fully exposed to the blazing sun. Rivulets of sweat trickle down my brow and back, drenching my skin and clothing. It was just fifteen minutes of heat, but it felt insufferable. And then my mind went back.

I thought about the heat of a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, the land of my maternal forebears. I thought of them toiling in it from “can see ‘til can’t see,” as my Grandma said. Fourteen hours a day in blistering heat and humidity.

I imagined laboring on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, sun rays so intense that they can even burn skin as dark as mine, sharp sugar cane leaves causing a zigzag of cuts as you slash them for the harvest.

Riding a bike for fifteen minutes in New York’s summer heat made me angry and frustrated. But at the end of that bike ride, I knew an air-conditioned home and an unlimited supply of cold water was awaiting me. I wasn’t stuck in horrendous conditions, with suicide as my only guaranteed escape option. But most importantly, I wouldn’t be in the sun for over thirteen hours, stooped over to pick cotton or cut sugarcane.

Thanks to the oral traditions passed down by my maternal grandmother, I have always viewed my enslaved ancestors with deep respect. They were not universally kings and queens, but they were human beings who labored and lived under conditions that were hard for me to fathom. I felt they are worthy of my reverence and empathy for that alone. As a child, this was the general sentiment within my ethnic group. However, the new millennium and the rise of social media have exposed me to an alternate view of my ancestors.

Younger generations seem to distance themselves from that struggle. Some even look at their enslaved ancestors with disgust, claiming they somehow chose to be enslaved. Others disdain those who lived, stating the only acceptable form of rebellion was suicide. The ones who survived, dealt with that toil, and lived long enough to birth the children and the line that would lead to us, are deemed weak or suckers. But when I think of how miserable just 15 minutes of 96° weather made me feel, I cannot view my ancestors like that. Day after day, they survived under conditions I will never know.

The young people now say that ‘we are not our ancestors.’ I agree with this. We do NOT have their fortitude, their strength, and would collapse under the burden they carried. Under no circumstances will I question and disrespect them.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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